Illuminated Manuscripts: From the Middle Ages to the St. John’s Bible

            Amaranth Borsuk’s exploration of the history of the now-conventional codex places Christianity at the forefront of the shift from scroll to codex. Along with the new religion, it seems, came a new form of the “book,” separating Christianity from Roman tradition while also keeping their Christian ideas belowground, in codices. Borsuk writes to readers that “when you picture early books, it is likely monastic illuminated manuscripts that come to mind” (Borsuk 48, emphasis original). These illuminated manuscripts encapsulate our perceptions of medieval time, as they blend art and text with religious messages. They are evidence of how fully religions was enmeshed with daily life. These illuminated manuscripts, however, were far from common, accessible only to the literary elite – the only people who could afford them. Their relative inaccessibility likely made them all the more precious to those who possessed them.

            Illuminated manuscripts are the product of time and expense, as their ornate and intricate decorations suggest, but so, too, do they imply the unity of book as object and as content, perhaps more so than any other form of book. Their opulent decorations speak to the richness of the literature inside them, whether that be classical Greek and Roman literature or Christian scripture and stories, each preserved carefully through the centuries. But it is the art laid side-by-side with the text that testifies best to the inseparability of art and word. The book as object, consisting of a codex filled with illuminated illustrations, cannot function without the text that describes these illustrations; yet, the text is never fully complete without the illuminations that provide access to another side of lived human experience – art. The presence of the illuminations, in other words, admits that text alone cannot comprise the entirety of the bookish, reading experience, though that text – as it shapes the illuminations and decorations – is still highly significant. Illuminated manuscripts toy with the pervasive idea that a text contains only words, questioning what it means to be a text, even while adhering to the emerging codex tradition and preserving stories from centuries prior. These manuscripts, then, are both traditional (in the literature they preserve) and innovative and emboldened (in the art they infuse alongside the text), presenting the book as an object that resists binary categorization while always remaining dynamic.

            Illuminated manuscripts have largely faded from public view, however, though with one notable exception, the St. John’s Bible. This iteration of the biblical text of the Old Testament blends familiar words with new art, meant to probe and inspire the mind through its presentation of an unfamiliar (sometimes even uncomfortable) image of the story being relayed.

[Image Description: An illumination from the St. John’s Bible is laid out on a sheet of paper. The page is divided into five panels, each filled with a multitude of scenes and colors, primarily red, blue, and yellow. In each of the bottom two corners and on the left side are words from the Bible, written in blue and yellow. The picture presents a chaotic image that is not easily understood.]

Clearly, the Bible as it is presented here differs vastly from our conventional understandings of the Bible – even as its words are drawn from the same sources as every other translation and iteration. This difference is due to the artwork, which both reinvigorates the lost tradition of illuminated manuscripts while simultaneously providing a fresh interpretation of the text. The St. John’s Bible, like the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, is evidence of the key role that the book as object plays in mediating our understanding of its content through its melding of art and written text.

Works Cited

Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book. Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2018.

Jackson, Donald. “Psalms Frontispiece.” Vintage Grace, Constance Denninger, 31 January 2016, Accessed 9 September 2021.

The St. John’s Bible Media Fact Sheet.” The St. John’s Bible, October 2012, Accessed 9 September 2021.

3 thoughts on “Illuminated Manuscripts: From the Middle Ages to the St. John’s Bible”

  1. Excellent, Elizabeth–I’m so intrigued by your example, too. Your note that “illuminations that provide access to another side of lived human experience” is really bold and interesting. The very idea that illustrations “illuminate” (literally, shed light) is spiritual and points to ideas of transcendence. Knowing your intellectual interests, I really hope you explore the illuminated ms tradition further. The use and symbolic coding of color, the placement of image and text-as-image (sometimes, it seems like text and image more than “work together”; they magnetize, so text becomes more like an image, and image functions more as a text).

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  2. The use of artwork as part of books is extremely interesting. I have observed that what I imagine when I read is often different from what others have evidenced by adaptations to screens or illustrations I see in other editions. One question I do have when thinking about this, however, is how much does artwork illuminate my understanding and how much of it might deceive me? This certainly goes beyond what we are studying in the course. One thing to note is the difference between the book as object and as content. In the former, it might be acceptable to use any artwork as each book is its own unique entity. In the matter of the book as content, however, we start to ponder the influence of the author and publisher, the latter I assume being in collaboration with the author. If illustrations are added to editions without the author’s approval, it could be argued that the art is not part of the book, and further, could deceive. On the other hand, we could reach out to such thinkers as Roland Barthes who divorce the content from the author.

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  3. I love that phrase– “the inseparability of art and word.” It’s true that illustration and text complete each other, that they together form the content of a book. Most of the books I read are simply blocks of text (which isn’t bad! it’s just a different art form from the illuminated manuscript), but I still see that harmony between the written word and the illustration in children’s books and comics (of all comparisons). In these as in the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, the drawings often elaborate the information we read in the text, the text itself becomes part of the artwork, and both are indispensable to the storytelling.

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