Colour illustration and art are a natural part of human existence. From the Paleozoic era to the 21st century, all aspects of life have been reliant on expression through visual elements. Colour in the Medieval world, helped script makers shape how various scripts were perceived. In many scripts, folios, and written works, colour and illustration, were used to add meaning, emphasis, and highlight various aspects of written work. While many used colours to highlight letters, at the start of new paragraphs, pages, or chapters, others used it to create worlds within their text. This involved having artwork in the margins, descriptive paintings, or even organizing text with various colours. While there are various reasons why a scribe may have used colour and illustration, we will be analysing colour through various schools of thought, to explain the origins of various types of illustration.
First, we will be looking at rubrication and illustration through the lens of class. When printing was a new form of technology, much of the written work that was created was a product of commission. As printing became more accessible and common, every day individuals were able to commission and purchase written works. From studying the history of books throughout history, we can infer that much of the most intricate and detailed artwork was only present in those books commissioned by the upper class. While much of the artwork in written work was anonymous, as printmaking evolved, some artists found they could find work in creating work in books. For example, in 1380, artist Alan Strayler supplied portraits of kings, popes and benefactors to the catalogue of the benefactors of St.Albans Abbey, BL, MS Cotton Nero D.vii and included a portrait of himself accompanied by inscriptions (Decorating and Illustrating the Page, Martha Driver and Michael Orr, 115). From this, we can infer that the upper classes commissioned great artists to put illustrations in texts they frequently consumed.
Furthermore, because being literate was still relatively uncommon for many of the middle and lower classes, artists may have preferred to have their work in books where individuals could interpret their work fully. However, this can be read as a classist practice, as those who were illiterate, may have relied on artwork to understand various information. While oral learning would have allowed them to understand some aspects of a book, having illustrations would have helped them understand the academic world, in an accessible way.
When looking at the quote:
“The manuscripts themselves reveal that one of the most significant aspects of the working practices of the lmners was collaboration, even in completing the illustration and decoration of individual books. This collaboration occurred between craftsmen within a lining shop, that is, between the master and assistants or apprentices and between independent liners or workshops.” (Driver and Orr, 118)
This quote can be read as how book making evolved with technological advancements. As individuals began to realize the importance of illustration in selling books, as well as the impact these works would have, collaborations became more popular. Not only did this assist in reducing classism in education but shows clear ties of the guild system. It further shows how much of society was beginning to progress towards a collaborative social system.
Many books operate under the assumption that the world of pictures and text, function simultaneously and conjointly. Images and colour often guide a reader to important passages, and act as markers for key messaging in a story. While images and colours are important, beautiful tools, not every illustration is created equal. Various colours hold different meanings, both in English literature and historical analysis. Even variations of a shade can alter the meaning and significance of an artwork.
For example, red lead and matter ink, while both shades of red, had different appearances and meanings. For example, red lead has a more orange tint and is now known to be harmful to humans. While extremely toxic, it was widely popular until vermilion became popular in the 10th century. Madder would likely be a more expensive pigment, due to its long processing time and its ability to be drunk as tea. As such, it is likely that the inks that were higher quality, and safer for human interaction, were seldom used in work for the masses. Furthermore, gold leaf and purple pigments were likely also used sparingly. This is likely due to the connotations these materials had to royalty.
Art and colour are of the utmost importance when analysing a text, as these symbols transcend languages. As the world evolves, languages, the meaning of words and letters, change. Unless well documented and studied, it can be difficult to understand what a written work means. However, having a strong presence of colour, illustration and symbols, can allow one to put themselves inside the work they are studying. This can also shed light into the era, and location a work was created, to further help with a historians understanding. Because art styles, and colour, often varied by region, studying a text by looking at the art that existed within it, will allow one to have increased knowledge about a region at a specific time.
When looking at a book from this point of view, we can argue that art, colour and illustration, can be more important than the written work itself. While text can often have different meanings, as the meaning of words can vary by region, artwork often captures a moment in time. It shows the true meaning of a script maker’s work, and thus can be read as the true meaning of a text. Although a lack of centralized procedures of illustration, in the early days of works, have caused gaps in our knowledge of some historical eras, these stages shed light into the evolution of images and illumination (Driver and Orr, 104).
To conclude, art in the medieval world had many layers. Both in the way artwork was perceived and accessed. Despite this, in the modern world, we can look at artwork as a version of a photograph or polaroid. This meaning, images and graphics that were of the utmost importance to the creator, were captured in time, to preserve an idea. As such, when we study and consume art, we can see into the past and learn from the worlds that preceded us.