Illumination, which we now think of as meaning all those paintings and curlicues in manuscripts, properly refers only to the gold leaf or paint which the more expensive volumes would receive prior to the painting on of the pigment.

6a013488b5399e970c01b8d06d6e5e970c-500wiThe text would first be written, with gaps where illustration or initials were called for. Then the outline of the art would be drawn, possibly by lead point. Gold leaf was next applied over a sticky paste then burnished. Sometimes a cushion of gesso might be applied first in order to give the gilding a 3-D structure which caught the light and “illuminated” the text even more dramatically. Flat colors would then be painted in, and finally the details, black and highlights of white. (The second video in the “Parchment” post illustrates this process clearly.)

Gold paint was occasionally used, but only for the most expensive projects. Dr Dormer tells us that the amount of gold leaf needed for four letters, would only yield enough gold paint for the dot on a single i. (See post on “Making of a medieval book”.)

Here’s an example of a page on which the initial (M in this case, as can be seen from the prompt) has not been added.B751062305_20A4_0008