In the Middle Ages, books were printed on animal skin (called vellum) and were written by scribes. The scribes copied the books in scriptoriums in monasteries. They worked about six hours each day without artificial light and in relative silence. The entire medieval book-making process was very long, from the preparation of the vellum to the binding of the books. One of the most intricate steps was the process of illuminating the pages.
Illuminations were the decorative, colored designs that highlighted illustrations on the pages. Primarily, the glow of illumination was created with gold or silver, but other colors were used as well.
First, the artist drew an outline of the desired imaged. Next, he or she painted a sticky substance to attach the sheet of gold leaf. After the gold leaf was attached, it was rubbed to create a shiny surface. Finally, the artist applied tempera paint that was created with egg whites mixed with pigments created from ground minerals, plant extracts or chemically produced colorants. The result was a beautifully colored illustration.
The earliest surviving illuminated pages date back to the 5th century CE. The process began to decline with the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in the mid-1400s and disappeared in the 16th century. Because the process was so intricate and lengthy, books were extremely expensive. Only the wealthy could afford to buy them until the printing press made the process easier, thus lowering the cost. The illustrated pages of medieval books are the best preserved examples of medieval art and there are many thousands that survive.
The Georgia Museum of Art’s Samuel H. Kress Study Collection has several examples of Renaissance art created with tempera paint on wood, a painstaking process that did not allow for much error.