Light in Medieval Manuscripts

Even today, countless individuals subscribe to the caricature of the medieval period in Europe (roughly stretching from the 400s to the 1500s, that is, until the Renaissance) as a long and retrogressive dark age. But modern scholars who have studied the era closely have come to argue otherwise. In contemporary academic discourse, the term “dark ages” – which was fostered by Renaissance and Enlightenment intellectuals – is usually retained just for the earlier portion of the Middle Ages, that is, the time between 5th and 10th centuries.

Professor Lynn Townsend White, Jr (1907-1987), who taught medieval history at Princeton, Stanford and UCLA and authored the book Medieval Technology and Social Change (1962), was known to have identified several small but important accomplishments of the period. Regarding the 10th century he remarked that “…if it was dark, it was the darkness of the womb.”

The Italian semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco, operating from a more philosophical position, writes that the intellectuals of the Middle Ages had an “image of the universe that was filled with light and optimism” [Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (1986, 2002)]. In both poetry and painting, medieval people portrayed themselves as living in extremely bright surroundings. Even though the illuminated manuscripts were probably executed in environments “where the gloom was barely relieved by the light from a single window, they nevertheless brim with light, with a particular effulgence engendered by the combination of pure colours: red, azure, gold, silver, white and green, devoid of nuances or chiaroscuro.” In Baroque painting, objects are struck by light, which creates degrees of brightness and shadow (consider the works of Caravaggio or Georges de la Tour), but in medieval manuscripts light “seems to radiate out from the objects. They are luminous in themselves.” They are creations of a Creator that is Light itself. [History of Beauty (2004, 2010)]


Page from the calendar of “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (‘a book of hours’ – Christian devotional book created by the Dutch miniature painters the Limbourg brothers) showing John, Duke of Berry, exchanging gifts on New Year (c.1412-16), Musée Condé, Chantilly, France, Wikipedia [Public Domain]


Another calendar page from “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” showing peasants, Wikipedia [Public Domain]


3 thoughts on “Light in Medieval Manuscripts

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Isn’t that fascinating?
      It’s a shame that these scholarly reassessments of the middle ages have not yet percolated down to schools and colleges. There is much we can learn from medieval culture…despite its many flaws.


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