An illuminated manuscript is a manuscript which includes ornamental borders, capitals, and illustrations. As a general rule, these manuscripts are hand-written, and all of the illuminations are done by hand as well. With the advent of the printing press, the art of creating illuminated manuscripts largely disappeared, since these ornate and beautiful volumes were expensive and time consuming to produce when compared with printed material.
The earliest extant examples of illuminated manuscripts date to around the fifth century CE, when numerous Christian texts such as the Bible were produced in the form for distribution. Such manuscripts would have been extremely expensive, accessible only to people with immense amounts of money and to the Church. Monasteries and churches with such a manuscript would have made the document available for study, for the edification of those who could not afford such luxuries.
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Illuminated manuscripts also flourished in the Middle East, especially after the rise of Islam. Some of the finest examples of surviving manuscripts of this kind are religious in nature: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim texts were all lavishly reproduced by patient, painstaking scribes. During the Medieval Era, illumination reached its height, and for a time customized prayer books known as Books of Hours were very popular among the European elite. These manuscripts continued to be produced on a smaller scale through the Renaissance, at which point they began to die out.
Traditionally, illuminated manuscripts were produced either in monasteries, by monks who had especially good aesthetic senses, or in professional scriptoria, which were essentially medieval copy centers. These manuscripts were produced by first replicating the text, typically using black ink, and then adding illuminations by hand. In addition to religious texts, monks also replicated works of philosophy and other texts, thereby preserving works from Ancient Greece and Rome.
By definition, an illuminated manuscript includes gold and silver leaf, along with a very rich, vivid palette of colors like rich blues and deep reds. At a minimum, the manuscript merely has ornamental capitals, but many include heavily decorated borders along with miniature paintings which depict scenes from the book; some members of the nobility even had their portraits inserted into such miniatures. The Book of Kells is a notable illuminated manuscript which is famous for the intricacy of its decorations.
An illuminated manuscript could take months or years to produce, from the moment monks scraped the vellum to make the pages to the day the finishing touches were put on the often heavily jeweled and inlaid binding of the book. Each manuscript is a priceless and individual work of art; museums all over the world vie to collect particularly fine specimens, and a few fortunate private collectors even have manuscripts of their own.