By: Alison Sigala
Since long before the invention of the printing press, bookmakers have used the techniques of illumination and rubrication to add artistic embellishment to a text. Both practices added beauty to a book and clarity to its meaning. Especially after printed books became prominent, rubrication and illumination provided uniqueness to each copy of a text. Rubrication indicates important points and guides a reader with headings, and chapter indicators. Illumination illustrates the ideas and beautifies the page.
Rubrication comes from the Latin word rubrico, meaning “to color red”. It is the art of emphasizing certain ideas by using red ink for those specific phrases, words, or letters. This design choice effectively makes those words stand out from the rest of the page, letting the readers know what they should pay attention to. Before printed books, a scribe would hand write pages of text, leaving out spaces for a rubricator to fill in later. Scribes would scribble notes for the rubricator in the margins. Sometimes the scribe would rubricate their own texts, in which case notes were not necessary. After 1440, when books began being printed, spaces were left in the typesetting for rubrication, which then could be done either by print or by hand. Often it was easier to have someone write in the rubrication. The Gutenberg Bible employed both methods of rubrication. Earlier editions of it had the red words printed, but that technique was dropped in favor of rubrication by hand.
Rubrication was especially common in religious texts like Bibles, and liturgy for mass. Key verses were written in red, and large red calligraphic initials were drawn at the start of chapters. In liturgy, red was often used to distinguish the clergy’s part from the congregation’s part in the mass or church service. The start of a new chapter or section or subject was also commonly signaled by a red header. Some mass-produced Bibles now still use the visual cues of rubrication, emphasizing Jesus’s words, or theological notes, or chapter numbers in red. The extensive use of rubrication as a means of organization and headings eventually led to “rubric” being associated with headers in general, and “rubrication” of text in colors other than red.
Illumination goes above and beyond rubrication. While it does embellish text at times, it usually covers the whole page with detailed colorful images. The drawings, or Illuminations, can be an elaborate initial or a full page picture, or simply floral designs in the margins. The label “illumination” specifically refers to the reflective shiny quality of illustrations containing gold or silver leaf, but even works lacking in precious metal leaf can fall under the “illuminated” category. Like rubrication, the use of gold leaf was very prominent in Bibles. Both illumination and rubrication are used to add emphasis to the first word of a chapter or section, but an illuminated letter typically contains far more detail than a rubricated one, and can contain any colors, preferably in conjunction with gold leaf. Illuminations often serve to illustrate a text, depicting its meaning with figurative and abstract imagery.
“Illuminations and Rubrications” Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin, Educator Programs. https://www.hrc.utexas.edu/educator/modules/gutenberg/invention/illuminations/
“Rubrication” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubrication
“Rubrication” History Graphic Design, Graphic Renaissance. http://www.historygraphicdesign.com/a-graphic-renaissance/printing-comes-to-europe/12-rubrication
“Gutenberg Bible” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gutenberg_Bible
“Rubrication, calligraphy” J.E. Luebering, Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/rubrication