Illumination and Rubrication
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
4/10/2019 10:48:48 pm
When I saw the rubrications and illuminations in the Gutenberg Bible in our trip to special collections I had no idea what they were called. It's very interesting to think of how these two things have kind of evolved into the modern world. Rubrication could be thought as highlighting and illumination seems to be like the visual aids you were to see in books now a days. Learning about all of these old practices gives me an all new appreciation for books.
4/11/2019 12:52:01 pm
I love that you chose to write about this! Being someone who has a calligraphy business and has been doing traditional calligraphy for quite some time, I love that these illuminations bridge the gap between both modern and traditional. I love that even though books were being printed in a quicker and more modern style, there was still that personal and detailed quality added to it from these illumators. I hadn’t seen some of these pictures that you included but they are crazy detailed, I cannot imagine how long it must have taken them.
4/11/2019 01:39:25 pm
Thank you for writing about this topic! For my research project I discussed the Voynich Manuscript, which I could argue contains illuminations. The text in this manuscript is written around the actual illustrations, so I'm wondering if these would still be considered illuminations or just illustrations. The intricate floral decorations in your images are also similar in style to the Voynich manuscript. And of course I totally appreciate the time and energy that goes into decorating these books!
4/11/2019 10:37:16 pm
This is such a cool thing to talk about! I think that the art of illustrated manuscripts is something that we've lost by not working through text by hand. Gilding the text adds beauty but also adds a feeling of importance and makes people feel like they need to spend more time appreciating the text which is why it was so often used in Bibles. You had such great examples and I loved looking at your images!
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