September 12, 2012 by Gail Armstrong
Anyone perusing illuminated manuscripts is bound to be struck with a new appreciation for the potential of the alphabet – all those decorated and historiated initials at the start of paragraphs show what unlimited possibilities there are for playing with and enhancing letter shapes.
For those who may be wondering, “decorated” initials are larger-than- usual initial letters of paragraphs which are decoratively enhanced, be it with floral work, vine work, knot work, puzzle work or what have you. “Historiated” initials are letters that contain representative scenes — that “tell a story”, in other words. They’re also known as “inhabited” initials, in view of the people and other figures or creatures “living within them”.
Here are some examples that illustrate some of the range of the different styles.
1. This beautiful initial ‘A’ was created in Italy in the last quarter of the 14th century or early 15th century, in a book titled Epitome bellorum omnium annorum by Lucius Annaeus Florus. It’s quite simple but the colours are lovely, the lines elegant and the gilding very effective. The juxtaposition of the angular letter with the organic decoration just works.
2. This letter ‘P’ is decorated in the ‘white vine’ style, although apparently in an unusual variant of the style – this is according to the British Library notes, though I confess I don’t really know what it is about this example that makes it unusual. What is appealing to me about this initial is the intricacy of the vine-work twining within and around an initial created in a simple Celtic knotwork style. Again, I think the effect is quite elegant. This initial comes from another secular text, Epitome historiarum Pompeii Trogi by Justin, and again originates in Italy in the first half of the 15th century.
3. Here is an altogether different style: this is what is known as a “puzzle initial”, an interlocking two-colour design, augmented with pen flourishing. I like this one because it shows how effective a fairly simple design in ink and colour-wash can be. This initial originates in a Book of Hours created in the Netherlands in the second half of the 15th century.
4. Speaking of simple, I absolutely love this letter “D’ from the manuscript known as the Arundel Psalter (or alternatively, the Eadui Psalter, for the scribe, Eadui Basan). It comes from Canterbury, England, and was created between 1012 and 1023. I can’t fully articulate why it appeals to me, except that it’s flows so perfectly and simply, with that unexpected animal head and floreate tongue.
5. Moving from the simple to the sublime, here is a magnificent letter ‘B’ from the same Psalter. To really appreciate it, you need to click through to the original on the British Library website and view it enlarged. Only then can you see the intricate knotwork at the top and bottom of the stem of the ‘B’, the animal mask that holds the two rounded parts of the letter together and the elaborate detail of the surrounding border. This one inspires awe for the work that went into it, but I confess I find the snake-y letter ‘D’ above more beautiful, for the very perfection of its simplicity.
6. This one I think is just gorgeous. This exquisite historiated letter ‘D’ comes from a Book of Hours created by the Masters of Dirc van Delf in Utrecht, Netherlands between 1405 and 1410. Notes from the J. Paul Getty Museum catalogue tell us that this work was created in “the International style that so appealed to aristocratic taste across Europe”. It certainly is very tasteful but the images of the Virgin and child are also quite moving – how beautiful is the tender expression on Mary’s face? She almost looks like a child herself, while the baby looks wise well beyond his tender age.
7. Here is another beauty, from a musical manuscript dated between 1325 and 1350. When I first saw this sumptuous initial, I gasped…and when that happens, I try to step back and ask what it is about the image that is so powerful. The gilding is certainly a factor here, but also the shapely grace of the letter itself and its refined colouring. But beyond that, I think it is the sheer proliferation of tasteful, delicate detail — the elegant tracery within the body of the letter, the etched-style decoration on the gold, the acanthus-type leaf at the tail of the letter…and of course the extravagant extensions of the letter down the side margin and across the top – gorgeous!
8. This one I found on Wikipedia, with minimal information – the site merely informs me that the image is titled Sacrementaire de Drogon, dates from around 840, and originates from Evéché de Metz. A little further research was required to learn that it comes from what’s known in English as the Drogo Sacramentary. More information can be found at this URL: http://www.wdl.org/en/item/590/. The write-up there informs us that this manuscript “is distinguished both by the finesse and dynamism of the characters and by the delicacy of its emerald green, sky blue, violet, and purple colors and its pronounced taste for plant-based ornamentation”. I certainly find this initial to be both lively and pleasing.
There are of course thousands of beautiful decorated initials and I will surely re-visit the topic and share more favourites soon!