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Illuminated leaf from a missal, vellum, ink, pigment and gold leaf

Published January 29, 2006

[Lesley T. Stone, Special Collections Department, Tampa library of the University of South Florida]
Interactive: A closer look

You always knew where you stood, spiritually, in the Middle Ages. Devotional guides directed the hours of the day, days of the week and months of the year in a cycle of worship that was both repetitive and comforting to a largely illiterate population. Priests and other clergy read from religious texts that fell into two categories: breviaries for the Divine Office, which was a series of daily prayers, and missals that celebrated the Mass.

Shown here is a page, or leaf, from a 15th century Italian missal. It is not only a religious document, but also an example of the most common art form of the Middle Ages, the illuminated manuscript. Though its date puts it in the period we call the early Renaissance, its style harks back to the earlier period.

This illuminated manuscript is a promised gift to the special collections of the University of South Florida library, 4202 E Fowler Ave., Tampa. It and others will be on view through March 30.

You can see more examples in the exhibition "Ink and Blood" at the Florida International Museum, 244 Second Ave. N, St. Petersburg, which documents the development of the modern Bible.

- LENNIE BENNETT, Times art critic

* * *

Illuminated leaf from a missal, vellum, ink, pigment and gold leaf, c. 1450


During the fourth century, parchment sheets made from animal skins replaced papyrus scrolls as the preferred material for recording texts because they were more flexible and could be bound together into a single, compact volume called a codex. Parchment was also more absorbent and stable, and could accept paint without cracking, so illustrations and embellishments could be added to the text. The books came to be known generically as illuminated manuscripts.

Early manuscripts were created by monks and occasionally nuns. But by the time production peaked in the 15th century, when this missal was created, outsourcing to lay artisans was common. Each book could take a year or more to finish and require up to 70 sheep to produce enough parchment. Only churches and the wealthy could afford to own them.

At least several people worked on the manuscripts. Scribes hand-lettered the text first (mistakes could be scraped away), leaving room for the illustrations, which were often the work of three or more artists who drew, painted and applied gold leaf, working in an assembly line arrangement.

At about the same time this missal was being made, Johan Gutenberg was developing a movable-type printing press using fiber-based paper that would make such time-consuming uniqueness obsolete.

The text is on vellum, a kind of parchment made from the softest lamb or kid skins. It is written in Latin, the language of the Roman church, which was the official language of faith and scholarship regardless of local vernaculars. Most of the prayers and order of services were universal in the Christian church, but slight variations were allowed to reflect a community and its veneration of particular saints.


Liturgical texts often had two sizes of letters, the larger always read by a priest, the smaller recited or chanted by lesser clergy or a choir. Red lettering, called rubrics (from the Latin word meaning red), were directions or notations at the beginning of a new prayer and were never read aloud. A flourished initial also indicated a new prayer or reading.

The most elaborate part of the page is the historiated initial, meaning an explanatory religious illustration that accompanies the letter beginning a new section of the missal. Here, the feast day of Saint Lawrence is celebrated. Saint Lawrence was a third century archdeacon in charge of inventorying the Church of Rome's wealth and membership. Roman Emperor Valerian condemned the pope, Lawrence and five others to death in 258. Lawrence managed to hide the church's treasures and when ordered to produce them showed up with a handful of Rome's poorest, sickest Christians declaring them to be "the true treasures of the church." Instead of being beheaded as planned, he was burned to death on a grill. He is shown with a gridiron, representing his martyrdom, and a quill for his efforts to preserve early church documents. Decoration around the text was called a foliate border and could contain more symbols associated with the saint.

Source: Lesley T. Stone, Special Collections Department, Tampa Library of the University of South Florida

If you go

USF's Special Collections Reading Room, 4202 E Fowler Ave., Tampa, is open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon., Tues., Fri.; 9 a.m.- 8 p.m. Wed. and Thurs. Free. 813 974-4774. "Ink and Blood" continues through May 13 at Florida International Museum, 244 Second Ave. N, St. Petersburg; 9 a.m.- 6 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; noon-6 p.m. Sun. $16 adults; discounts for others. (727) 341-7900; or

[Last modified January 26, 2006, 13:04:03]

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