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Flowers & Medieval Manuscripts

In the strictest definition of illuminated manuscript,

only manuscripts with gold or silver, like this

miniature of Christ in Majesty from the Aberdeen Bestiary (folio 4v),

would be considered illuminated.

Flowers and the Illuminated Manuscripts

November 2017

Dear Friends:

So far our exploration on the history of botanical art has revealed how flowers appear in art for a number of reasons.  In the case of herbals, practical identification is key, for tapestries it is both decorative and symbolic. And, in the art of the illuminated manuscript, the floral significance is decorative, symbolic, and practical.

In the Middle Ages manuscript, decoration on vellum marks its origin with simple illustrations on chapters and in prayer books gradually increasing in complexity until designs surrounded text and text design. Flowers were often depicted in these simplified illustrations, but eventually, stylized flowers, people, animals, and birds were included with color and embellished with gold leaf. Further, illuminated manuscripts are the richest resources for the study of European painting between the sixth and the sixteenth century.1

One type of illuminated manuscript was the Book of Hours.  These compact, handwritten and illustrated books were used by Christians as daily prayer books. The text content of these small books was according to use and nearly always hand decorated by commissioned artists according to the wealth of the patron –  often with detailed miniatures whose subjects include scenes of the life of the Virgin, Christ, King David, Saints, and included elaborate illustrations of stylized flora. Each Book of Hours is unique, but all contain a collection of texts, prayers, psalms along with appropriate illustrations to form a convenient reference for Christian religious worship.   One exquisite example is the Book of Hours of Queen Anne de Bretagne housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

During the Renaissance (approximately 1300-1650 A.D.), the ideas of exploring human evolution and the dawn of civilization became popular again. A new movement of awakening, a rebirth beginning in Florence, spread throughout Europe.  Botanical research was still mostly done in service to medicine. Nevertheless, botanical symbolism that started in France in the 12th century continued to be seen in many Italian paintings throughout the 14th century. The voyages of discovery that began during the middle of the 15th century brought new plant species to Europe and floral language brought over from the east gave new meanings to manuscripts embellished with floral subjects. The flowers of Flemish manuscript illumination between c.1470 and 1560 achieved remarkable mastery of color, light, texture, space, and emotional impact. Among those identified were columbines, roses, lilies, snapdragons, primroses, lily of the valleys, violets, and daisies.

Until the late fifteenth century flowers were usually stylized. However, the Renaissance quest for realism is clearly seen in the illuminated manuscripts of the period in the 1483 manuscript of Plato, Phaedrus, and Phaedo, with Commentaries.  For example, a flower is seen entwined in the letter “P” that is recognizable as an Iris germanica. This flower is grown in European gardens for centuries and portrayed three and a quarter century later by Sydenham Edwards for Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. Elsewhere in the volume carnations and strawberries are reproduced with equal realism.

Albrecht Dürer, 1471–1528, was a German painter born in Nuremberg, as well as an engraver and theoretician. He was the most influential artist of the German school as well as one of the most important of the Renaissance mathematicians.  First a goldsmith apprentice in his father’s workshop and later an apprentice for the artist Michael Wolgemut, Dürer gained firsthand knowledge of engraving and art.  With a keen sense of observation, Dürer developed a system and a tool in aid of perspective (known as a Perspectograph) which enriched his engravings with meticulous detail.  His sensitive perception of the natural world is shown in some drawings and watercolors of plants and animals in his engravings, woodcuts, and paintings. (A side note, Dürer began the tradition of using watercolor which was first seen in his landscapes. Be sure to see Dürer’s 1503 watercolor “Das grosse Rasenstuck” (Sod of Grass, Great Piece of Turf).

“Das grosse Rasenstuck” (Sod of Grass, Great Piece of Turf) by Albrecht Dürer

From around 1512, Dürer worked on large commissions for the Emperor Maximilian I. These included designs for more decorative projects like illustrations for the Emperor’s personal Book of Hours. The Emperor’s Book of Hours, completed in 1515, was preceded by the Flemish manuscript for the liturgical book Breviarium Romanum created in Ghent, Belgium in 1494. This manuscript, by the Master of the First Prayer Book of Maximilian, displays a clear intention to represent living plants. It includes Dianthus, Geranium, Iris, Rose, Sweet Pea and a double Daisy.  We’ll discuss more about Dürer in our next newsletter as we uncover the world of botanical art and the woodcut.

Getting back to the hand-illuminated manuscript, which was both advancing in technique and declining in demand due to printmaking, we see that its sudden enrichment toward the middle of the 16th century was due to Turkish decorative motifs. In this period the illuminator Kara Memi was placed in charge of the Palace Painting Atelier where the once stylized Ottoman art gave way to flowers cultivated in palace gardens – tulips, roses, hyacinths, flowering fruit trees, cypresses, and pomegranates. Flowers illustrated from careful observation and not through copying or stylization became the central theme of all Ottoman decoration.

This lavishly decorated text that opens the Gospel of John

in the Book of Kells, early 9th century, shows the

Insular style of illumination: decorative and not illustrative.


Western influences gradually become evident in the Ottoman art from the beginning of the 17th century. The most popular decorative motif of the period is the bouquet of flowers in Turkish style. But the tendency to add depth to the flowers by the use of shading reflects the western perspective influence typical of the period.

In book illumination of the 18th century, the influence of Western art on Eastern art and vice versa is even stronger. Illuminations displaying baroque motifs alongside Eastern style decorations adorn chapter headings and margins.

It is important to add here that early medieval manuscripts were mostly written on vellum, a fine grade of goat, calf, or sheepskin. It was an expensive material, however, and the production of a complete Bible, for example, might require years of a scribe’s time, and the skins of several hundred animals, thus making books a rare and expensive.

Thus the West’s discovery of paper-making by the mid-8th century from the Chinese who learned paper making in the 2nd century B.C. encouraged European paper-making industry by the 12th century.  Although Spain was first to begin the manufacturing of paper, it was Italy in 1276 that became the great paper-making center supplying most of Europe until the late 15th century. By the 1400’s Germany, France, and the Netherlands were heavily involved in the industry as well.

The Emperor Jahangir receiving his two sons, an album-painting of c 1605-06

Mughal painting developed during the period of the Mughal Empire (16th – 18th centuries) and was generally confined to miniatures either as book illustrations or as single works to be kept in albums. It emerged from the Persian miniature painting tradition introduced to India by Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd al-Samad in the mid 16th century. It soon moved away from its Safavid origins; with the influence of Hindu artists, colors became brighter and compositions more naturalistic. The subject matter matter was predominantly secular, mainly consisting of illustrations to works of literature or history, portraits of court members and studies of nature. At its height the Mughal painting style represented an elegant marriage of Persian, European, and Hindi art.

Naturally, with the rise of paper for printing, vellum in the making of books was abandoned by the 1500’s.  So this places the greatest period of the finest illuminated manuscripts between 13th and 16th century when Paris remained a center of the production of handwritten religious books. Catholic Spain held on to the old ways, where Antiphonals (responsive choral parts of Catholic mass) would continue to be handwritten by cloistered monks well into the 18th century.

So as we see, the influence of botanical art on the illuminated manuscript corresponds with the Renaissance and the age of exploration in the 16th century when the awareness of plant life and its realistic portrayal influenced the border illustrations of the manuscripts.  This very enrichment by botanical subjects in illuminated manuscripts that contain elaborate, colorful, and gloriously detailed designs is one very important factor in their rare value today and in their thematic and historical importance for the world.

Join us next month for:

Botanical Art History – Pictorial Printmaking


Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

God bless.






Website Title: The History of Visual Communication – The Art of the Book.


Website Title: LON-CAPA Botany online: History – Renaissance.


Website Title: ARTSEDGE: Medieval and Renaissance Art: Botanical Symbolism.


Website Title: MANUSCRIPT ILLUMINATION – Turkish Culture.


Website Title: History of Illuminated Manuscripts –


Website Title: Our Heritage Lunar Cartography Informed Early Space Program.


Editor’s Note:

The collection of manuscripts at the Morgan Library & Museum began at the end of the nineteenth century when Pierpont Morgan acquired his first medieval manuscript.  Today, the collection is considered among the greatest in the world and spans ten centuries of Western illumination. The collection includes religious, scientific dealing with astronomy and medicine, and practical works on agriculture, hunting, and warfare. You may want to view online the illuminated manuscripts

Other museums that house these magnificent collections include:

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England; The J. P. Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California; The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, New York; Harvard University’s Houghton Library, Boston, Massachusetts; Glasgow University Library, Glasgow, Scotland; The Bakken Museum, Minneapolis, Minnesota.  These collections are often on tour so be sure to check your museum listings.  Visit their websites as well and check their online offerings.

Below are some book suggestions:



Book Buys

University of Glasgow

Glasgow University Library

Hillhead Street, Glasgow, G12 8QE, Scotland, UK

+44 (0)141 330 6704


Author: Coats, Alice Margaret.

Title: The treasury of flowers / Alice M. Coats.

Publ. info.: London: Phaidon Press [for] the Royal Horticultural Society, 1975.


Author: Bénézit, E. (Emmanuel)

Title: Dictionnaire critique et documentaire des peintres, sculpteurs, dessinateurs et graveurs de tous les temps et de tous les pays / par un groupe d’écrivains spécialistes français et étrangers.

Publ. info.: Paris : Gründ, c1976.


Author: Desmond, Ray, 1925-

Title: Dictionary of British and Irish botanists and horticulturists: including plant collectors, flower painters, and garden designers / Ray Desmond.

Publ. info.: London: Taylor & Francis and the Natural History Museum, 1994 London, Bristol, PA, London, Taylor & Francis, Natural History Museum, 1994.


Other Titles Available

Title: L’Art de la Miniature flamande. VIIIe aux XVIe siècle: Flandre, Nord de la France Principauté de Liège

Author:  de Maurits Smeyers


Title:  Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe

Author:  Kren, Thomas, And McKendrick, Scot, And Ainsworth


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