The Art of the Book in the Middle Ages

See works of art
  • Plaque with Saint John the Evangelist
  • Book Cover with Byzantine Icon of the Crucifixion
  • The Crucifixion
  • Jaharis Byzantine Lectionary
  • Leaf from the Epistle to the Hebrews
  • Leaf from a Beatus Manuscript: the Lamb at the Foot of the Cross, Flanked by Two Angels; The Calling of Saint John with the Enthroned Christ flanked by Angels and a Man Holding a Book
  • Book Cover Plaque with Christ in Majesty
  • Illuminated Psalter
  • Bible
  • Manuscript Leaf with the Agony in the Garden and Betrayal of Christ, from a Royal Psalter
  • Bifolium with the Decretals of Gratian
  • Manuscript Leaf with the Martyrdom of Saint Peter Martyr in an Initial P, from a Gradual
  • Leaf from a Gospel Book with Four Standing Evangelists
  • Title Page of the Gospel of John
  • Manuscript Illumination with the Evangelist Luke
  • Manuscript Leaf with the Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, from a Laudario
  • The Hours of Jeanne dEvreux, Queen of France
  • Book Cover
  • Curtain of the Tabernacle, one of six illustrated leaves from the Postilla Litteralis (Literal Commentary) of Nicholas of Lyra
  • Leaf from a Manuscript of Valerius Maximus
  • Four Gospels in Armenian
  • Manuscript Leaf with the Annunciation from a Book of Hours
  • Manuscript Illumination with Singing Monks in an Initial D, from a Psalter
  • Manuscript Illumination with David in Prayer in an Initial M, from a Psalter
  • Petri Gyllii De Bosporo thracio libri III ; Petri Gyllii De topographia Constantinopoleos
  • Illuminated Gospel

Works of Art (27)


Before the invention of mechanical printing, books were handmade objects, treasured as works of art and as symbols of enduring knowledge. Indeed, in the Middle Ages, the book becomes an attribute of God (17.190.757).

Every stage in the creation of a medieval book required intensive labor, sometimes involving the collaboration of entire workshops. Parchment for the pages had to be made from the dried hides of animals, cut to size and sewn into quires; inks had to be mixed, pens prepared, and the pages ruled for lettering. A scribe copied the text from an established edition, and artists might then embellish it with illustrations, decorated initials, and ornament in the margins. The most lavish medieval books were bound in covers set with enamels, jewels, and ivory carvings (17.190.134).

Many bookmakers in the Middle Ages were monks (12.56.4), and monasteries kept libraries filled not only with sacred texts but also with literary, scientific, and philosophical works by Greek and Roman authors. Multivolume Bibles and huge liturgical books were housed and used in churches. Princes and emperors commissioned gospel books with many-colored illustrations and lettering in gold and silver ink (12.56.3). Among the most ambitious were the large books that monastic communities used daily for singing (2005.273).

The emergence of universities throughout Europe created demand for single-volume Bibles (1997.320), books of law (1990.217), and other texts copied on pages with wide margins for notes and commentary. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, private persons bought and used books of hours, which contained prayers to be recited throughout the day. Important texts were translated from Latin into French and other vernacular languages (31.134.8). The illustrations of some manuscripts, notable for their quality and originality, were executed by first-rate artists; many others, although small, have the monumental elegance of larger works.

Byzantine Books
Texts were also held in special regard in Byzantium, where people rated literacy as a desirable goal. There are 40,000 preserved Byzantine manuscripts—a great number, considering the expense of their production. Monastic libraries contained the largest collections; for example, Patmos Monastery possessed 330 books, and Lavra Monastery, located on Mount Athos, held 960 manuscripts. Private libraries generally held more than 25 volumes. During the period between 1204 and 1261, when Constantinople was under Latin rule, book production was limited. Financial troubles meant that it was much harder to afford the materials and labor necessary to produce manuscripts. The return of Greek rule under Michael VIII spurred a period of renewed growth in manuscript production. Scholars searched for classical writings and then copied and annotated them. Maximos Planudes (ca. 1260–ca. 1310), for example, rediscovered Ptolemy’s Geography, edited Plutarch, and rewrote the Greek anthology of epigrams. Contact with the West introduced a range of Latin texts that Greek scholars translated into Greek—from Ovid and Cicero to Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Toward the mid-fourteenth century, the financial patronage available to these great scholars began to dwindle. Increasingly, Byzantine intellectuals, such as Cardinal Bessarion (1403–1472), took their expertise and knowledge of ancient texts to Italy.

While the printing press became a major source of book production in the West, Ottoman rule did not allow its use. Hence, Eastern areas continued producing manuscripts rather than printed books up through 1557, and in some places longer.

Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2001


Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. “The Art of the Book in the Middle Ages.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2001)

Further Reading

Alexander, Jonathan J. G. Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Calkins, Robert G. Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983.

De Hamel, Christopher. Scribes and Illuminators. London: British Museum Press, 1992.

Holcomb, Melanie, with contributions by Lisa Bessette et al. Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009. See on MetPublications

Pächt, Otto. Book Illumination in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.