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Saturday: July 30, 2011


A Brief History of the Illustrated Book in the West


This  Blog is a slight detour on our preceding commentary on archetypes and the influence they have in storytelling and on our  individual

and collective evolving social identity. To break the tempo slightly, we have chosen to present a short overview of the history of illustrated

books - within the context of the prevailing social trends and technological developments. In doing so, we hope you will find the discussion

of some interest and enjoy the accompanying illustrations (many of which are not shown elsewhere on our site). Our next Blog will return to

the type of Humanistic discussions we have pursued in previous weeks, but for the moment, please enjoy a quick trip through history.


At the current point in history, the relationship between text and illustrations - or illustrative images - in nigh on ubiquitous. Within the Western

tradition at least, illustrations adorn all manner of publications including scriptures, fairy tales, fiction, historical works and newspapers. There

was a time, however, where the words in books went without adornment or illustrative interpretation. In considering the incorporation of

illustrations in books, too, it is behoves us to be mindful of the thoughtful words of Edmund Dulac in his introduction to "Gods and Mortals in

Love" (1935):


A book with coloured pictures and an illustrated book are not quite the same thing. One might say

that each has its own function and its own appeal.


The development of illustrated books in the West is built upon a tradition extending into the past beyond the illuminated manuscripts of the

Medieval Period and the codices of the 1st Century AD Greco-Roman civilizations to at least the illustrated papyrus scrolls of Ancient Egypt.


From Ancient Egypt, the work known as "The Book of the Dead" (also known as "Going Forth

by Day") - a collection of spells, incantations and rituals believed to aid a soul's transition from

the physical to the spirit world - is known to have often been illustrated prior to the script being

buried with the deceased.







On the right, we show an example of an illustrated variant of "The Book of the Dead"

from the scrolls buried with Henefer - a scribe and high official to Seti I (a Pharaoh of

the XIXth Dynasty). This section depicts Anubis overseeing the weighing of Henefer's

heart against a feather - the symbol of Maat (the established order of things) - which

is part of the judgment of the righteousness of the deceased.

Portion of ''The Book of the Dead'' of Henefer - scribe to Seti I (Pharaoh of the XIXth Dynasty)


Illustrations from ''Vergilius Vaticanus'' depicting the death of Dido


A major development relevant to the history of illustrated books occurred in the late Greco-Roman

Period (between the 1st and 5th Centuries AD) with widespread adoption of parchment-based

codices for book production.


One example of an illustrated Codex from that period is a variant of Vergil's "Aeneid" known as

"Vergilius Vaticanus" - a document that is held in the Vatican Library. The "Vergilius Vaticanus"

dates from the 5th Century AD. Other major works have survived from the same period, including

"Vergilius Romanus" (also held in the Vatican Library) and an example of Homer's "Iliad" held in

Milan's Ambrosiana Library.







To the left, we show an illustration from "Vergilius Vaticanus" -

that depicting the death of Dido.


Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, substantial developments in illustrated

codices continued in the East. Numerous examples of such codices are known to have

survived, with the great majority being devoted to illustrating scriptures. Such scriptural

illustrations were, stylistically, predecessors of the illuminated manuscripts of the Medieval

period. There are, however, a few examples of early Byzantine codices that continue the

stylistic and thematic developments of the earlier Greco-Roman period on non-religious

subjects, including the Vienna "Dioscorides" and the "Cynegetica" of Oppian of Apamea.








On the right, we show an illustration from the Vienna "Dioscorides" - a 6th Century AD

Byzantine codex held in Össterreichische Nationalbibilothek (Vienna) - depicting coral

growth out of the sea.


Illustration from the Vienna ''Dioscorides''


'Christ Enthroned' from the ''Godescalc Gospels''

The transition to illustrating scriptures that occurred first in the Byzantine

tradition had a number of significant influences on book production in

realms that had formerly been part of the Western Roman Empire,

including: religious iconography pertinent to biblical and theological

narrative cycles; an hierartic approach to figural presentation; a diverse

colour palette; and the extensive use of precious metals and stones.


Two examples of early Medieval works displaying influences of that

Byzantine tradition include the German "Godescalc Gospels" from the

8th Century AD (held in Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris) and the "Book of

Kells" from the early 9th Century AD (held in Dublin's Trinity College





To the left and right, we show a depiction of 'Christ Enthroned' from the "Godescalc Gospels" (on the left)

and the "Book of Kells" (to the right).


'Christ Enthroned' from the ''Book of Kells''


For much of the following 6 centuries, religious themes dominated developments in book illustration, but

even during that time, the winds of change were blowing towards the radical shifts that would occur within

the Renaissance. From the 13th Century AD, books - and particularly illustrated books - became

increasingly accessible beyond the clergy and ruling classes as a consequence of the rise of universities.

So too, the subject matter of books was enlarged and included the works of authors such as Froissart

and Chaucer, in addition to histories, poems and romances (such as those related to the Trojan War,

Arthurian legends or Charlemagne and his Paladins).


Despite those influences, religious illustrated books continued significant developments - arising from

increasingly wealthy patronage - to include works such as the 15th Century "Très Riches Heures" of

John, Duke of Berry (held in Musée Condé, Chantilly).





On the right, we show a depiction of the Garden of Eden shown in

"Très Riches Heures" of John, Duke of Berry.

Depiction of the Garden of Eden from ''Très Riches Heures'' of John, Duke of Berry


A coloured illustration from ''Theuerdank''

Technical developments - including the refinement of printing

presses - and social and artistic developments combined in the

Renaissance to irrevocably change the landscape of illustrate

books through the late 15th Century and the early 16th Century.


Whilst significant illustrated books were produced during the

period, royal patrons and entrepreneurs alike took advantage of

prevailing circumstances to expand the themes explored in

illustrated books. It was during this period that books as varied

as Hartmann Schedel's "Liber Chronicarum" ("The Nuremberg

Chronicle"), Albrecht Dürer's "Apocalipsis cum Figuris"

("The Revelations of St John"), the epic work of Emperor

Maximilian I ("Theuerdank") and "The Dance of Death" by

Hans Holbein the Younger were published.


To the left, we show a a coloured illustration from "Theuerdank" and on the right, we show

an illustration from Holbein's "The Dance of Death".


'The Count' from Hans Holbein's ''The Book of Death''


The influence of the Renaissance and Humanism, in addition to religious movements including the Reformation and Counter-Reformation continued

to be major factors in the development of illustrated books in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Similarly, the rise of Empires and social revolution were further factors of relevance through the 18th Century and the early 19th Century.


Illustrated books became available to many levels of society and as may be expected to occur as a consequence of market forces, the content of

those books were focused on the aesthetic interests of the targeted demographic. One particular example of this significant change was the

development of illustrated books on the matter of fairy tales - and that development occurred at a time that illustrated books were beginning to

incorporate colour illustrations that were printed, rather than hand-painted.


"In Fairyland: A Series of Pictures from the Elf World" (1870) was illustrated by Richard Doyle -

the colour plates being engraved by Edmund Evans - and is considered to be a landmark in the

art of colour printing from woodblocks.







On the right, we show 'A Rehearsal in Fairyland' by Richard Doyle from

"In Fairyland: A Series of Pictures from the Elf World" (1870).

'A Rehearsal in Fairyland' by Richard Doyle from ''In Fairyland: A Series of Pictures from the Elf World''


'Scheherazadè' by George Barbier


Further significant developments occurred in respect of incorporating colour illustrations in books in

the early decades of the 20th Century - the most significant of which was the perfection of the colour

separation process to facilitate high quality photographic reproduction of colour plates for incorporation

in the publications. Those initial developments provided for a 3-colour process, but later developments

allowed for 4-colour processes also.


Despite those significant developments, existing techniques continued to be utilised in relatively

low-volume publications, including the stencilling technique known as "pochoir" that was particularly

popular in France.







To the left, we show "Scheherazadè" by George Barbier -  an illustration

finished in colour using the "pochoir" stencilling tehcnique.


Prior to the outbreak of World War I, colour illustrated books were produced by major publishers in sumptuous 'Gift Books', in addition to those

from low volume 'boutique' publishers. This was in the period that has become known as the 'Golden Age of Illustration' - a period to which a

significant portion of this site is devoted. To chart developments throughout that period and the work of artists involved in contributing to illustrated

books during that Age, we invite you to visit our Golden Age of Illustration Collection and the many informative pages contained therein.




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Blog Archive


Friday, 22 July, 2011

Masculinity and Femininity (Part 2)


Saturday, 16 July, 2011

Masculinity and Femininity (Part 1)


Monday, 27 June, 2011

Heroes (Part 3)


Friday, 20 June, 2011

Heroes (Part 2)


Tuesday, 14 June, 2011

Heroes (Part I)


Friday, 7 June, 2011



Friday, 27 May, 2011

Morality through Narrative


Monday, 16 May, 2011

"The Sea Battle" by Arthur Rackham

and comparisons between Buccheim's

variant and the description of Thor's

battle with the Midgard Serpent in

the original from the "Norse Edda of

Snorri Sturluson"


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