The best books on medieval illumination

Who am I?

I’ve been in love with the Middle Ages ever since my mother handed me a copy of The Conquering Family, by Thomas B. Costain, when I was in the 7th grade. Eventually, I went on to earn a degree in history from the University of Arizona. In addition to the many colorful characters who impacted the medieval world, I became entranced with the art of the time period, particularly manuscript paintings. Their beauty, reverence, whimsy, even their occasional naughtiness, are, to me, simply enchanting! It was impossible not to share my love of this artform in at least one of my novels. Below are some of the books that helped me on my writing journey.


I wrote...

Illuminations of the Heart: Poitevin Hearts Book 2

By Joyce DiPastena,

Book cover of Illuminations of the Heart: Poitevin Hearts Book 2

What is my book about?

When Siri de Calendri’s brother dies, his will sends her from Venice and the medieval illuminating workshop she loves to the faraway county of Poitou. Siri becomes the ward of her brother’s friend, Triston de Brielle, but she does not intend to stay that way. She is determined to find employment as an illuminator in this strange land—until Triston unexpectedly snatches her heart away with a kiss. Triston is a man of quiet honor and courage, but the guilt he carries for the death of his wife, Clothilde, has left him numb and hesitant to love again. Worse yet, Siri bears an uncanny resemblance to his lost love. Or does she? Her merry laughter and twinkling eyes are very different from his late wife's shy smiles and quiet ways. Yet when he gazes into Siri's face, all he sees is Clothilde.

Siri has illuminated many a priceless book with pen and paint, but can her own vibrant spirit illuminate the darkness in Triston’s soul and make his heart beat for her alone?

The books I picked & why

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The Illuminated Manuscript

By Janet Backhouse,

Book cover of The Illuminated Manuscript

Why this book?

Any time you pick up a book with Illuminated Manuscript anywhere in the title, you know you’re in for a visual feast. If you’re just starting out with this unique medieval art form, this book is an excellent introduction. It’s not too long, so it won’t overwhelm you. This book provided the foundation for my first steps into researching medieval illumination for my historical romantic novel. What is illumination? Why were books illuminated and what types of books were considered worthy of illumination? Who were some of the most famous medieval illuminators? (Perhaps my heroine’s father had studied with one.) What kind of patrons might my heroine have encountered in her father’s workshop?

This book ignited my imagination while helping me discover the best answers for my story. (NOTE: So much of this art has been digitized that most of the B&W photos are now easy to find in color on the internet.)

The Illuminated Manuscript

By Janet Backhouse,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Illuminated Manuscript as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The British Library houses one of the world's great collections of illuminated manuscripts, and Janet Backhouse has drawn on this resource to make a selection of examples that span over 800 years of medieval book production.


Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life

By Roger S. Wieck,

Book cover of Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life

Why this book?

One cannot dismiss the importance of religion during the Middle Ages. It was intertwined with nearly every aspect of people’s lives, so it was natural that medieval illuminators like my heroine and her father would spend a tremendous amount of their time and talent on creating artwork for religious books. The Book of Hours was one of the most important sources of religious teaching and inspiration during the Middle Ages and indispensable to that inspiration and teaching were the exquisite illuminations that filled their pages.

Time Sanctified places the Book of Hours in its medieval social and religious context and demonstrates through countless visual examples the way illuminated paintings helped bring these religious lessons to life for their medieval owners.

Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life

By Roger S. Wieck,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Time Sanctified as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The illuminated manuscript was the primary vehicle of learning, religion, and art during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Within the pages of these hand-painted treasures, medieval civilisation flourished. Of all the illuminated manuscripts from this period, the Book of Hours was, by far, the most popular and among the most exquisitely made. In the words of scholar L. M. J. Delaisse, it was the "best seller" of its time - the most frequently commissioned book by both the aristocracy and the middle classes. A selection of these splendid pages is presented in Time Sanctified, along with a detailed discussion of…


The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting

By Daniel V. Thompson,

Book cover of The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting

Why this book?

It’s hard to express the depths of my excitement when I discovered this book. This title allowed me to take research for my novel’s heroine to a whole new level. Should she use parchment or vellum, what was the difference, and when should she use one over the other? (Did you know the most sumptuous parchments were died purple? I didn’t until I read this book!) What was the difference between natural and artificial pigments as understood by medieval artists? And how did they create all those brilliant reds, blues, greens, yellows, purples, and more in their paintings? How did they make paint out of gold or apply gold leaf to their art? All these details and much, much more are laid out here. Everything a medieval artist, in life or in fiction, could possibly need to know! (This book also touches on other forms of medieval painting, like painting on wood and cloth.)

The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting

By Daniel V. Thompson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Medieval painters built up a tremendous range of technical resources for obtaining brilliance and permanence. In this volume, an internationally known authority on medieval paint technology describes these often jealously guarded recipes, lists of materials, and processes. Based upon years of study of medieval manuscripts and enlarged by laboratory analysis of medieval paintings, this book discusses carriers and grounds, binding media, pigments, coloring materials, and metals used in painting.
It describes the surfaces that the medieval artist painted upon, detailing their preparation. It analyzes binding media, discussing relative merits of glair versus gums, oil glazes, and other matters. It tells…


The Illuminated Alphabet: An Inspirational Introduction to Creating Decorative Calligraphy

By Timothy Noad, Patricia Seligman,

Book cover of The Illuminated Alphabet: An Inspirational Introduction to Creating Decorative Calligraphy

Why this book?

Reading about medieval illumination is one thing. But suppose you want to actually paint an illuminated letter for yourself? This book provides a do-it-yourself experience, showing you step-by-step how to reproduce alphabet letters from actual medieval manuscripts. Each project includes tips on painting techniques, a list of the tools and paints you will need, then walks you through the process with detailed photographic examples for each step. Choose from Celtic, Romanesque, Gothic styles, and more. This book is a feast for the eyes, even if you have no artistic ambitions for yourself. Simply leaf through it and imagine the world of the medieval artist as they created these gorgeous initial letters in their manuscripts.

The Illuminated Alphabet: An Inspirational Introduction to Creating Decorative Calligraphy

By Timothy Noad, Patricia Seligman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Illuminated Alphabet as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Create intricate, decorated letters, and then enhance them with brilliant gliding and rich hues. The Illuminated Alphabet puts a marvelous variety of alphabets and embellishments at your disposal!

Whether you’re looking for simple or the elaborate examples, you will find enormous elegance and beauty in your illuminated lettering. From interlacing spirals of Irish script to the spiraling tendrils of the Gothic style, you’ll re-create beautiful alphabets that have been admired throughout history.

Pore through the history of illuminated letters, at the artists who created them, as well as the patrons who commissioned them. Each alphabet includes diagrams for upper and…


Marguerite Makes a Book

By Bruce Robertson, Kathryn Hewitt (illustrator),

Book cover of Marguerite Makes a Book

Why this book?

I added this book simply because I think it’s charming. Although written for children, grownups will love it, too! In 15th century Paris, Marguerite, the young daughter of a manuscript illuminator, has to help her aging father illuminate a Book of Hours for a very important lady or her father will lose both his commission and his reputation. This beautifully illustrated book joins Marguerite through each step of her illuminated book’s creation. You will be transported to medieval Paris and Marguerite’s workshop as you read and gaze at the pictures! This book was inspired by a rare collection of illuminated manuscripts held by the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Marguerite Makes a Book

By Bruce Robertson, Kathryn Hewitt (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Marguerite Makes a Book as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It is Paris in the 1400s. A young girl named Marguerite delights in assisting her father, Jacques, in his craft: illuminating manuscripts for the nobility of France. His current commission is a splendid book of hours for his patron, Lady Isabelle, but will he be able to finish it in time for Lady Isabelle's name day? In this richly illustrated tale, Marguerite comes to her father's aid by secretly completing his commission. She journeys all over Paris buying goose feathers for quills, eggs for mixing paints, dried plants and ground minerals for pigments, and gold leaf; then she expertly finishes…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Middle Ages, illuminated manuscripts, and France?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Middle Ages, illuminated manuscripts, and France.

The Middle Ages Explore 304 books about the Middle Ages
Illuminated Manuscripts Explore 11 books about illuminated manuscripts
France Explore 693 books about France

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Ebony Tower, The Waning of the Middle Ages, and Growing Up in Medieval London if you like this list.