In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Anglo-Saxon Manuscript Illumination

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Catalogues
  • Library Catalogues
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Journals
  • Iconography
  • Patrons and Readers
  • Artists
  • Paleography
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Proceedings of the International Conference on Insular Art
  • Essay Collections

Medieval Studies Anglo-Saxon Manuscript Illumination
Catherine E. Karkov
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0113


“Anglo-Saxon manuscript illumination” refers to those manuscripts produced in the area that is now England, or by Anglo-Saxon scribes and illuminators working elsewhere, between the period c. 600 CE to c. 1100 CE. There is some overlap during the earlier centuries with Insular illuminated manuscripts, manuscripts produced in Ireland and the British Isles between roughly the years 600 and 850, and early Northumbrian manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, Cotton Nero D.IV), which can be classed either as Anglo-Saxon or Insular. Anglo-Saxon manuscript illumination can consist simply of decorated initials or interlinear and marginal pen flourishes, but it also includes elaborately decorated manuscripts filled with golden letters and full-page figural or narrative miniatures. It is not limited just to religious manuscripts (though most of the most luxuriously decorated manuscripts are religious); medical and “scientific” manuscripts, histories and hagiographies, charters and legal manuscripts, poetic texts, and calendars were also illuminated. In general, Anglo-Saxon illumination is characterized by a love of expressive line (line drawing is a major art form), color wash, and a creative use of the relationship between center and margin, or what is within and what is beyond the central framed image or text block. The Anglo-Saxons are also credited with inventing several types of image: the historiated initial (an initial containing an abbreviated narrative or image related to the text that follows), the “disappearing Christ” (a type of Ascension in which only Christ’s legs remain visible within the picture frame), and the Coronation of the Virgin (in the earliest examples of which the Virgin receives a crown on her death bed). Historiated initials appear in some of the earliest Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, but the more complex iconographic innovations of the biblical narrative scenes are associated with the 10th-century Benedictine reform centered on Winchester and Canterbury. In almost all manuscripts, whatever their date or provenance, illumination and text work very closely together, and one should never be studied in isolation from the other.

General Overviews

Brown 2007 is beautifully illustrated and thus best for getting a sense of the style and range of Anglo-Saxon illumination, although the text contains numerous typos, so some double-checking of information is necessary. That said, it is engagingly written and the illustrations are easily browsed, and so it is the best place for the general reader to begin. Owen-Crocker 2009 is best for providing a general overview of the multiple aspects of manuscript study and is an especially good place for students to begin. Karkov 2011 is the most up-to-date survey of Anglo-Saxon art and contains a chapter devoted specifically to manuscript illumination. Dodwell 1982 is also a general survey, now somewhat dated but especially useful for giving a sense of how much has been lost. Neuman de Vegvar 1987 and Henderson 1999 are particularly good on early Northumbrian manuscripts. Gameson 1995 is good for the 10th and 11th centuries. Stevick 1994 deals with the design and layout of the manuscript page. Toswell 2014 is an excellent overview of psalter manuscripts. The bibliographies of the entries listed below should be consulted for earlier overviews.

  • Brown, Michelle P. Manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon Age. London: British Library, 2007.

    Beautifully illustrated with numerous color photographs, this book provides a basic survey of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts from the earliest days through to the immediate post-Conquest period. A good place for the general reader or student to begin.

  • Dodwell, C. R. Anglo-Saxon Art: A New Perspective. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982.

    A survey of what literary sources reveal about Anglo-Saxon taste and attitudes toward art and of the enormous losses of objects that have occurred over the centuries. Dodwell was the first to give sustained attention to the way in which such losses have distorted our understanding of the period.

  • Gameson, Richard. The Role of Art in the Late Anglo-Saxon Church. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.

    Coverage is limited to art (mostly manuscripts) produced by and for the church in the 10th and 11th centuries, and the approach is one of traditional stylistic and iconographic analysis, but the book is especially interesting for its treatment of such ideas as the relationships among inscriptions, borders, and images―topics that have received short shrift elsewhere.

  • Henderson, George. Vision and Image in Early Christian England. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    Attempts to eliminate the traditional divisions between “Insular” and “Anglo-Saxon” art by adopting the Continental descriptor “Early Christian” (a term applied more generally to European, especially Mediterranean, art and architecture of the 4th to 8th centuries). Devoted largely to manuscript art, with art in other media discussed as it relates to questions generated by issues such as narrative, color, or artistic production.

  • Karkov, Catherine E. The Art of Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2011.

    Covers all aspects of Anglo-Saxon art, with a double focus on art as aesthetic vehicle and as political and cultural force. Manuscript illumination is discussed throughout but is also the subject of its own chapter.

  • Neuman de Vegvar, Carol. The Northumbrian Renaissance: A Study in the Transmission of Style. Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 1987.

    While the subject of this book is the art of Northumbria from the 6th to the late 8th centuries, Neuman de Vegvar is careful to locate that art within its broader Anglo-Saxon and European context. The material is presented largely in terms of style and stylistic development, as well as the importance of the Mediterranean world to that development. Good coverage of the earliest Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.

  • Owen-Crocker, Gale R., ed. Working with Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts. Exeter, UK: Exeter University Press, 2009.

    Aimed at graduate students and nonspecialists, this book provides an excellent introduction to all aspects of working with Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. Chapters, all written by experts in the field, cover handling manuscripts, codicology, manuscript sources for prose and poetry, Latin manuscripts, glosses, illumination, and digital matters.

  • Stevick, Robert D. The Earliest Irish and English Bookarts: Visual and Poetic Forms before A.D. 1000. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

    Using mathematical analysis of illuminated carpet pages and poetic texts, Stevick argues that the authors, designers, artists, and scribes of manuscripts used the same mathematical and geometrical patterns, shapes, and proportions.

  • Toswell, M. J. The Anglo-Saxon Psalter. Medieval Church Studies 10. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2014.

    This is a holistic study of the manuscripts rather than one devoted exclusively to illumination; however, it does include discussion and illustration of some of the most important Anglo-Saxon psalters.

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