home current offerings contact/catalog glossary of terms  newsletter

The Illuminated Manuscript Company



Glossary of Terms*


Acanthus A foliate motif much used in medieval art and derived from the depiction of  the acanthus plant.
Antiphonal Book containing the sung portions of the Divine Office. Such books are often large in format, so that they could be used by a choir.
Bifolium A sheet of writing support material (generally parchment or vellum) folded in half to produce two leaves (four pages). 
Book of Hours A book, also called a primer or horae, for use in private devotions.  Its central text, the Little Office of the Blessed  Virgin (or Hours of the Virgin), is modeled on the Divine Office and represents a shorter version of the devotions performed at the eight canonical hours: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline.
Border A border surrounds text and/or image and may occupy margins and intercolumnar space.  Some borders are in paneled from, others are composed of foliate decoration or bars, the latter often sprouting plant forms and known as foliate bar borders.  A full border surrounds an image or text on all sides, while a partial border frames only part of the leaf (usually one side).
Breviary A service book containing the texts necessary for the celebration of the Divine Office, which is the cycle of daily devotions (prayers of the canonical hours) performed by members of religious orders and the clergy.
Burnishing Enhancing the smoothness and shininess of a surface such as metallic pigment by polishing with a burnisher--a smooth, hard stone (such as agate), metal , or bone set into a handle.
Cantatorium A music book used by soloists who led the congregation in responsive singing of  the Psalms.
Flesh side
(see Hair Side)
The side of a sheet of parchment or vellum that originally faced the animal's flesh.  This is generally whiter and softer than the hair side
Gothic Script A formal text script.
Gradual The principal choir book used in the mass.
Hair side (see Flesh Side) The side of a sheet of parchment or vellum that once carried the animal's hair.  This side is generally darker  than the flesh side and may carry speckled traces of hair follicles.
Illumination Illumination, from the Latin illuminare, "to enlighten or illuminate," is the embellishment of a manuscript with luminous colors (especially gold and silver).
Initial An enlarged and decorated letter introducing an important section of a text.
Line Filler A decorative device that fills the remainder of a line not fully occupied by script.
Litany The litany is a series of invocations for deliverance and intercession usually addressed to the Trinity, the Virgin, angels, apostles, martyrs, confessors, and virgins, individually and as groups.
Manuscript The word manuscript, literally "handwritten," has come to be used to describe a book written by hand.
Miniature An independent illustration, as opposed to a scene incorporated into another element of the decorative scene such as a border or initial. 
Psalter The Book of Psalms.  Psalters were used for private devotions before the Book of Hours became popular.
Recto The front side of a leaf.
Rubric A title, chapter heading, or instruction that is not strictly part of the text but which helps to identify its components.  Red ink was often used to distinguish such elements.
Scriptorium A writing room.  The term is generally used of the place in a monastery or church where books are made.
Vellum (parchment) Instead of paper for writing and illuminating books in the Middle Ages, parchment was used, a material made from animals (sheep, goat, cow, squirrel, and possibly even cat); vellum is a type of fine parchment made from tender young calves. The term is often used generically to denote animal skin prepared to receive writing.  
Verso The back side of a leaf.
Zoomorphic Initial An initial partly or wholly composed of animal forms.


* From: Brown, Michelle. Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1994.