Image source – Pixabay

Ever since the dawn of intellect, the only heirloom running through humanity’s lineage has been knowledge and wisdom. From the cave paintings of Lascaux to important manuscripts and codices, like the Ambrosian Iliad, the Codex Gigas, and the ancient Book of Hours, man has left rich artifacts in various forms. While the tools, which went into their creation have undergone a lot of changes, their core essence remains the same. At the core of it all, lies the method of illustration. With the help of illumination calligraphy, many such manuscripts and artifacts have been conceived throughout the history of mankind.

Illumination Calligraphy is the art of creating intricate details of decoration, like initials, margins, and miniature illustrations. This technique was not only used in the creation of holy books, but also by government officials in many countries. During the Ottoman rule, A tughra or an Ottoman calligraphic monogram was used to seal official documents. Elaborate and more detailed versions of the turghra were used to commemorate highly valued documents and letters, which felt more like intricate pieces of art.

How to Draw Illuminated Glyphs and Letters

In the good old days, calligraphers preferred rich golden luster from the golden leaf instead of silver, as it blackened with time. Some shades were made from insects, like the color carmine was made from Dactylopius coccus (cochineal). Similarly, the color crimson is still made from an insect known to us as Kermes vermilio (Armenian cochineal). Thanks to modern technology, all the shades we need are easily available these days. While the whole rocess seems tediously sophisticated, in reality it is really not.

Here’s are the things required to draw illumination calligraphy –

  1. Paper weighing at least 135 lbs.
  2. Fine brushes
  3. Water colors
  4. Pencil
  5. Eraser
  6. Fineliner pens
  7. Gold leaf
  8. Tracing paper
  9. A tip, & Q tip

If you want to reduce the complexity of the process, you can simply use the golden shade available in the palette. But if you want to add authenticity to your design, go with the gold leaf.

Step 1:

Find out the design that works for you. Maybe the Romanesque letter D, the white vine themed letter P, or whichever you find fit for your project.

Step 2:

After finalizing the design, take the tracing paper and trace the design onto your white paper.

Step 3:

Take the fineliner pen and replace your pencil design with that of the fineliner while carefully erasing the traces of the pencil.

Step 4:

Now that the skeleton is ready, it is time for some precision. Before you start painting, make sure that the brush is wet so that the strokes are fine and precise. But see that the brush is not so wet that the color gets diluted and drips all over the paper. Once you finish filling up the first color, wait for it dry so that it does not get mixed with the adjacent color.

Step 5:

If you are using Instacoll adhesive and gold leaf, make sure that the adhesive is dry. Once you confirm its dryness, activate it by breathing on it. Then, place the shiny side of the gold leaf sheet on it and press it firmly. Slowly and carefully peel the sheet. The awe-inspiring golden luster is successfully applied to your design. It is totally okay if the gold does not stick to smaller parts. To fill them, just repeat the process again with the same consistency.

Step 6:

To add details to the design elements, make sure you have a darker and a lighter version of the color.


To add the finishing touch, outline the design for one last time with a fineliner.

Step 8:

Take a good look at your illumination calligraphy and revel for you have created an intricate and delicate piece of art, which is absolutely invaluable.

How to Preserve Illumination Calligraphy

Most of the colors and other materials, which are used to draw and paint are going to be affected by time. To make sure that its vibrancy is not dulled down by its age, you have to take into consideration many factors like photosensitivity, pollutants, and its storage. Painted surfaces are very fragile and need to be handled with extreme precision.

Usually, any manuscript with illumination calligraphy is stored in protective window mats. These mats are then stored in sturdy boxes. If the paper is made up of animal skin, maintain the ideal temperature and humidity of the room as it might cause it to expand or contract.

With time, it is possible that the color might need some restoration and fixing. Keep records of vulnerable zones so that the future caretakers know what they are dealing with. The last resort of preservation of such manuscripts is digitization. Looking how it is immune to all the physical factors, it seems like the perfect alternative. But there is a reason digitization is considered to be the last resort to preserve these manuscripts. It is because digitization simply cannot retain the ether of the physical manifestation of the culture, discoveries, and wisdom, which a tome does so perfectly.

Measures to Take while Putting up an Exhibition

The calligrapher must create a detailed report of his artwork, containing all information about the nature of paints and materials used. This is so that the curators know what precautions are to be taken while exhibiting it. Conservators also have to work in tandem with people who build frames to make sure that the frames are well sealed for transportation and are resistant to outside climate.

Conservators and curators must ensure that the facility that holds these artworks for exhibition, exposes them for a specific amount of time and not a minute more. This is to ensure that they are preserved for a longer time span. The facility should follow all the safety guidelines set forth by the curators and conservators.

History of Illumination Calligraphy

The earliest estimated origins of illuminated manuscripts created using illumination calligraphy date way back to the Ostrogoth kingdom and the Eastern Roman empire. Had it not been for the scribes and calligraphers from the good old days, most of the Greek and Roman literature would have been lost. Later on, a lot of manuscripts and codices from Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the 13th century survived the brutal years. Calligraphers and scribes were treated in high regard because of their immense skill and patience.

When the gilded illumination calligraphy spoke of religion, it was treated with utmost reverence. Back in the day, religious text written with gold meant a special homage to God. Almost all the religions have used this technique in their respective pieces of literature.

Calligraphers and scribes were dependent on their sheer skill and precision due to lack of technology. And yet history is filled with marvelous feats of their capabilities. Some the artworks, which were created in the olden times are still considered to be impossible to recreate even with all the technology and resources at our disposal.

One such example is the Codex Gigas. The literal translation of the name is “a big book”. It is the largest preserved medieval manuscript with illumination calligraphy. It has an interesting lore attached to it. According to the folklore, a 13th century monk named Herman from a Benedictine monastery in Bohemia had broken his vows and was sentenced to death. Before the sentence was carried out, he begged for mercy. The council tasked him with an impossible mission. He was ordered to collate all the worldly knowledge in a single tome in one night. Seeing how he had no alternative, he accepted it. The council granted him all the material required for the task. Without wasting any time, he started writing.

As time passed he realized the futility of his efforts and decided to put his soul on the line. It is said that he asked the Devil for his help in completing this tome in one night, and as a token of appreciation, the monk would draw his portrait in the book. The monk handed the completed book next morning and his life was spared. Although this story sounds farfetched, it is the subject of debate and deep analysis to this very day. The experts who analyzed the calligraphy of this manuscript concluded that the strokes had no variations and had the same consistency throughout. This suggested that it was written in a single seamless streak. The finesse of the illumination calligraphy is astounding. The fact is that these artworks have successfully passed the test of time. This is proof enough that there will always be a creative way to leave a legacy behind for the future generation to look up to. Although mastering illumination calligraphy seems like a Herculean task, the results are worth every ounce of effort. It is not only the reflection of the time in which it was created, but it is also a gift to humanity.