Dishearteningly, the first question I get when I tell people about illuminating letters is some variation on “So, do you use fluorescent lights or something?”
According to trusty old Wikipedia:
Granted, Wikipedia also says
“In the strictest definition of the term, an illuminated manuscript only refers to manuscripts decorated with gold or silver”
–well excuse me–
“but in both common usage and modern scholarship, the term is now used to refer to any decorated or illustrated manuscript from the Western traditions.”
What that leaves me to explain is that an illuminated letter, therefore, is just that first letter that usually takes pride of place in a manuscript, the initial capital.
Initial capital from the Malmesbury Bible
Granted, the fluorescence and neon crowd might not be too far off.
Aside from the multifarious joys of color, texture, process, and design that illumination offers me, I love it for how much it is a symbol of the illuminated mind and society. I am an unabashed lover of all things cultural and bookish. My favorite historical figures–discounting those involved in the Defenestration of Prague–are inevitably those who encouraged or promoted education, literature, science, and the arts. Francois le 1er comes to mind, for example. What better way to celebrate how education illuminates a civilization than to celebrate the building blocks of language? Even better, to celebrate in a way that combines language and the visual arts, and more, if possible.
Which brings us to…
A is for Anatomy
I’ve produced any number of illuminated letters as gifts before, but it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I finally summoned up the genius/chutzpah/naivete to try to sell some of my work. This is my first major piece, and I feel it does a rather good job of combining not only language and art, but also science and humanistic enlightenment. The figure draped on the A is drawn directly from one of Vesalius’s anatomical drawings, pieces I’ve always admired for the way they elevate medical science to a wall-worthy piece of art. At the same time, there’s a kind of strange, affectionate ignorance at play–parts of the anatomy out of proportion, muscle structures that don’t actually exist–which I feel emphasizes our constant march forward into knowledge.