Used to add importance to historical documents, illuminated letters were generally found on the first letter of the first word or paragraph of a page. Letters were illuminated by applying a layer of gold to the intricate designs surrounding the letter. The designs ranged from animals and plants to mythical creatures and patterns featuring geometric shapes, curved and straight lines, and small circles and bands.
Some of the first known illuminated letters can be attributed to the ancient Egyptians – an ornate letter was included in The Book of the Dead, dated 1310 BC – and the art continued through the middle ages. Crafted mostly by monks in monasteries, illuminated letters were the responsibility of Illuminators, who took over after Scribes had finished adding the words to animal skin pages that Parchmenters prepared for writing. Illuminators first sketched their letters and designs, then traced them in ink and added gold leaf, finally filling in the colors with plant-based inks.
Your students can try their hands at creating Illuminated letters with our free Illuminated Letters lesson plan, including images, step-by-step instructions, and a materials list. Like the master Illuminators of the middle ages, they’ll first sketch their designs on a tile, then add embellishments, and finally fill with color (gold leaf optional). View the lesson plan, including complete directions and materials list.
For Grades 6-12, Upper AP, College.