Before the invention of the printing press, books were handwritten, one copy at a time. Most of those books were plain and unadorned, but sometimes the copyists employed beautiful calligraphy. When brilliantly-colored initial letters, miniature pictures, elaborate designs, and gold and silver were added to those texts, those books became works of art. Today they are called illuminated manuscripts.
Albertsons Library at Boise State University holds an original leaf from an illuminated manuscript book believed to date back to late 15th-century France. The printing press had already been invented, but the art of the handwritten book had not vanished. The book from which this leaf came was known as a book of hours, a devotional book of psalms and prayers. Its owner was probably quite wealthy, as only the rich could commission a book of such artistry. The text is in Latin. The size of the parchment leaf is 6.75 by 5 inches (17 x 12.5 cm).
This manuscript was the gift of the estate of the late Ruth McBirney, head librarian at Boise Junior College and Boise State University from the 1950s through the 1970s. In a letter recounting her acquisition of the leaf in 1955, Miss McBirney lamented the loss of the book from which it came, but expressed satisfaction that at least a portion of it survived.
Among the features of this manuscript worth noting is the application of gold to a number of the words. The miniature on the verso of the leaf depicts the stoning of St. Stephen in A.D. 36, even though the saint and his antagonist look more like medieval characters than men of the first century.
This illuminated manuscript leaf constitutes MSS 112 in Special Collections in the Boise State University Library. Special Collections also holds a beautifully-crafted reproduction of A Book of Hours for Engelbert of Nassau, bound similarly to the original, made by the Bodleian Library at Oxford University in 1970. Other reproductions of books of hours in Albertsons Library can be found by doing a subject search in the library's catalog for "books of hours."
These two-dimensional digital images cannot convey the luster of the
leaf's gold, which is thick and brilliant enough to give the
illuminated letters a three-dimensional quality.