Book arts. Part 1

I’m a sucker for hand-illustrated books, whether they are published books or sketchbooks and art journals. I spend a good amount of time combing Pinterest and YouTube for photos and flip-through’s, or enjoying my modest collection of illustrated and decorated books. I get most excited when I see a unique compositions and illustration styles, or unexpected content, but I am also fond of the oldest handwritten/hand-drawn works.

Before the codex (bound book) writers and artists recorded their work on a number of materials, including stone, ceramic or wax tablets; on bark, cloth or leather, and scrolls made of parchment or papyrus. Early Chinese writers used bone and shell, bamboo strips and eventually rice paper. In India, early script was recorded on pillars and walls, copper plates and tablets. In the Americas, early works were inscribed on objects, monuments and bark, such as the Pre-Columbian folding books created by the Mayans. Sadly, few of these survive today, but they comprise some of the most stunning creative works (see the image of the Dresden Codex in the slide panel).

Following is a very small sample of some of the earliest forms of written and illustrated material.

The Codex

The oldest known multi-page book is thought to be the Golden Orphism Book, which consists of six 24 carat gold pages, bound together with gold rings (see image in slide panel). The gold sheets contain illustrations and writing in Etruscan and dates to around 660 BCE.

It wasn’t until many hundreds of years later that the codex, as we know it today, replaced scrolls and tablets, at least in Europe. Most early codices were handwritten religious texts, although rare examples of non-religious scholastic texts exist, such as the exquisite 6th century Vienna Dioscurides (see example page below). Illuminated manuscripts developed from these early texts and would become the first illustrated codices. The bound manuscripts contained ornamented borders and lettering, as well as elegant illustrations.

Prior to the invention of the printing press in the early 15th century all books were written and illustrated by hand and thus, not widely distributed. Not only were they time-consuming to produce, requiring significant skill and resources, they were large and often very heavy. Owning one was considered a privilege. The invention of the printing press meant texts could be mass-produced, with woodcut illustrations, and later, illustrations produced on metal plates. By the end of the 15th century books were smaller, more portable and produced in greater numbers across most of Europe.

Early codices were not produced for the single purpose of generating pretty illustrations or conveying vast amounts of text; they were engaging communities, and in the case of religious texts, enhanced religious devotion. More than this, though, the considerable time and resources devoted to producing such works, and the way in which they were protected and preserved (or in some cases destroyed), is itself an homage to their creators.

Handmade creativity

Today, the books are a source of wonder and a popular topic for writer’s and artist’s alike, not to mention bibliophiles (of which I am one). As an artist and an observer I am mindful of my own reactions to early illustrated volumes. While they do not hold spiritual significance for me personally, I am not ignorant of the the sacred nature of the works. I think handmade creativity, especially illustration, for a lot of people, is a sacred act, or at least meditative. It’s part of the reason we can’t stop doing it, or stop looking at it. We want more because we are moved by handmade creativity, and we are moved because we’re predisposed to be. The desire to illustrate our thoughts is as old as art itself. It is a shared habit and is what keeps creative folk scribbling in their sketchbooks and art journals. It moves us toward creating our own illuminations.

Part 2

Image attributions

  1. The Kish Tablet, José-Manuel Benito Public Domain
  2. Book of the Dead: A sheet from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, circa 1075-945 BCE, Image: Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund,,_ca._1075-945_B.C.E.,_37.1699E.jpg
  3. Golden Orphism Book, Ivorrusev CC BY-SA 4.0
  4. Soghaura inscription, Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1865
  5. The Dresden Codex – Public Domain
  6. The Vienna Genesis, Public Domain
  7. Vienna Dioscurides,
  8. The Codex Amiatinus, Public Domain.
  9. The Barberini Gospels,

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