Experience beautiful medieval book art with January Creator-in-Residence Hannah Charlton

Posted on December 13, 2018 at 6:00 am

By Erin Dodge

In January, we are lucky to host Creator-in-Residence Hannah Charlton at The Lab at North Spokane Library. Hannah studied art, graphic design, and history at Whitworth University and found the perfect intersection of the three areas of study in medieval manuscript illumination.

You may be wondering a bit about what an illuminated manuscript is and what goes into creating one. I sure wanted to know, so I reached out to Hannah to find out more. In the interview below, Hannah shares a bit about the history of illuminated manuscripts, along with some examples, and the processes and tools she uses to create her art work.

During her days in residence, Hannah is creating and sharing illuminated pages with library customers. You’ll also get a chance to create your own illuminated pieces in two workshops. Information about these programs and how to sign up can be found below.

Now on to the interview to learn more!


Erin Dodge: The first question I need to ask… What is an illuminated manuscript?

Hannah Charlton: An illuminated manuscript is a handwritten, hand-decorated book. It is “illuminated” in that the text is lit up with decoration. The history of this art form spans roughly from 400 CE to 1600 CE. By the late Renaissance, it was largely replaced by printed books, which are facing rivals of their own today.

This is a beautiful art form, from a historical period that I think is often misunderstood. It recalls a time when information was precious and fragile.

Erin: Would you share some details about the materials you work with? Is metal leaf included?

Hannah: Illuminated manuscripts were written on parchment, which are very thin sheets made from animal skin. I use a modern cellulose alternative, which is similarly tough, textured, and transparent.

Unfortunately I don’t use gold leaf in my work! Maybe someday. I use a gold ink that is a bit more forgiving, and I use gouache for color, which work like opaque watercolor paints.

Erin: What sorts of historical and sacred documents do you reference in your work? How old are the documents?

Hannah: I draw a lot from The Morgan Crusader Bible, which was made around 1250 CE. It was originally a book of Old Testament miniature paintings, but over hundreds of years it acquired captions in Latin, Persian, and Hebrew. The miniatures are beautifully designed and mostly feature battle scenes with horses, armor, and swords. It’s a fantastic book, and the story of how it survived, changed, and acquired its captions in three different languages is the best part.

The Codex Manesse, made in the early 1300s, has a much sweeter, friendly style. It’s a book of German poetry, so of course the images are a lot gentler. Both of these books have a graphic style, with thick outlines and clear compositions.

Erin: What is the demand from publishers today for artists to create illuminated pages for print books? Or are illuminated manuscripts solely created and bound by hand?

Hannah: Illuminated manuscripts are made by hand, and making one is a huge undertaking. There is The Saint John’s Bible, which was started in the late 1990s by a team of international artists and calligraphers and finished in 2011. Illuminated manuscripts of the entire Bible were rare even in the middle ages, due to their sheer size. It is more of an art installation than a book and definitely one worth seeing. This was also true of masterpieces like The Book of Kells that were used more as relics than as books for individuals to study.

Because of technology like digital printing and foil stamping, it’s possible to make very good copies of illuminated manuscripts so that they can reach a wider audience. Printed books of The Saint John’s Bible are very expensive, and very beautiful.

Erin: I imagine that a single illuminated manuscript page would require quite a bit of planning. Would you share a bit about your process, from idea to completion?

Hannah: I usually start with a text and an idea for a series. I do a lot of sketches on graph paper and research how certain poses, clothing folds, and expressions have historically been done.

I use Photoshop for planning the colors in larger pieces. I want to make sure the colors are balanced and that I won’t have two areas of the same color touching. At the design stage, it’s a bit more like drawing a map than a representational image.

The actual painting comes together like a puzzle, with all the sketches and colors finally meeting on the actual parchment. I always do the gold first, since it is the riskiest step, followed by each of the colors, so I can make sure the image is balanced. Any mistakes can be scratched off carefully with a razor blade.

Holding the finished piece is my favorite part, and it makes everything worth it. It always feels so rich and real, almost like something woven or embroidered instead of painted.

Erin: What advice would you give to an artist who is interested in creating illuminated manuscripts?

Hannah: Libraries, museums, and universities are putting many of their illuminated manuscripts online. You can see more of these books in greater detail than you would ever be able to see in a museum. In many ways, this is the best time in history to make illuminated manuscripts because of all the information we can get about a huge range of styles. Books from every region and language are online in extremely high definition.


Residence Days
While in residence, Hannah will be illuminating passages from The Book of the City of Ladies, a 15th-century feminist book on women in history, and working on an alphabet-based bestiary series. Each manuscript page involves layout, calligraphy, and painting. You will be able to handle and examine finished pages.

Thursday, Jan 3, 6–9pm
Saturday, Jan 5 & 19, 1–5pm
Monday, Jan 7 & 14, 6–9pm
Saturday, Jan 12 & 26, 3–6pm
Tuesday, Jan 22 & 29, 6–9pm

Illuminated Manuscripts & Bookmarks
Explore the history and making of illuminated manuscripts, the art form that decorated and preserved books before the invention of the printing press. You will get to make a bookmark using historical methods and materials. Registration is required. Adults & Teens

Saturday, Jan 12, 1:30–3pm | REGISTER ONLINE

Illuminated Manuscripts for Kids
Learn about the history of illuminated manuscripts and how to draw medieval letters and designs. You get to try it out by illuminating a short text using modern materials. Registration is required. Grades 2+

Saturday, Jan 26, 1:30–2:30pm | REGISTER ONLINE

Erin Dodge

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