Reichenau, ca 1000

Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, CLM. 4453, fol. 104r

In the initial letters of the magnificent sacred manuscripts of the Middle Ages, the elemental task of book illustration found its appropriate theme: it is the artistic arrangement of the letters which ceremoniously introduce the words of the gospels. Wall-painting, panel-painting, as well as illustrations of scenes in manuscripts, stem from a different tradition. But in the initials and their ornamental lines the script image is dominant as they are literal and decorative at the same time – their size, the coloring, and the gold, serve to emphasize their symbolism.

From the beginning of the book-painting towards the art of initials, stressing the beginning of words, developed various forms. They reflect the style and the spirit of a period and they manifest the task and concern of a manuscript. An initial serves to classify a text, to emphasize an individual section. In gospel books, which contain the complete text of the four gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the first word of a gospel is usually introduced by a full-page initial. As a rule, this is combined with further letters from a few subsequent words of the gospel. After this sumptuous introduction, the following text is laid out on the next page I regular lettering. The Q page in the manuscript known as the Ebo Gospels introduces the beginning of St. Luke’s gospel: QUONIAM QUIDEM MULTI CONATI SUNT ORDINARE NARRATIONEM QUE IN NOBIS (completae sunt rerum…): Forasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative (of the things which have been accomplished) among us…