Grades/Level: Upper Elementary (3–5), Middle School (6–8), High School (9–12)
Subjects: Visual Arts
Time Required: Single Class Lesson
One class period
Author: J. Paul Getty Museum Education Staff


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About Illuminated Manuscripts
Brief History of Illuminated Manuscripts

Lesson Overview

The books that were created in the medieval period are the forerunners of modern printed books and have many of the same components. Use the image Initial A: Two Men before a King and a Man Speaking to a Family to learn about the different elements of a manuscript page and as a way of beginning to explore and create illuminated manuscripts with your class.

Learning Objectives

Students should be able to:
• compare a 13th-century illuminated manuscript page to other manuscript pages and modern printed books.
• learn about the different elements of an illuminated manuscript page.


• Images of Initial A: Two Men before a King and a Man Speaking to a Family and Alchandreus Presents His Work to a King
• Other pages from the Vidal Mayor

Lesson Steps

This lesson is designed as an introduction to an illuminated manuscript page and should be geared accordingly to specific grade levels.

1. Begin by comparing the page Initial A: Two Men before a King and a Man Speaking to a Family with a modern text, like a class textbook. Use the following questions to begin discussion.
• What elements do you find in both books?
• What elements do you find that are unique to the manuscript?
• Are there any elements that are unique to the modern printed text?

2. Begin by examining the illuminated image. It is a historiated initial, a letter at the beginning of a section of a text that contains an identifiable scene or figure; in this case the image relates to the text.
• Can you tell what the initial is? (This historiated initial 'A' is formed by the arching body of an elongated dragon.)
• The initial 'A' begins the Latin phrase A quel qui quiere... that continues just below the initial and flows into the rest of the text, which was written in Navarro-Aragonese.

3. Since narrative played such an important role in Gothic illumination, a figure would often be repeated to illustrate different moments from the same story.
• What is the story that is shown in this image?
In the upper section of the letter 'A,' a red-robed man first speaks with the king about the sale of some property. He then leaves with the king's judgment. In the lower level of the initial A, he approaches a couple with a small child. Because the man's request to sell the property would have disinherited the child, the request to sell property was denied.

4. Examine the text on this page.
• Do you recognize any of the words?
The most common language used in illuminated manuscripts was Latin, but in the Gothic period, with the rise in demand for more books of different types, many books were written in the vernacular (the language native to the region.) This law text is written in Navarro-Aragonese, which was commonly spoken in the area, now part of Spain.
• Why do you think some of the text is written in red ink?
The area written in red ink is known as the rubric, an explanatory heading for a text or a section of a text; in this case it introduces book 3 of the Vidal Mayor. The term rubric derives from the Latin word rubrica, a red earth pigment.

5. Look at the band of small initials that runs down the left-hand margin of the page.
• What do you think their purpose is?
These initials list chapters in book 3, which concerns legal documents and contracts. The Roman numeral III at the top of the page marks the third book of the text, and does not refer to a page number. The small gold mark at the bottom of the left column of the page marks a new paragraph.

6. Examine the colors used in the illumination of this page.
• What colors do you see used in this manuscript?
• Why do you think the range of colors used is mostly limited to red, blue, and black?
• Where do you think the artist would get the colors used to paint illuminations? (The illuminator applied paints that were made from a wide variety of coloring agents: ground minerals, organic dyes extracted from plants, and chemically produced colorants.)

The color scheme in this manuscript illumination is largely dominated by the use of blues and reds in jewel tones. The effect is similar to the stained-glass windows of Gothic cathedrals, which feature the same colors.
See an example of stained glass from this period.

7. Describe the background of the upper and lower portions of the initial 'A.' Throughout the Gothic period, figures and narratives were set off by simple backgrounds composed of abstract patterns or shimmering gold leaf. Here the artist has chosen a different pattern for each of the two halves of the narrative, reserving gold leaf for the areas surrounding the main scenes.

8. Look at the imagery on the top of the large historiated initial.
• How would you describe these creatures?
Two human-headed birds perch casually on top of the initial. These images are called marginalia (Latin for "things in the margins"). These human and animal figures, often with no relationship to the text, caper and cavort across the pages.

9. Compare this page to the manuscript page Alchandreus Presents His Work to a King, from about 1405.
• What on the two pages do you find that is similar? What about them is different?
• How would you say illuminated manuscripts changed over a 100-year period?

10. There are many different ways in which you can engage your students in further examination and creation of their own handmade books from simple lessons such as creating decorated or historiated initials using the first letter of your students? names, to writing elaborate stories and creating illuminated scenes from them. The lessons below were created by teachers participating in the Getty's Art and Language Arts program, and focus on illuminated manuscripts from the Getty Museum's collection.

Funky Illuminated Fairy Tales

Our Illuminated Alphabet

Men before King / Unknown
Initial A: Two Men before a King and A Man Speaking to a Family, from the Vidal Mayor, 1290–1310


Students will be assessed based on their participation and contribution to the discussion on the components of an illuminated page.


Investigate the source of colored pigments using minerals and plants. Collect non-toxic materials such as clay, flowers, grass or parsley, carrots, beets, saffron, etc. Have the students hypothesize what color their plant will produce. Next, have the students grind their plant material using a mortar and pestle (you could also use a blender to extract the juices) until a colored liquid has been made, or the material has been ground very finely. Then use the medium that the medieval painters would use, called glair, to bind the pigment and apply it to paper. To make glair, beat egg whites until frothy and then let the mixture rest for at least 10 minutes. The liquid that settles to the bottom is the glair. Discuss with students their hypotheses and whether or not their assumptions were correct. Have them continue to observe their color samples and see if the colors change over time. If your results are good, have them try painting with their pigments.

Standards Addressed

Visual Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools
Grade 5
3.0 Historical and Cultural Context
Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

Diversity of the Visual Arts
3.4 View selected works of art from a major culture and observe changes in materials and styles over a period of time.

Grade 6
3.0 Historical and Cultural Context
Role and Development of the Visual Arts

3.1 Research and discuss the role of the visual arts in selected periods of history, using a variety of resources (both print and electronic).

3.2 View selected works of art from a culture and describe how they have changed or not changed in theme and content over a period of time.