The art of enluminure illuminating manuscripts dates back to the early Middle Ages and earlier, as monks from the sixth century onwards copied religious texts and later developed intricate abstract designs.
From the 12th century the wealthiest customers would pay craftsmen to ‘light up’ their most treasured texts.
This was done with elaborate initial letters, borders, marginalia and miniature illustrations, which were painted in vivid colours, often with touches of gold and silver leaf.
The word ‘manuscript’ means ‘handwritten’, and calligraphy is an important part of the illuminator’s work: before the invention of the printing press, copying out texts by hand could take years, and was a highly valued, well-paid skill.
The Institut National Métiers d’Art believes there are now 60 illuminators active in France.
These can be broadly divided into two categories. In the first are practitioners of the métier d’art rare, which has changed little since medieval times.
They mix their own pigments using earth, plants and stones, and create their works on vellum and parchment.
Masters of calligraphy, and of the complex symbolism of the Middle Ages, they know why a particular animal might be represented at a particular moment in the text, or why a person might be depicted with disproportionately large hands, or in a certain posture.
This rare art form is protected by Unesco and practitioners are few and far between, and each has years of study and training behind them.
In the second category are those, more numerous, craftspeople who have followed the evolution of the medieval craft of illumination. They will have learned their trade by making painstaking copies of medieval texts, then adapted them to the modern context. They may use fine art paper instead of parchment, and commercial paints instead of homemade colours.
They are commissioned to produce a range of modern objects: menus, degree certificates, coats of arms, family trees, greetings cards, and illustrations. Some take their knowledge of calligraphy into the internet age, and work as infographistes, designing computer fonts. Others still, work in advertising.
Illumination skills are also sought-after in the conservation and restoration of medieval texts. These days, so rare is the know-how needed to produce natural pigments that even the French National Library uses modern commercial paints to restore faded colours on manuscripts, but an encyclopaedic knowledge of medieval symbolism is still a prerequisite for this work.
France is home to the only establishment in Europe where it is possible to study for a degree in manuscript illumination. The Institut Supérieur Européen de l’Enluminure et du Manuscrit (ISEEM) is based in Angers and offers a two-year diplôme d’enlumineur to 15 students per year.
If you wish to truly master the art, however, many argue that a minimum of 10 years is needed to become fully proficient. For this you will need to find work experience or an apprenticeship in an existing workshop.
Before launching into a decade of training, however, there are numerous informal opportunities for those just wishing to try their hand.
The Atelier d’Enluminure Mesnig in Zutsendorf in Alsace, for example, offers week-long courses, lodging included, for beginners and experienced practitioners alike.
You could also start by visiting the manuscripts section of the National Library to get a sense of the depth and detail of the work involved.
It is no exaggeration to say that illuminating manuscripts is the life work of Solange Palacios-Dupont (70). Her interest was sparked at the age of six and she has been following that passion ever since.
Ms Palacios-Dupont acquired her skills the medieval way: they were transmitted to her as they had been through the generations for centuries before. Born in Biarritz, her family soon moved to Paris and there she was teased because of her accent; a problem which she remedied by ceasing to speak outside the family home.
It was her catechism teacher, Renée Napoly, herself an esteemed enlumineuse, who took the young girl under her wing and suggested she take up painting as an alternative means of self-expression.
It was soon evident that she had an affinity for the work, and she subsequently trained with Jesuit uncles, under René Bresson and at Les Gobelins in Paris.
“By the time I could call myself an enlumineuse, there were just five of us remaining in France,” Ms Palacios-Dupont said, “and I was the youngest. To be honest: there is not much call for an enlumineuse in the pure medieval tradition these days,” she laughs, “so to make your way you have to achieve a certain renown.”
In her case, this was acquired by means of her reputation as a talented painter, which gave her the name she needed to attract business in illuminating manuscripts. She is now listed by Unesco as a master of a rare métier d’art.
It is easy to see why manuscript illumination is such a rarefied, and costly, craft. Ms Palacios-Dupont makes her own pigments using know-how that traces back to the Middle Ages.
Clay is used for a yellow-ochre tint, heated for a red-ochre colour, or heated further for brown-ochre. Green comes from copper; blue from stones and plants; and arsenic can be used to make greys, yellows and reds. It is time-consuming and pigments are just the start. Vellum, from calves, and parchment, from sheep, is costly; gold and silver leaf similarly so. Then there is the labour involved: a family tree can take up to nine months if properly done, and a copy of a book up to five years.
Does Ms Palacios-Dupont have any advice for those wishing to follow in her footsteps? “First of all you need a very good culture-based general knowledge,” she says, “and then you need time. You need humility, too: you are assuming the know-how of generations of ancestors, and you have a responsibility to pass it on, so that it does not die out.”