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The oldest illuminated manuscript (a written document decorated with colored or gilded pictures) is the Vatican Vergil, which dates back to the early fifth century A.D. The oldest predecessors to this style are the illustrated rolls of Egypt known as the Ramesseum Papyrus of 1980 B.C.
The Vatican Vergil is an illustrated story, representing scenes from the writings of Roman poet Virgil's (70–19 B.C.) Georgica, in which he praises country life and the virtues of nature. Later illuminated manuscripts were typically renderings of religious and sacred texts. Officials in the Eastern church (Christian church of the Eastern Roman Empire) recommended using pictures in books to help teach people about the text. The decorations were called illuminations because they were used to illuminate (make clear) the text. Since the beauty of the manuscript was meant also to represent the spiritual beauty of the text, the books became increasingly more ornate and decorative. Some are now considered artistic masterpieces for their detail and depth. The works of a family of Belgian illuminators—Pol, Herman, and Jehanequin Limbourg (c. 1409–1416)—represent the height of painted religious manuscripts.
Further Information: Diringer, David. The Illuminated Book. New York: Praeger, 1967; "Illuminated Manuscripts." Catholic Encyclopedia. [Online] Available http://www.knight.org/advent/cathen/09620a.htm, October 23, 2000; Mitchell, Sabrina. Medieval Manuscript Painting. New York: Viking Press, 1965; Robb, D. M. The Art of the Illuminated Manuscript. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Art Alliance, 1973.
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