Museum Home Past Exhibitions The Decorated Letter

November 13, 2007–January 27, 2008 at the Getty Center

Initial D / English
Initial D (detail) from a psalter, English, 1420–1430
learn_more See the full manuscript page.
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On the pages of medieval manuscripts, vines and luxuriant leaves twist together to create letter forms. Within the letters, fantastic figures of humans, animals, and mythological beasts clamber through the tangled foliage and occasionally transform into letters themselves. Other letters contain simple author portraits or serve as a frame for scenes of important events in a story. This exhibition examines these different letter types in medieval manuscripts and explores what they reveal about changes in manuscript illumination over the course of many centuries.

Exuberant foliage decoration within the initial D shown above marks the beginning of Psalm 26, which translated from Latin begins, "The Lord is my light and salvation, whom shall I fear?" The thick acanthus leaves and single bud within the initial, as well as the foliate sprays and pen scrolls in the margins, are typical of late English Gothic manuscript painting.

Initial O / Ottonian
Ornamented Initial O from a benedictional, Ottonian, about 1030–1040
learn_more See a close-up of the foliage motifs in the O.

Ornamented Letters

The earliest decorated letters served a practical purpose: to call attention to the beginning of a text or its most important passages. Eventually, artists began to focus their efforts on these initials. Luxurious and ornate foliage patterns glorified the sacred words in books used during church services and in private prayer.

For the decoration of this imposing initial O from a benedictional (book of prayers used in the Mass), the painter drew on a vocabulary of classical foliage motifs. Tendril and leaf forms derived from antique sculpture are carefully woven into an interlaced design that also recalls decorative medieval metalwork.

Monogram VD / German
Ornamented Monogram VD from a sacramentary, French, about 1000–1025
learn_more See a close-up of the joined letters V and D.

The rounded forms of V and D are joined by a cross with a blue vertical beam to form a ligature, or single unit, in this page from a sacramentary, a a book used during Church services. VD is an abbreviation for "Vere dignum et iustum est" (It is truly fitting and proper), the phrase that began many of the central prayers of the medieval mass.

A 12th-century scholar interpreted the monogram thus: "D, enclosed on all sides, signifies Divine Nature, which has neither beginning nor end; V stands for Christ's human nature, which originated in the Virgin but is without end. The hyphen in the middle, however, which links the two parts, is the Cross, signifying the tie between Mankind and God."

Initial V: The Descent of the Holy Spirit / Italian
Inhabited Initial V: The Descent of the Holy Spirit from a breviary, Italian, 1153
learn_more See a close-up of the beasts in the V.

Inhabited and Figurative Letters

Inhabited letters contain humans, animals, or fantastic beasts that climb, crawl through, or spring forth from vegetal forms. Closely related are figurative letters, in which the form of the letter itself is made up of the contorted bodies of people or creatures.

Swirling interlace designs; ensnared, writhing beasts; and bright colors give this initial V from a breviary an intense vibrancy. The initial begins the hymn sung in commemoration of the Holy Spirit's descent upon the apostles (Christ's followers). A dove descends from the rainbow arc of heaven, symbolizing the arrival of the Holy Spirit.

Initial H / French
Inhabited Initial H from the Decretals, French, about 1170–1180
learn_more See a close-up of the figures in the H.
audio Curator Elizabeth Morrison describes how this image represents the struggle of man against himself.

This combative imagery of this initial H introduces the beginning of the Decretals, a book on church law. A man and a centaur are ensnared in vines that are actually the tails of two serpentine, blue-faced beasts that gaze malevolently at their prey.

This aggressive imagery might seem to be at odds with the accompanying text on law. The figures, however, may have been intended as a subtle commentary—the text specifically describes the types of laws that govern the human race, and the image may thus suggest the struggle of man against himself.

Initial N / Spanish
Historiated Initial N: King James I of Aragon Overseeing a Court of Law from Feudal Customs of Aragon, Spanish, about 1290–1310
learn_more See a close-up of the king and lawyers in the N.

Historiated Letters

It is a small step from inhabited or figurative initials enlivened with human and animal forms to historiated letters, which contain scenes or subject matter related to the adjacent text. The contents of these letters range from simple author portraits to complex scenes inspired by a text or narrative.

This historiated initial N illustrates a section of the Feudal Customs of Aragon, a manuscript devoted to the laws of King James I of Aragon. The enthroned king, the ultimate power in the land, keeps a watchful eye over the court, while a judge hears the petitions of a group of lawyers.

Initial S / Italian
Initial S: A Monk Praying in the Water from a breviary, northeastern Italy, about 1420
learn_more See a close-up of the monk in the S and the waterbird perched against the initial.

A monk engulfed in water clings to the curve of an initial S that begins the first verse of Psalm 68, "Save me, O God: for the waters are come in even unto my soul." Once part of a manuscript used in monastic church services, this leaf's large scale and text allowed several monks to read from it at once.

The usual subject for this psalm was a picture of King David, the purported author of the Psalms, engulfed by the rising waters. In order to appeal to a monastic audience, the illuminator of this leaf substituted a Benedictine monk.