Monday, October 29, 2012

Illuminated Manuscripts

The Secret of Kells is all about the struggle of monks of the medieval period to record texts for future generations as well as for the surrounding population.  Illuminated manuscripts are known for being stunningly detailed, brightly colored works of art.

Before beginning your lessons, you may want to check out these resources for background information.  Tegia Anglorum has information about how pages, inks and quills were prepared.  Apparently monks became quite specialized, so Medieval Life's short description includes a little information about this.  Historic Pages gives more detail about inks, pages and materials used. 

Before watching The Secret of Kells,  you'll want your kids to understand what illuminated manuscripts are.  You might start with a comic strip or graphic novel.  Share an age appropriate comic strip with your students and ask, "Could you understand this story even if you couldn't read?"  Since most of the kids will agree that the gist of what is happening is pretty clear from the pictures, you can now describe to them that during the Middle-ages, most people couldn't read, but the leaders of the church still wanted the people to understand the stories of The Bible and the rules of the church.  Monks set to work copying the words of the Bible and adding pictures to "illuminate" the stories.  Illuminated manuscripts were a lot like the world's first cartoon strips or graphic novels.

Check out The Getty website as it offers lesson plans, images and resources for teaching children about the illuminated texts.  The lesson plan ideas they offer are wonderful and we used more than one of these lessons.  You might also find the video clip about how books were made and the materials for making them were obtained enlightening and succinct.  The Getty's materials are high quality and I highly suggest these activities as great lessons to introduce illuminated manuscripts.

The British Library's Catalog will offer opportunities to view many examples of images and pages from illuminated manuscripts.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a section of its timeline in art dedicated to the art of illuminated manuscripts

If you want to learn more, this movie, Illuminations, Treasures of the Middle Ages by the BBC will offer up a description, and a little of the history about how illuminated texts became to be so important. As the movie is not designed for small children some of the vocabulary may be difficult and concepts too quick for early elementary, but most upper elementary kids and older should be able to follow along reasonably well. There is a section on a psalter that discusses the sense of humor of the times as well.  Just be sure you've previewed the video and know what is there before choosing to show it to your child or not.

Another great option to preview and possibly show is "Illuminations, The Private Lives of Medieval Kings" (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6).  Part 1 talks about why books were important to the Kings of England and My Favorite part, part 2, shows the steps in making vellum - among other things.  The entire selection goes over the history of the Early Kings of England and includes, the 100 years war, conquest of the Franks, all the way through to the Renaissance and even a shows us a Tudor Manuscript.  All along, bits of information about the creation of illuminated manuscripts is also covered.  The series discusses how the role of the illuminated manuscript in establishing the right to Kingship was further exaggerated even after the advent of the printing press.  King Henry VIII and his collection of manuscripts and then destruction of many manuscripts when Catholocism was outlawed and its manuscripts forbidden leads off the beginning of the last portion of the series.  The series ends by briefly going over the importance of the Royal Portrait and its replacement of the Illuminated Manuscript. 

For a briefer history try this video.

Watch The Secret of Kells together.  I know it is available on netflix through streaming.  The movie does a spectacular job of demonstrating the struggle of the monks against the demon vikings.  As usual, I recommend previewing any video before viewing it with your young child.  Enjoy the movie together, but pause if you need to because of questions or items you would like to discuss.

Older kids can be asked to look for all kinds of things and take notes during their viewing.  If you have art objectives about lines, Celtic design, color or pattern, simply direct your kids to look for what you are hoping they will see.  If you have objectives about themes in stories, plots etc.  Simply ask your kids to note things that are relevant to your objectives.

It is a good idea to compare the fantasy of the movie, The Secret of Kells,  with what we do know about the true story of The Book of Kells.  To do so, view this documentary (part one).  As you view, the additional parts will appear in the menu column to the write of the film screen when it is not in full screen mode).   Discuss artistic license and use the experience as an "in" for discussing the difference between creative non-fiction (also known as historical fiction) and non-fiction accounts of bits of history.  This video was put together by someone who clearly cares deeply about The Book of Kells and its history and also may prove useful in such a comparison.  Please enjoy watching it as good background information for yourself, or with your child.  For youngsters that are still not expert readers, be prepared to read the text for them.  It is the Book of Kells that is considered to be Ireland's greatest treasure and one of the best examples of an illuminated manuscript.

Include a discussion about what the manuscripts meant to the monks and why it was so important to them.  Even when they were not copying Biblical texts, they were carrying mankind's knowledge forward and felt the were glorifying God.

Finally, complete an illuminated illustration together by creating your own historiated initial.

  • Print the printable border I have included below by clicking on the photo and printing, or find another you would prefer.   This one encourages the child to use the circles to create their own spiral or circular motif inside the border as well as illustrate the page as he or she wishes.

  • Print your choice of the two alphabets included on this page (zoom in so your child's first initial is fairly large and occupies a good portion of the page.

  • Have your child "Illuminate" his or her first initial by filling it in with a golden crayon, or marker.  Cut out the letter.
  • Now, help to trace the border and grid onto a piece of vellum and then fill in the Border.  Outline the border with black crayon but leave the grid as pencil markings.  Make sure he or she uses blues and reds in jewel tones, metallic markers or crayons and touches of other deep colors that are in keeping with the images from illuminated texts you've seen in the lesson.
  • Finally, place the cut-out of your child's initial letter on the page so it overlaps the border just a bit here and there.  Use the grid (also included on the printable) to help write in the rest of the child's name using a fine tip black marker.  Then, your child might add more illustration, color and knots to fill in the background around the writing and behind his or her initial.
Ideas for Celtic Animals
Celtic Knots  - If it will work for you, this can become a link to the movie, "Secret of Kells" but you have to sign up.

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