This year, we’re studying the Middle Ages with our Homeschool Co-op, and I was tasked with creating an art project for our group. Because there aren’t any named artists until the very end of the Middle Ages (think, Cimabue and Giotto), I realized that instead of focusing on an artist, we could learn about a technique–the Illuminated Manuscript!
The illuminated manuscript ended up being an ideal project for our co-op. It’s easily adjustable for small or large groups, with more or less complexity depending on how much time you have for prep work. Also, this topic gave us an opportunity to talk about a wide range of manuscripts (religious, historical, etc.) and even the funny monks who wrote comments in the margins, like “I am very cold” or “Oh, my hand”.
Here are the simple steps you can follow to create Illuminated Manuscripts with your crew!
- Black tea bags
- Wax paper
- Art books from the library
- Metallic markers
- Bonus: Marguerite Makes a Book by Bruce Robertson
Step 1: Age your Cardstock with Tea
To replicate the look of vellum or parchment, I stained the plain white cardstock with tea. There are a few ways to do this but because I needed to prep for 36 children, I opted for the simplest approach.
I boiled a cup of water and added 4 black tea bags and let it steep. Then I used a paintbrush from my kids’ stash of art supplies and brushed on the tea. If you have the time, you could do this several times to build up the washes for a more layered and aged look. And could even get the kids in on this process!
Then I stacked the wet cardstock between wax paper (parchment paper would work too) since I didn’t have a large surface on which to dry 36 pieces of paper. A fun bonus was that the wax paper pressed against the wet surface created interesting effects as the tea dried.
Pro tip: After the cardstock dries most of the way, stack heavy books on top of the pages to keep the paper from curling and warping too much as it finishes drying.
Step 2: Add a border to your Manuscript Pages
Once the cardstock was fully dry, I broke out my ruler and pencil and drew a one-inch border around each piece of paper. Why? Many illuminated manuscript pages have gorgeously intricate borders. At our co-op, I was only going to have 40 minutes for this project with kids ranging from 4 to 14. So I knew I didn’t want to waste time with ruler work.
So I drew the border in pencil to speed things along and to ensure that each child could get started on their border design quickly.
Step 3: Gather Sample Materials
I requested a bunch of art books on illuminated manuscripts from our library to show the kids. If you’re with a group and have access to a computer and a projector, there are lots of gorgeous examples of illuminated manuscripts online. I didn’t have access so I passed around the books to give them a sense of the artwork.
Here are some of the books I found at the library. I’m sure there are many other excellent tiles available if you can’t find these.
- Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel
- The Grand Medieval Bestiary by Christian Heck
- The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World by Scot McKendrick
- The Illuminated Page: Ten Centuries of Manuscript Painting in The British Library by Janet Backhouse
You can also find a fully interactive version of the Book of Kells online. Every single page is preserved with high-quality digital images and helpful footnotes!
Step 4: Read Marguerite Makes a Book
If you have time, read this beautiful picture book. The whole process of constructing a book and creating the painting materials is a part of the story (and even includes lovely border designs on many of the pages). Our co-op read this before our art project, but you could easily read it with your kids or to your group the day of if time permits.
Step 5: Help Kids Create Their Page
Once the kids sat down to make their own illuminated manuscript, I encouraged them to personalize their page which would consist of a border and their name in the center.
We followed these steps:
- Decide on a theme
- Carefully draw/write your name
- Make the first letter of your name BIG
- Add embellishments to your name
- Add embellishments to the border
- Color as desired
- Add gold and silver touches
We brainstormed lots of potential themes, including:
- Nature (plants, sky, water, animals, snakes, flowers/vines, constellations, planets)
- Fanciful (dragons, fairies, mythical beasts)
- Favorite Things
I encouraged them to sketch out their designs in pencil first. Then they came back in with colored pencils and metallic markers. I knew we wouldn’t have time for paints but I wanted them to have a sense of the “illuminated” part of this artform. So I bought a big set of both gold and silver markers and pointed out that because these metals were so rare and expensive, only the tiniest accents were usually added to the pages. (Because of course, most kids wanted to use exclusively the metallic markers because…why wouldn’t they??)
Step 6: Enjoy your Finished Illuminated Manuscript
Some of the kids really got into this project and even created new ones at home. Each manuscript was unique (just like the original artform), and it was fun watching them create their own masterpieces (without the mess of paints)!
- When tea staining the cardstock, dampen the paper and then crumple it up and soak it in the tea water for 5 minutes. Then gently wring out the tea and lay it out flat to dry. This works well as the base for a weathered map too!
- Use baking parchment paper instead for an instant aged look and feel. You can affordably buy a roll of natural (vs. white) parchment paper if you need a quick and easy option!
- Ask kids to illuminate just the first letter of their name. You could provide letters for tracing or let them create their own. A big intricate letter can have quite the visual impact! Here’s an example project.
Have your kids created their own illuminated manuscript? If so, share in the comments below!