Historiated initials

The illumination of a medieval manuscript can be divided into several categories. Miniatures make up the most important part of the decorations: first the full-page miniatures followed by half-page and column-sized miniatures. Close second in the hierarchy of illumination techniques are the historiated initials. These are enlarged letters of varying sizes at the beginning of a paragraph which are decorated with specific figures or scenes. Mary’s prayer book is full of them: the Berlin part contains 156 historiated initials and the Vienna part another 16. But which scenes are depicted? And why were some paragraphs given a historiated initial and others just an initial with a decorative pattern?

Most of the initials in Mary’s prayer book are two lines high and placed at the beginning of the collect, but there is a strong variation in the way they are presented. The initials can be roughly divided into two categories: monochrome initials with faces painted in red and blue colours and initials painted in white with colour. The two types occur throughout the book, and one of the questions that needs to be investigated is why they vary so much and whether this is because multiple artists were responsible for them.

A number of initials are posted below and we will continue to add to them. Some are funny, others touching, exquisitely beautiful or clumsily painted. But regardless of what they look like, they all contribute to the overall beauty of Mary’s prayer book.