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Historiated initial

Historiated initial

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A historiated initial is an enlarged letter
Letter (alphabet)
A letter is a grapheme in an alphabetic system of writing, such as the Greek alphabet and its descendants. Letters compose phonemes and each phoneme represents a phone in the spoken form of the language....

 at the beginning of a paragraph or other section of text, which contains a picture. Strictly speaking, an inhabited initial contains figures (human or animal) that are decorative only, without forming a subject, whereas in a historiated initial there is an identifiable figure or a specific scene. Both sorts became very common and elaborate in luxury illuminated manuscript
Illuminated manuscript
An illuminated manuscript is a manuscript in which the text is supplemented by the addition of decoration, such as decorated initials, borders and miniature illustrations...

s. These initials were first seen in the Insular art
Insular art
Insular art, also known as Hiberno-Saxon art, is the style of art produced in the post-Roman history of Ireland and Great Britain. The term derives from insula, the Latin term for "island"; in this period Britain and Ireland shared a largely common style different from that of the rest of Europe...

 of the early 8th century. The earliest known example is in the Saint Petersburg Bede, an Insular manuscript of 731-46, and the Vespasian Psalter
Vespasian Psalter
The Vespasian Psalter is an Anglo-Saxon illuminated Psalter produced in the second or third quarter of the 8th century. It contains an interlinear gloss in Old English which is the oldest extant English translation of any portion of the Bible. It was produced in southern England, perhaps in St...

 has another.

The size and decoration of the initial further gives clues to both its importance and location. Letters that began a new section of a text or a particularly noteworthy section might receive more flourishes and space. In luxury manuscripts an entire page might be devoted to a historiated initial. Both the size and the ostentatiousness of a manuscript reflect both on the status of the manuscript and on its owner. Manuscripts meant for everyday use or use by friars or university students often possessed little illumination, and hardly any elaborate historiated initials or flourishes. By contrast, manuscripts commissioned by wealthy patrons or for a wealthy monastery often possessed gold or silver illuminations, whereas simpler examples just used pen and ink.

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