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The Buddha (c. 563c. 483 b.c.e.) had spent one week in samadhi, a state of deep awareness when, on the morning of December 8, 528 b.c.e., he looked up at Venus, the morning star, beheld its brilliance, and exclaimed in a state of enlightenment, "That's it! That's me! That's me that's shining so brilliantly!"

Rinzai Zen master Shodo Harada Roshi (1940 ) writes, in Morning Dewdrops of the Mind: Teachings of a Contemporary Zen Master (1993), that Buddha, in the rebirth of his consciousness, looked around and saw how wondrous it was that all beings were shining with the brilliance of the morning star. From such a deep illumination of the mind of Buddha, all of Buddha's wisdom was born and all of Zen was held within the deep impression of Buddha's mind at that moment. Therefore, each year as the eighth of December approaches, Zen monks anticipate the rohatsu sesshin (intensive meditation retreat) and vow to experience the brilliance of such a deep realization.

In An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1934), D. T. Suzuki (18701966) describes satori, the state of illumination attained by reaching a higher level of consciousness, as the state that the masters of Zen call the mind of Buddha, the knowledge whereby humans experience enlightenment or Prajna, the highest wisdom. "It is the godly light, the inner heaven, the key of all the treasures of the mind, the focal point of thought and consciousness, the source of power and might, the seat of goodness, of justice, of sympathy, of the measure of all things," Suzuki states. "When this inmost knowledge is fully awakened, we are able to understand that each of us is identical in spirit, in being, and in nature with universal life."

The Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita's instruction on how best to practice Yoga ends with the promise that "when the mind of the Yogi is in harmony and finds rest in the Spirit within, all restless desires gone, then he is a Yukta, one in God. Then his soul is a lamp whose light is steady, for it burns in a shelter where no winds come."

In the chapter on "Basic Mystical Experience" in his Watcher on the Hills (1959), Dr. Raynor C. Johnson (19011987) places "the appearance of light" at the top of his list of illumination characteristics:

  1. The Appearance of light. This observation is uniformly made, and may be regarded as a criterion of the contact of soul and Spirit.
  2. Ecstasy, love, bliss. Directly or by implication, almost all the accounts [of mystical experience] refer to the supreme emotional tones of the experience.
  3. The Approach to one-ness. In the union of soul with Spirit, the former acquires a sense of unity with all things.

Johnson lists other aspects of the illumination as profound insights given to the recipient of the experience; a positive effect on the person's health and vitality; a sense that time has been obscured or altered; and a positive effect on the individual's lifestyle. Johnson quotes a recipient of the illumination experience who said, "Its significance for me has been incalculable and has helped me through sorrows and stresses."

In her autobiographical work Don't Fall Off the Mountain (1970), actress/author Shirley MacLaine (1934 ) tells of the night that she lay shivering in a Bhutanese hut in the Paro Valley of the Himalayas, wondering how she might overcome the terrible cold. Suddenly she remembered the words of a Yoga instructor in Calcutta who had told her that there was a center in her mind that was her nucleus, the center of her universe. Once she would find this nucleus, neither pain, fear, nor sorrow, could touch her. He had instructed her that it would look like a tiny sun. "The sun is the center of every solar system and the reason for all life on all planets in all universes," he had said. "So it is with yours."

With her teeth chattering, she closed her eyes and searched for the center of her mind. Then the cold room and the wind outside began to leave her conscious mind. Slowly in the center of her mind's eye a tiny, round, orange ball appeared. She stared and stared at it. Then she felt as though she had become the little orange ball. Heat began to spread down through her neck and arms and finally stopped in her stomach. She felt drops of perspiration on her midriff and forehead.

MacLaine writes that the light grew brighter and brighter until she finally sat up on her cot with a start and opened her eyes, fully expecting to find that someone had turned on a light. "I lay back," she said. "I felt as though I was glowing. The instructor was right; hidden beneath the surface there was something greater than my outer self."

Parapsychologist Dr. W. G. Roll has commented that "It is true that this light phenomenon does occur. Some people believe it's a sort of quasi-physical light. When we get into these areas, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the physical and the spiritual worlds. What we call the spiritual, the physical, and the mental, are probably all the same thing."

Dr. Walter Houston Clark speaks of the phenomenon of the blinding light of illumination in connection with those who have undergone revelatory experiences as "a kind of symbol of the new and freeing insight into the nature of the subject's existence. However, I am inclined to think that the profundity and excitement of the experience causes some kind of nervous activity that produces the light. Of course, in some sense, this may have a cosmic origin."

Writing in Psychiatry (Vol. 29, 1966), Dr. Arthur J. Deikman refers to the mystical perceptions of encompassing light in terms of his hypothesis of a "sensory translation," which he defines as "the perception of psychic action (conflict, repression, problem solving, attentiveness, and so forth) via the relatively unstructured sensations of light, color, movement, force, sound, smell or taste. 'Sensory translation' refers to the experience of nonverbal, simple, concrete perceptual equivalents of psychic action." In Deikman's theory, "light" may be more than a metaphor for mystical experience: "Illumination may be derived from an actual sensory experience occurring when, in the cognitive act of unification, a liberation of energy takes place, or when a resolution of unconscious conflict occurs, permitting the experience of 'peace,' 'presence,' and the like. Liberated energy experienced as light may be the core sensory experience of mysticism."

According to research conducted at the University of Wales, Christians, Jews, and Muslims have similar experiences in which they describe an intense light and a sense of encompassing love. The research-in-progress, funded by the Sir Alister Hardy Trust, has collected 6,000 accounts of religious experiences from people of all ages and backgrounds. About 1,000 of these describe a light which enters the room, and others tell of being enveloped or filled with light. Most people are alone when they have such an experience, but the researchers have collected accounts of a number of individuals witnessing the same light.

Sir Alister Hardy (18961985) formed the Religious Experience Research Unit, Manchester College, Oxford, in 1969 and began the program by studying a more general kind of spiritual awarenessthe feeling of being in touch with some "transcendental power, whether called God or not, which leads to a better life." Although the researchers stressed their interest in collecting these kinds of reports, they immediately received an almost equal number "of the more ecstatic mystical type," which included experiences with the light phenomenon that accompanied illumination.

In his book The Divine Flame (1966) Hardy suggested that science should "entertain the possibility that the rapture of spiritual experiencemaybe a part of natural historyand that perhaps it may have only developed as religion when man's speech enabled him to compare and discuss this strange feeling of what [Rudolf] Otto called the numinous[and] what I am calling a divine flame as an integral part of the creative evolutionary process which man, with his greater perceptive faculties, is now becoming aware."

Hardy concedes that science can no more be concerned with the "inner essence" of religion than it can be with the nature of art or the poetry of human love. But he does maintain that "an organized scientific knowledge indeed one closely related to psychology dealing with the records of man's religious experienceneed not destroy the elements of religion which are most precious to manany more than our biological knowledge of sex need diminish the passion and beauty of human love."

With the advent of the twenty-first century, many scientists are involved in research projects dealing with religious, spiritual, and mystical experiences. Varieties of Anomalous Experiences (2000), edited by Etzel Cardena, of the University of Texas Pan American in Edinburg, Steven J. Lynn, of the State University of New York at Binghamton, and Stanley Krippner, of the Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco, examines the scientific evidence for altered states of consciousness associated with mystical experiences and other so-called anomalous events. According to Science News (February 17, 2001), the three psychologists "see no reason to assume that supernatural worldsexist outside of the minds of people who report them. Instead [they] want to launch a science to study the characteristics of human consciousness that make mystical experiences possible. Their focus on a spectrum of consciousness defies the mainstream notion that there's a single type of awareness."

David M. Wulff, a psychologist at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, has said that mystical experiences occur on a continuum: "Even if they are not religiously inspired, they can be striking, such as the transcendent feelings musicians sometimes get while they perform. I have colleagues who say they've had mystical experiences, although they have various ways to explain them."

Other scientists pursuing the study of mystical experiences suggest that the transcendent feelings noted by musicians, actors, and artists; the claims of two-thirds of American adults who claim to have been in touch with a force or spirit outside of themselves; and even the illumination of Buddha or the heavenly voices heard by Moses (14th13th century b.c.e.), Muhammed (c. 570c.e.632c.e.), and Jesus (c. 6 b.c.e.c. 30 c.e.) were nothing more than the decreased activity of the brain's parietal lobe, which helps regulate the sense of self and physical orientation. And what of the feelings of unconditional love and overwhelming compassion for all living things that come over so many of those who claim illumination? These scientists argue that perhaps prayer, meditation, chanting, or some other religious or spiritual practice could have activated the temporal lobe, which imbues certain experiences with personal significance.

Other scientists testing the boundaries of the human psyche and the wonders of illumination are more open to the reality of the individual mystical experience. While researchers like Matthew Alper, author of The "God" Part of the Brain (1998), argue that human brains are hardwired for God and religious experiences, others, such as Daniel Batson, a University of Kansas psychologist, respond that the "brain is the hardware through which religion is experienced."

Duke psychiatrist Roy Mathew told the Washington Post (June 18, 2001) that too many of the contemporary neuroscientists and neurotheologians are "taking the viewpoints of the physicists of the last century that everything is matter. I am open to the possibility that there is more to this than what meets the eye. I don't believe in the omnipotence of science or that we have a foolproof explanation."

Delving Deeper

Bach, Marcus. The Inner Ecstasy. New York, Cleveland: World Publishing, 1969.

James, William. Varieties of Religious Experience. Garden City, N.Y.: Masterworks Program, 1902.

Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy. New York: Galaxy Books, 1958.

Suzuki, D. T. Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist. New York: Perennial, 1971.

Tart, Charles T. Altered States of Consciousness. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1969.

Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. New York: Dutton, 1961.


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The idea of a divine "illumination" in the mind occurs in both philosophical and religious contexts. Often it forms one of the links between the two types of thought, and sometimes it bears distinctly religious overtones even in its more philosophical applications. This is one of the characteristic features of the theory of illumination in the thought of Plato, where it played, for the first time in its long history, a major part. Plato, like many other thinkers, creative artists, prophets, and mystics, spoke readily of the sudden flash of understanding or insight in the mind as a flood of light (see, for example, his Seventh Letter, 341c, 344b). The image is, indeed, one that occurs naturally in many languages and is especially apt for the description of insight thought to have been achieved as a result of external aid of some kind, of an "inspiration." The language of inspiration is based on the entry of breath, and that of illumination on the entry of light into the mind. The Stoic tradition can be said to have developed the former analogy in its metaphysics; Plato was undoubtedly the father of the philosophical tradition to which the analogy of light is fundamental.

In his Republic, Plato employed the analogy of light and vision to describe the process of understanding or of knowledge in general (Books VVIII). The mind's knowledge of the world of intelligible reality, of the forms or ideas, was held to be analogous to the awareness of material objects accessible to the eye's vision when illuminated by the light of the sun. Plato developed a detailed correspondence between physical and intellectual sight (Republic 507f.), according to which the mind corresponds to the eye and the form to the physical object seen; an "intellectual light" emanating from the supreme form, the Good, and pervasive of the whole intelligible world as well as the mind, corresponds to the sun. Understanding, in terms of this analogy, depends on the intellectual illumination of the mind and its objects, just as vision depends on a physical illumination of the eye and its objects.

A theory of this type, in one or another of many variant forms, became an essential part of a vast body of thought cast in Platonic molds. During the Hellenistic and Roman periods it was widely diffused and incorporated into Jewish and Christian thought. In the Hellenized Judaic milieu of Alexandria the divine wisdom was sometimes spoken of in terms of light, for instance, by the author of the book of Wisdom, who referred to it as "an effulgence of eternal light," which he interpreted as an image of God's goodness (7, 26). Thoughts of this kind found a place in the work of Philo and in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel. Middle-Platonist thinkers, such as Albinus, took the stepperhaps already hinted at by Plato in some passagesof placing the forms within a divine mind and, in effect, identifying the "intelligible world" with the mind of God. In this way a long and rich future was prepared for the theory of illumination within the body of Christian thought.

In Christian thought it is in the work of St. Augustine of Hippo that the theory of illumination is found in its most highly developed form. Like Plato, Augustine thought of understanding as analogous to seeing. Understanding, or intellectual sight, was therefore, he held, conditional on illumination, just as physical sight was; only here the light was the intelligible light that emanated from the divine mind and in illuminating the human mind endowed it with understanding. Understanding, in the last resort, was an inward participation of the human mind in the divine. The scope of illumination was further extended, at the cost of precision, in the work of the pseudo-Dionysius. His favorite designation for God, the absolutely transcendent One, was in terms of light. God is the intelligible light beyond all light and the inexhaustibly rich source of brightness that extends to all intelligence. His illuminating activity gathers and reunites all that it touches; it perfects creatures endowed with reason and understanding by uniting them with the one all-pervading light (De Divinus Nominibus, IV, 6). In true Neoplatonic fashion, the pseudo-Dionysius conceived of the cosmos as a hierarchically ordered system, descending in order of reality and value from its source, the One. Illumination, in general terms, is the means by which intellectual creatures ascend and return to unity, and the "hierarchy" (understood as extending through both the cosmos and the church) is defined as the divine arrangement whereby all things, participating in their measure in the divine light, are brought back to as close a union with the source of this light as is possible for them (De Coelestia Hierarchia, III, 1). In a more special sense, illumination is the second of three phasesnamely purification, illumination, and perfectionof man's return to the One. In this more specialized sense the church's sacramental system and the grades in the ecclesiastical hierarchy concerned with its administration are agencies of divine illumination. Illumination is the intermediate stage of approach to God, between initial purification and final perfection (De Ecclesiastica Hierarchia, V, 1, 3). In the most restricted sacramental contexts "illumination" thus becomes synonymous, in accordance with an old Christian usage, with "baptism." In the work of the pseudo-Dionysius the theory of illumination was merged with an inclusive conception of the spiritual life formulated in the language of light and illumination.

The reputation enjoyed by Augustine and by the writings of the pseudo-Dionysius in the Middle Ages assured their views a long future. In the thirteenth century the rise of Christian Aristotelianism provided the first serious alternative theory of knowledge. In this there was no place for the intervention of a divine illumination as an essential constituent of knowledge. Knowledge was accounted for entirely in terms of mental activity and its objects, and no reference to God was necessary to explain it. Nevertheless, the lumen intellectuale of the mind was held to be a participation in the lumen divinum of the divine mind, since God was present everywhere, in the mind no less than in other things. In this way Christian Aristotelians, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, were able to endorse some characteristically Augustinian statements in spite of the fact that their theories of knowledge were built on a radically different structure. The Augustinian version of the theory of illumination continued to have a vogue among some thinkers of the thirteenth century, such as St. Bonaventure, and even later. It found echoes in the thought of some modern philosophers, such as Nicolas Malebranche. Increasingly, however, in the later Middle Ages and after, the language of illumination, especially as elaborated by the pseudo-Dionysius, became the special property of mystical writers and writers on the spiritual life.

See also Alcinous; Augustine, St.; Bonaventure, St.; Malebranche, Nicolas; Plato; Pseudo-Dionysius; Thomas Aquinas, St.


Allers, R. "St. Augustine's Doctrine on Illumination." Franciscan Studies 12 (1952): 2746.

Geach, P. Mental Acts. London: Routledge and Paul, 1957. Section 11 and the appendix include corrections of the standard account of Thomas Aquinas's theory of concept formation.

Gersh, Stephen. From Iamblichus to Erigena: An Investigation of the Prehistory and Evolution of the Pseudo-Dionysian Tradition. Leiden: Brill, 1978.

Jolivet, R. Dieu soleil des esprits. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1934. A study of the theory of illumination.

Markus, R. A. "St. Augustine on Signs." Phronesis 2 (1957): 6083. Includes a discussion of illumination in Augustine's theory of knowledge.

Marrone, Steven. The Light of Thy Countenance: Science and Knowledge of God in the Thirteenth Century. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

Pasnau, Robert. "Henry of Ghent and the Twilight of Divine Illumination." Review of Metaphysics 49 (1995): 4975.

Pasnau, Robert. Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature: A Philosophical Study of Summa Theologiae 1a 7589. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

R. A. Markus (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)


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Literally, the action of illuminating or the condition of being illuminated; in philosophy and theology, a special divine influence aiding man in obtaining certain, necessary, and universal knowledge. The latter notion is discussed here in its sources, in Augustinian thought, and in some later applications.

Sources. In ancient and medieval thought, light was considered ontologically as both a physical and a spiritual substance. On this basis a metaphysics of light developed; its offspring was a noetics of light called the theory of illumination. The premises for such a theory were found in the monistic system of emanation of plotinus, who taught that the world soul emanates from the One via the Nous. This world soul sends its rays and mirrors itself in bodies as the fourth hypostasis. Such illumination is a two-way process, however, for the rays reflected from the bodies return to the soul, to the Nous, to the One in a mystic ascent, and to a final reunion in which being and cognition are identical.

Plotinus's teaching was transmitted to the later Middle Ages through neoplatonism. The Arabs generally adopted the theory, but brought into it Aristotelian notions. In this amalgam the intellectus agens of Aristotle was no longer an individual human possession, but one for the entire human species, identified with the tenth Cosmic Intelligence.

Augustine's Theory. St. augustine utilized the doctrine of divine light in St. John's gospel to develop a theory of knowledge. Convinced of man's personal nature, Augustine was safe from Plotinus's monopsychism of the fourth hypostasis; human knowledge, for him, does not originate in an identity of man with the intelligible world, but rather in an encounter with this world without loss of personal uniqueness.

Augustine's theory of knowledge distinguishes an object, a subject, and a medium of knowledge. These three components are proportioned to, and cooperate with, one another in the noetic process. The objects are the material and immaterial things known. The knowledge of sensible things, as well as the knowledge of spiritual objects, can be obtained only under the influence of divine illumination. The senses draw the soul's attention to what is happening outside the soul, and their reports are judged in the divine light by the intellect. The true objects of knowledge are the eternal reasons, which rank higher than the created intellect, being contained in the divine intelligence. They constitute the intelligible world of truths hierarchically ordered to, and culminating in, eternal truth. By participation in these rationes aeternae a thing is what it is. Therefore, the human intellect can find these reasons in all things. It depends on these truths for its judgment and certainty.

The subject in this process of knowledge is the knowing intellect, man's soul. The soul is not the very nature of truth. Although "all men are lamps" (In Ioann. 23.3), they remain in darkness unless they are illuminated by the true Light. And while man, by virtue of his intellectual nature, corresponds to the intelligible truths in the divine light, the whole man (intellect and will) is required in knowing by divine illumination. The medium through which object and subject unite in knowledge is the divine light. God alone is the true light. It is He who enlightens and makes intelligible.

Later Developments. In the 13th century, because of contact with Arabian theories of knowledge and with translations of Aristotle's works (especially William of Moerbeke's), Augustine's theory of illuminationuntil then the only theory of knowledge for Christian thinkers was gradually supplanted by the theory of abstrac tion. St. bonaventure, however, while using the Aristotelian theory to explain sense knowledge, invoked divine illuminationi.e., direct action of the eternal reasons upon the intellectas necessary for making infallible judgments.

St. thomas aquinas replaced divine illumination by the agent intellect, a power created and given by God to man for the purpose of knowing and judging. Thus, for him, the illuminating factor is given in man's nature. In a "conversion to the phantasm" the agent intellect makes the noetic object appear in the human consciousness. But that which is seen (illuminated) is not the thing as such (a form in matter) but a form abstracted from matter, the universal abstracted from the particular, the intelligible species abstracted from the phantasm. "Therefore, we must say that our intellect understands material things by abstracting from the phantasms; and through material things thus considered we acquire some knowledge of immaterial things" (Summa theologiae 1a, 85.1).

A return to the illumination theory occurred in the 17th century with Nicolas malebranche. He says in his answer to the first objection to the tenth of his Éclaircissements sur les six livres de la Recherche de la Verité (Paris 1678, 3:124): "Naturally, the mind is capable of movement in its ideas. But it does not move itself, it does not enlighten itself; it is God who effects everything (qui fait tout ) in the minds as well as in the bodies." This ontological premise led Malebranche directly to oc casionalism, which holds that God establishes occasional causes in order to produce definite effectssuch as the individual man's recognizing and knowing the here-and-now presented object.

A 20th-century controversy arose over interpretations of St. Augustine's illumination theory, with various scholars favoring the ontologistic, the historical, the concordant, and the existential schools respectively. Although many issues of Augustinian epistemology were thus clarified, there remained a shadow of opaqueness, for Augustine himself never completely elucidated the function of the divine light in the noetic realm.

See Also: illuminism; knowledge, theories of

Bibliography: f. c. copleston, History of Philosophy (Westminster, Md. 1946) v. 2, 4. s. vanni-rovighi, Enciclopedia filosofica 2:123741. j. auer, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d new ed. Freiburg 195765) 5:624625. É. h. gilson and t. d. langan, Modern Philosophy: Descartes to Kant (New York 1963). a. a. maurer, Medieval Philosophy (New York 1962). k. rahner, Geist in Welt (2d ed. Munich 1957). j. ratzinger, "Licht und Erleuchtung: Erwägungen zur Stellung und Entwicklung des Themas in der abendländischen Geistesgeschichte," Studium generale 13 (1960) 368378. c. e. schÜtzinger, The German Controversy on St. Augustine's Illumination Theory (New York 1960).

[c. e. schÜtzinger]


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The art of illumination—embellishing pages of manuscripts with hand-painted decorations and illustrations—arose during the Middle Ages. Illuminated books often featured large elaborate capital letters at the beginning of each section and colorful illustrations in the margins. Artists of the Renaissance built on medieval* traditions of illumination and also created new styles. Various cities in Italy and other parts of Europe developed their own distinct styles of illumination.

New Developments and Old Traditions. One of the main changes that occurred in the Renaissance involved a new style of script. In the early 1400s scholars in Florence, including Poggio Bracciolini and Coluccio Salutati, developed a form of writing consisting of both capital and lowercase letters. The new script spread quickly among humanist* scholars. One of its distinctive characteristics was an initial capital letter known as white vine, which featured vines twining through and around the letter against a colored background.

At the same time, illumination artists remained faithful to many of the traditions of the Middle Ages. They worked mostly on Bibles and other religious texts. They followed medieval examples in their choice of subject, placement of illustrations, and decorative style. For example, they continued to show an image of Christ on the cross on missals (books with the text of the Roman Catholic Mass) and to use popular decorative elements of the Middle Ages, such as leaves, flowers, and fruit.

Throughout the Middle Ages, religious institutions such as monasteries had played a major role in manuscript production. This continued during the Renaissance, and many scribes* and some illuminators were members of the clergy. However, in many cities a network of people outside the church became involved in producing manuscripts and books. These included entrepreneurs who paid for the materials, commissioned the work, and sold the finished products, as well as the scribes, illuminators, and binders who worked on the manuscripts. Well-to-do nobles and merchants provided a growing market for these manuscripts as they sought to build their libraries. Religious houses also supported the book trade by buying manuscripts.

Italian Illumination. Florence was the most important center of illumination in the 1400s. Wealthy patrons* such as the Medici family promoted the enterprise. Lorenzo de' Medici even ordered a series of illuminated prayer books for the weddings of his daughters. The development of the university and the growth of humanist studies also helped boost the local book trade. In addition, some of Florence's leading artists, such as Fra Angelico, worked as illuminators.

Milan became a major center of illumination around 1400. Many of the best illustrators in the region continued to work in the Gothic* style of the Middle Ages. Members of Milan's ruling Visconti family were important patrons and eventually collected a magnificent library. But after France conquered Lombardy (the region around Milan) in 1499, the library fell into French hands.

In Venice, state papers were often illuminated. Artist Leonardo Bellini decorated many of these documents, using some of the new artistic styles favored by his uncle, the painter Jacopo Bellini. However, the most innovative artists of the mid-1400s worked anonymously. The first books printed in Venice contained blank areas where illuminations could be added by hand. Many of the artists who illustrated these books later produced woodcuts* for printed works.

In Rome, popes and other church leaders provided patronage for many illuminators. This support reached a peak in the mid-1400s under Pope Nicholas V, who promoted the arts and learning. Popes and cardinals often hired illuminators from their home cities. Some of the most splendid illuminated manuscripts produced in Rome in the latter part of the 1400s were made for Pope Sixtus IV.

Many towns in Italy provided work for illuminators, and important nobles, such as members of the Gonzaga family in Mantua, were major patrons. In Urbino, Duke Federico da Montefeltro spent 30,000 ducats of his personal fortune on manuscripts for his library. Wealthy monasteries also commissioned illuminated works, particularly sets of choir books. In northeastern Italy, the dukes of Ferrara were the leading patrons. The most famous of all Italian Renaissance manuscripts, a great Bible, was created for Duke Borso d'Este between 1455 and 1462. It featured an illuminated opening for each book of the Bible.

Later Developments. In the late 1400s patrons in Spain and northern Europe began buying illuminated Italian manuscripts or receiving them as gifts. Italian works circulated as far away as England. The king of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus, even persuaded Italian illuminators to move to his court to produce their work. Northern European artists who traveled to Italy to study brought home new styles, such as the white vine initial. However, most illuminators in northern Europe continued to favor late Gothic, rather than Italian, styles.

The growth of printing in the 1500s severely weakened the market for illuminated manuscripts. However, the art form was still used for state documents in Venice and for missals in Rome. One of the greatest illuminators of the Renaissance, Giulio Clovino, worked in Rome during this period. The art historian Giorgio Vasari called him the "Michelangelo of small works." In fact, Clovino was a friend and admirer of Michelangelo. He also had a high regard for the work of German artist Albrecht DÜrer, whose prints influenced many later illuminators. Although the production of illuminated books declined, they continued to be highly valued into the late 1500s.

(See alsoArt; Art in Italy; Books and Manuscripts; Libraries. )

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* humanist

referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* scribe

person who copies manuscripts

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* Gothic

artistic style marked by bright colors, elongated proportions, and intricate detail

* woodcut

print made from a block of wood with an image carved into it


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"ILLUMINATION." As early as 1702, the term "illuminate" meant "to decorate profusely with lights, as a sign of festivity or in honour of some person or some event" (sixth definition in the Oxford English Dictionary). A notable instance of such a display occurred on 24 October 1781. Colonel Tench Tilghman had reached Philadelphia at 3:00 a.m. on 22 October with news of the Yorktown surrender. A Committee of Safety handbill, headed "Illumination," announced that "those Citizens who chuse to illuminate on the glorious occasion, will do it this evening at Six, and extinguish their lights at Nine o'clock. Decorum and harmony are earnestly recommended to every citizen, and a general discountenance to the least appearance of riot."

In her account of the Brunswick general Baron Friedrich Riedesel's service in Canada, Louise Hall Tharp related the following anecdote about an illumination at Quebec City:

The next day [4 June 1776] was the birthday of George III. The city of Quebec was "illuminated" in the evening by means of lighted candles set in every window. It was well known that a good many French people living in Quebec had hoped that the Americans would win. Yet it seemed that in all of Quebec's fifteen hundred houses, everyone was joyously burning candles in honor of the King of England. The reason for this was soon apparent, however. Soldiers were going about heaving rocks through any unlighted windows. (Tharp, pp. 42-43)


Lancaster, Bruce. American Heritage History of the American Revolution. New York: ibooks, 2003. (Contains a reproduction of the handbill).

Tharp, Louise Hall. The Baroness and the General. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962.

                              revised by Harold E. Selesky


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illumination Coloured decorations serving to beautify manuscripts of religious books, the earliest dating from about the 5th century. The style ranges from decoration of initial letters and borders to miniatures and full-page illustrations. Glowing colours and the use of gold leaf are common features. Early medieval illuminations were produced by monks. Illumination was at its height during the 14th and 15th centuries when the International Gothic style was in use by such Flemish and French artists as the Limbourg brothers and Jean Fouquet.


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Illumination ★★ Illuminacja 1973

Cryptic drama about a young scientist who believes that rational analysis can solve every crisis. Until he must confront the accidental death of a close friend and his problematic affair with an older woman. Intercutting of documentary material can prove disconcerting. Polish with subtitles. 91m/C VHS . PL Stanislaw Latallo, Monika Denisiewicz-Olbrzychska, Malgorzata Pritulak, Edward Zebrowski; D: Krzysztof Zanussi; W: Krzysztof Zanussi; C: Edward Klosinski; M: Wojciech Kilar.


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illumination The distribution of light falling on a surface. See local illumination, global illumination.