Artistry of Early Books

Many scholars, librarians, and curators have traced the history of the book and bookbinding through the ages with special emphasis on the historical importance of the printed word and its effects on society. Less common is a focus on the pure artistry involved in the creation of books.

The artistic styles used to create individual elements of books reflect the cultural artistic styles of their era. For example, arabesque, a motif common throughout the Arabic world by the Middle Ages consisting of intertwining vines and flora, found its way into Islamic books as full-color page decorations. The design spread westward, and became a favorite motif of European printers in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, who used the motif for woodcuts of decorated letters.

Head and tailpieces, the illustrative elements at the beginning or ending of the page, at times mimicked lintel sculpture of historical buildings, and at other times floral or knotwork patterns found in fiber arts, interior design, jewelry, and calligraphy. Tooled leather covers of the late medieval era may include crests or other symbols common in heraldry, another art form common from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance era.

Artisans from each stage of the book making process – papermakers, printers, leatherworkers, and binders – showed unique variation in their craft that likely resulted in knowledgeable citizens of the era being able to distinguish between individual artisans. Papermakers used different formulas that resulted in different colors and consistency of paper. Printers created their own text blocks and inks so even recognized standardized fonts could appear different from printer to printer. Leatherworkers, particularly those working by hand rather than plate press, used customer-defined parameters combined with their own best motifs and designs to stand out from the crowd.

As in any fine art discipline, it is necessary to have a full understanding of the terminology used to describe the works of art in order to discuss them appropriately. Various elements of book creation are highlighted throughout this exhibit with affiliated terminology. Details about the specific materials or their authors are presented to provide a background in which to consider the artistic nature of the volumes.

It is with a full understanding of the time, effort, and creativity artisans put into their work so long ago that we approach this exhibit of early books.


This exhibit is organized by internal and external features of the texts. Subsections within each category provide additional organization by specific features. Clicking on an image will take you to details about that particular item. Clicking on the image from the detail page will take you to the full image, many of which can be enlarged to view unique details. You can then use your browser's back button to return to the exhibit as a whole.


Lynn Pinkerton