The arabesque is an artform utilizing intertwining lines and vines that started as a core element of Arabic art. With the advent of the printing press and the use of woodcuts, the arabesque became a common stylistic design to emphasize letters at the beginning of text blocks. This became so common that "arabesque" in the printing industry became synonymous with illustrated letters, whether they were created using the traditional arabesque style or some other form of illustrations.

The size of illustrated letters varied greatly depending on the printer. Rubrication, gilting or other color was occasionally added to arabesques to further emphasize the imagery on a page of otherwise black printing.