The Ancient Art of Illumination and Gilding

imageJust recently, the Canizaro Library hosted a demonstration of “The Ancient Art of Illumination and Gilding,” led by artist
and scribe Valerie Weilmuenster. Weilmuenster spoke on the process of illuminating, from the preparation of the paper to the mixing of pigments, from applying accentual gold leaf to designing  the balance of text and image and the contrast between black and white, shine and matte.

Working with words and not just pictures, she explained, demands a level of accuracy that images alone do not. “It’s a challenging art form,” she said. Not only must every word be spaced evenly and precisely, but also the text as a whole must be in balance
with the images that surround it.

imageMembers of the University community had the opportunity to watch Weilmuenster as she applied gold leaf to an illuminated text, tooled the gold with patterns, lay down colors on the decorative vines surrounding the text, and wrote out sample script. As she demonstrated these various practices, she answered questions from those gathered and spoke on the history of her craft and its development in modern times.

“It’s very meditative,” she went on. “You get lost in the process, really, and the words become important.” For that reason, she cautioned, it’s important to choose your text and subject matter carefully. The illuminator spends a lot of thought and quiet mediation on the subject before her. “I’m a monk!” she joked towards the end.

The Canizaro Library is holding a Special Collections display on Calligraphy and Illuminations until November. In the display cases on the first floor of the library (to the left after entering the building) is featured samples of Weilmuenster’s work, as well as descriptions of the tools and process of illumination. In the Rare Books Reading Room (Library 222), the display continues with a facsimile of the Gutenberg Bible, an illuminated version of the Sermon on the Mount, and more.

Stop by the Reading Room during open hours to view the display.

[Below: Some of the pieces now on exhibit in “Calligraphy and Illuminations.”]


Valerie Weilmuenster is a resident of Naples, Florida. After graduating with a degree in fine arts, she began work as an engrosser at B.C Kassell studio in Chicago, where she designed and lettered certificates. Her practice at this work is what led to her becoming a scribe and illuminator. She offers classes and workshops around the country, and her work has been exhibited widely.