Please visit my new Gallery page, containing images of some of my most recent illuminations.

Thanks to everyone who supported me by coming to my presentation on November 30th. Both it and the exhibit of my project on the second floor of the library were a success, in my opinion.

Proposal: "The Painted Word," Summer 2000

The word "illumination" has, embedded in its five syllables, several different meanings. On its most basic level, it reflects the meaning of its Latin root, illuminare, "to fill with light." However, the word has come to mean much more than this, intimating the divine light of inspiration. It was in this light, rather than cheery daylight or the warmth of candles, that medieval monks, from approximately 450 to 1450 AD, illuminated their manuscripts with glowing jewel-tones and hammered gold. It is in this same light, and using these same materials, that I wish to examine the nature of the literary art so revered in the Middle Ages, which has, in present times, fallen into the shadows of obscurity.

I propose to create a pair of 12"x16" illuminated manuscript pages, one in Latin and one in Greek, with interlinear texts and any glosses or colophons appearing in English. Each will be done in a period style—the Latin in high medieval and the Greek in Byzantine manner—based on my ongoing research in these styles. My pages will contain handwritten excerpts from authors both ancient and modern which address the nature of the literary arts in comparison with their fellows, the visual and auditory arts; they will thus represent, in both academic and artistic form, the power of words. In short, I propose to complete a project that will call to mind an art form many people have consigned to the dim past, and by doing so, to celebrate one of humanity’s most underappreciated inventions: the written word.

I believe that language is the primum mobile of the world of the arts. Whether a work of art is auditory, visual, monumental, or literary, its creator wishes to communicate at some level with his or her audience. That might mean leaving an example of present life to future generations, persuasively arguing a certain point, simply evoking emotions, or any number of other possibilities. Words themselves—and the symbols that represent them—are also works of art, and being fundamentally tied to the idea of "communication," tap into all four of the disciplines mentioned above. They have an obvious relationship to visual art, from early phonemic glyphs and pictorial representations of action to Arabic zoomorphic calligrams shaped like animals. Written words are also closely tied to their auditory components. Spoken language existed before its visual counterpart, and took precedent over it for millennia—reading silently is a relatively new-fangled fad, and the beauty of the spoken word should equally be remembered by lyricist, novelist, and academic. Perhaps less apparent to the casual is the monumental aspect of the written word. Since the first sounds were pressed into cuneiform tablets in the ancient Near East and the first Roman capitals etched into statue bases, words have had a physical presence. Just as two-dimensional art often seeks out the illusion of depth, so the written word can present three-dimensional space on the page and in the mind.

Although known primarily for their preservation of literary traditions, I believe that illuminated manuscripts have the ability to bring together all four aspects of art described above, as plain printed text, with which we are most familiar today, is not able to do. Through my study of ancient, medieval, and modern views of the written word, I will use the medium of illuminated manuscripts to test the literary arts for their capacity to represent those other arts, particularly in view of the rapidly changing world of literature and publishing. By personally experiencing the smell of paint, the texture of vellum, the sound of the scratching quill– even the ache of sore fingers and stiff muscles!– I hope that I will be illuminated by the very words I illuminate, and that the same light of literary inspiration will fall on a new generation of readers and writers.

Personal Importance

More than once in the (admittedly short) expanse of my life, I have felt out of place in twentieth-century America and thought with a sigh, "I should have been a fourteenth-century monk." Although at first this may seem an unlikely thought for a twenty-one year old newlywed, as a child I imagined myself right at home with the quiet, studious life of a Benedictine scribe, whose intellectual wealth, in reading and illuminating precious manuscripts, would more than compensate for material poverty. After all, I would be able to do continuously my favorite three activities: reading, writing, and drawing. Gradually, I realized that the medieval scribe’s daily task, which I had envisioned so ideally, involved a multiplicity of challenges in reality. As one anonymous monk from the eighth century wrote, "No one can know what efforts are demanded. Three fingers write, two eyes see. One tongue speaks, the entire body labors" (Manguel 50). The writers of yore were troubled by everything from scarce supplies to unstandardized spelling and grammar to poor lighting without the benefit of reading glasses. Sitting today at my laptop with spell-check at the touch of a button, wearing the bifocals I have used since elementary school, and capable of accessing, in an instant, a particular passage from a database of tens of thousands of books available on the Internet and CD-ROM, I am continually astonished at what my ancestors of the heart, the scribes, were able to accomplish.

During my first and only trip to Europe, a German friend told me that the great Catholic cathedrals which still, after centuries, throw their regal shadows across the Continent, were built to be imposing and lofty so that the people entering would be immediately struck by God’s grandeur. It seems the medieval scribes had the same idea in mind when they reproduced the Bible in ornate and costly codices capable of filling even the most hardened unbeliever with appreciation. Indeed, though Catholic scribes dealt primarily with the Word of God, the fact that they dealt with words at all would be enough to strike awe in the hearts of Western Europe’s largely illiterate population. The most obvious drawback to these literary works was of course the price—one must pay dearly for an object filled with precious words and appropriately adorned with gold leaf and crushed gems, not to mention high costs in time and labor. As a result, private libraries could be maintained only by the very rich, while the ignorant poor had to content themselves with "reading" the pictures in bibliae pauperum and listening to readings from the pews. An event in the year AD 1455, however, changed the public’s relationship with words forever: Gutenberg invented the moveable-type printing press. Although at first emulating the elegant—and expensive—style of handwritten manuscripts, the simplified typefaces of Aldus Manutius and others made printed Bibles readily available, enough that the Protestants’ early sixteen-century demands to read God’s word for themselves was a valid threat to the Church. It is quite easy to forget all this, as we pick up a battered paperback and flip through its familiar pages as if we were chatting with a good friend. Yet, despite the ever-increasing affordability and ordinariness now attributed to books, we have access to them in quantities and infinite varieties that were once reserved only for the libraries of lords.

With this project, I hope to reawaken in my viewers a sense of the monumental value of language, which, used every day, tends to be taken for granted in both its oral and written forms. The people of past centuries valued language in its written form and recognized its dynamic connection with oral and pictorial traditions, and I believe that the illuminated manuscripts they lovingly created and preserved demonstrate this fact eloquently. As we gaze into the twenty-first century, an era filled with the promise of great innovations for the increased distribution of the written word, I wish to bring—in the spirit of the literary part—an epistle to its future.

About the Grant

The Julie Carson Undergraduate Research Grant program provides an opportunity for students to probe, explore and engage ideas in ways that are not always possible in the classroom. Students learn what it is to pursue a life of the mind, and that such a life is not confined within disciplinary boundaries, nor necessarily within the campus borders. Carson Grants reward students with the chance to work closely with faculty, take intellectual risks, and find connections between what they have learned and what they can imagine. More information about this wonderful opportunity can be found at the Carson Grant Homepage.

About the Artist

Julie C. Sparks is a member of Willamette University's Class of 2001, soon to graduate with a B.A. in Classical Studies and English. She is a fledgling member of the WU chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. She is also recently married, and currently lives in Salem, OR with her husband, Jeremy, and her three wonderful ferrets, Pandora, Loki, and Ragnarok. 


Throughout the site, I have acknowledged the many people who have given me advice, information, and all manner of help, but it seemed appropriate to mention them one more time, all together. 

First, I need to thank Willamette University for giving me the opportunity to pursue this project. It has been a life-changing experience and one that I would be hard-pressed to do on my own time and finances. Professors Mark Usher and Bill Duvall, my project sponsors, have been a great encouragement throughout, from the conception of the idea, to writing the proposal, to the project itself. Professor Linda Bowers was kind enough to scour her peacocks for usable quills. Professor James Thompson provided me with a workroom in the art building for the entire summer.

Next, I need to thank the cyberscribes that were a major source of information for this project. To everyone who has put up commentaries, essays, tutorials, examples, and sources for calligraphy, illumination, and the tradition of the book arts--- your audience is larger than you may know. Most particularly, I have benefited from the vast knowledge of the scribes in the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group of people who know more than a little about anything to do with the scribal arts.

Most of all, I want to thank my husband, Jeremy Sparks, who has encouraged me from the very beginning despite the fact that this project was so time-consuming. He was also an invaluable resource  in the creation of this website, helping me to make it work the way I had it envisioned and doing some image creation for it as well. 

Send comments and questions to Julie. Last updated on January 21, 2001.
All "Painted Word" photographs ©2000 Julie C. Sparks