The Latin illuminare means ‘to light up’. This is the origin of the term ‘illumination’ when used to refer to the illustrations that decorate manuscripts such as this one. The biblical text is adorned with designs that are incorporated alongside or intertwined with the text.
‘Illumination’ refers to the brightness of the gold and other colours used in such objects, and also implies that the motifs are enlightening—that they reveal something about or beyond the text that might not be conveyed (or communicated as easily) by the unadorned text.
In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul contrasts the ‘letter’ of the Law of Moses with the ‘spirit’ of Christ; ‘the letter kills, but the spirit gives life’ (3:6 NRSV). This contrast does not necessitate a rejection or supersession of the Law; rather, it can be seen as analogous to the dynamic between word and image in an illuminated manuscript. The illumination does not replace the text but lights it up, and in so doing can reveal aspects of its message afresh.
The page (also known as a folio) seen here is from an early fifteenth-century manuscript of Nicholas of Lyra’s biblical commentary by a Franciscan scribe, Ugolino Marini Gibertuzzi of Sarnano. This leaf has the beginning of 2 Corinthians. The illuminations include rich foliage, and two illuminated capitals (decorated letters). The large illuminated capital ‘P’ is for the start of the Epistle, and includes a portrait of Paul holding the sword of his martyrdom. While the portrait identifies the author, the foliage does not seem to relate directly to the text itself. These adornments express the preciousness of the text, both by beautifying the object, and because the time and materials involved were costly.
Nicholas’s commentary focuses on the literal sense of the Bible, as distinct from its figurative meanings (allegorical ones, for example). He discusses details such as the language and the historical context of the text. The illumination therefore introduces an element to the page that has a more excursive relationship with the ‘letter’ of the biblical text, which can be likened to the ‘spirit’ that ‘gives life’.
3 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? 2 You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; 3 and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, 6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.
7 Now if the dispensation of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such splendor that the Israelites could not look at Moses’ face because of its brightness, fading as this was, 8 will not the dispensation of the Spirit be attended with greater splendor? 9 For if there was splendor in the dispensation of condemnation, the dispensation of righteousness must far exceed it in splendor. 10 Indeed, in this case, what once had splendor has come to have no splendor at all, because of the splendor that surpasses it. 11 For if what faded away came with splendor, what is permanent must have much more splendor.