Historiated initial  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

A historiated initial is an enlarged letter at the beginning of a paragraph or other section of text, which contains a picture. Strictly speaking, an inhabited initial contains figures (human or animal) that are decorative only, without forming a subject, whereas in a historiated initial there is an identifiable figure or a specific scene. Both sorts became very common and elaborate in luxury illuminated manuscripts. These initials were first seen in the Insular art of the early 8th century. The earliest known example is in the Saint Petersburg Bede, an Insular manuscript of 731-46, and the Vespasian Psalter has another.

The size and decoration of the initial further gives clues to both its importance and location. Letters that began a new section of a text or a particularly noteworthy section might receive more flourishes and space. In luxury manuscripts an entire page might be devoted to a historiated initial. Both the size and the ostentatiousness of a manuscript reflect both on the status of the manuscript and on its owner. Manuscripts meant for everyday use or use by friars or university students often possessed little illumination, and hardly any elaborate historiated initials or flourishes. By contrast, manuscripts commissioned by wealthy patrons or for a wealthy monastery often possessed gold or silver illuminations, whereas simpler examples just used pen and ink.

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