The adage goes “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but as any illustrator or client of illustrators knows, a high-quality image is also worth a lot of money. This is as true today for scientific manuscripts as it was in the Middle Ages for illuminated manuscripts – or as we sometimes think of them, the original next-generation format.
Examples of the “illumination” in illuminated manuscripts refer in the narrowest sense not simply to the presence of illustrations, but to the application of actual gold, silver, and other often valuable pigments throughout illustrations, letters, words, and phrases, all meant to give the impression that the entire page of a book glows. The Western tradition associates this practice primarily with medieval Christian religious works in Europe, but it was paralleled by similar traditions in Persian, Ottoman, Mughal, and Mesoamerican cultures. Scientific examples range from the works of Leonardo da Vinci and Archimedes to the enigmatic Voynich Manuscript, with some of the earliest surviving examples dating to the Romans in AD 400.
Although these manuscripts are beautiful to behold, often bursting with color, scholars point out that illumination was also applied for the purpose of what we would identify today as the visual organization of data (De Hamel, 2001). Gold and silver embellishments surround the most important subjects, essential words are highlighted with the same color as other related words, small paintings of key characters mark the sections of text in which those characters feature, and different colors delineate layers of importance, including via headers and sub-headers. In many medieval religious calendars, feasts of varying importance even have assigned alternate colors – a “red letter day” is a special feast day. Such treatment does not seem so far removed from today’s search filters, thumbnails, menus, alerts, and azure-tinted hyperlinks.
Then along came the printing press revolution. The increased economy of scale drove machine design founded on the binary “INK?: Y/N” choice. A side effect of the explosion of machine-printed material was a sharp reduction in the use of page embellishment, the most noticeable of which was color. Even now, if you buy a book with color, it costs far more than its greyscale cousin. The printing distribution channel limit also translated into the practice of “flattening” images within files, in other words removing all non-essential data from the image file layers so that the file size is as small as possible while remaining viable as an illustration. This practice of flattening images was especially important in the early days of downloading.
But we now find ourselves in The Great Unflattening. The age of digital distribution has returned us to a model where two things are once again true: one single version of a written work may be carefully crafted, “unflat” images and all, while simultaneously, a distribution channel exists which is capable of protecting the investment in that more enriched version.
The launch of the Anywhere Article is an example of The Great Unflattening. The new HTML5 article format is referred to as the “enhanced” version, but our medieval counterparts might just as easily have identified it as the “illuminated” version, with its re-investment in the framework of clear and vibrant content presentation. The value that we (authors, illustrators, publishers) have begun to add and will continue to add in the years ahead is no longer applied with gold leaf or lapis lazuli, but it’s a similar investment in depth and presentation of content. (Rotating proteins, anyone?)
If you haven’t already seen an illuminated manuscript or haven’t taken a look at the figure viewer within Wiley’s Anywhere Article, or both, here you go:
The figure on the left comes from an 11th century German manuscript. The figure on the right comes from a 21st century journal manuscript. Both are advances on humankind’s understanding of botany - the science of plant life, growth, and development through time.
IMAGE 1: Ricciardi, P., et al. (2012). “Near Infrared Reflectance Imaging Spectroscopy to Map Paint Binders In Situ on Illuminated Manuscripts.” Angewandte Chemie International Edition. Vol. 51, Iss. 23. Weinheim: WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co.
IMAGE 2: The British Library Blog. (2011). “Harley Science Project.” Original image ID: (Harley MS. 4986, f. 39r). London: The British Library.
IMAGE 3: Magney, T., et al. (2013). “Assessing Leaf Photoprotective Mechanisms Using Terrestrial LiDAR: Towards Mapping Canopy Photosynthetic Performance in Three Dimensions.” 2013 The Authors. New Phytologist 2013 New Phytologist Trust. Oxford: Wiley.
De Hamel, C. (2001). The British Library Guide to Manuscript Illumination: History and Techniques. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Porter, C. (1995). “The History of Scientific Illustration.” Journal of the History of Biology. Vol. 28, Iss. 3. The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.