What are initials?

The initial is one of the most important decorative elements of the manuscript culture of the Middle Ages and immediately catches the eye when looking at a manuscript for the first time. Because the emphasis on the first letter of a text or paragraph as well as its embellishment runs through all known exhibits of medieval manuscript art. There were no limits to the imagination and creativity of the illuminator, and so there are letters that were simply shown a little larger than the rest of the text, as well as lavishly designed initials that graphically depict entire ornate scenes and spread over an entire manuscript page. Such decorative initial pages can also come in the form of a ligature of several initials. In many manuscripts, the initial words of the text are written right next to the initial, separated from the rest of the text corpus. There were also major differences in color and shape: the artistic initials were monochromatic, as well as multicolored or even the use of gold leaf.

Nevertheless, the initials of the medieval manuscripts that have come down to us can be classified into certain categories. One of the best-known forms is the Lombard. Lombards are simple letters, often rounded, with the coloring alternating between red and blue between the 13th and 15th centuries. Lombards are sometimes so similar that one thinks they are the result of a stencil drawing. Their function is clear: the lombards divide the text into meaningful sections and thus make it easier to read.

The field initial sets itself apart from the rest of the text of the manuscript, because this type of initial is in a frame that offers space for decoration in the form of figures. In numerous manuscripts, one then also finds anthropomorphic and zoomorphic initials, i.e. first letters that were formed wholly or partly from human or animal figures. Sometimes these figures are also shown in a curved form; In such cases one also speaks of the gymnastic initial.

In some initials, the figures mentioned do not form the letter themselves, but can only be seen next to or within the initial. This species is appropriately called an inhabited initial. A special form is the historicizing initial, in which a figure from the text itself adorns the initial in an inhabited or figurative form. One finds such a use, for example, in the biographies or lives of well-known saints.

In the manuscripts of the late Middle Ages there are further decorative forms of the initial, in which it is surrounded by plant or tendril-like decorations. Here, too, different forms can be distinguished: The tendril initial is an initial consisting of tendrils of plants, on which climbing human or animal figures can often be seen. This is to be distinguished from the split bar initial, which, in contrast to the previous form, consists of split tendrils held together by ribbons.

Finally, fleuronée is any type of ornament that starts with the initial and is always painted as leaves, flowers or tendrils.