The pages of the Vernon manuscript display many decorative features. The most impressive pages include large initials painted with pigment and gold leaf, from which decorative borders extend around the text. The opening page of the South English Legendary is framed by a full border that incorporates the opening illuminated initial (now lost). Elsewhere, partial and more free-form borders predominate. Smaller decorative features include illuminated initials that take up the space of two or three lines of text and letters in gold-leaf decorated with pen-work.

Leaves of various shapes, flowers, and flower-buds comprise much of the repertory of motifs in the borders. Motifs sometimes seem to gesture towards nature. There are leaves of sycamore and ivy shape, flowers like those of the strawberry, and buds the colour of daisies. But the motifs are stylised rather than copied from nature. Gold, rose, and blue predominate in the decoration, accented with warm orange, and white highlighting. Green is rarely used. The most inventive borders integrate imaginary creatures into their design. Dragons open their mouths to spew forth leafy vines. Blue hominoids with birds’ feet spit out borders. Reptilian creatures writhe around and into letter-shapes. At its best, the decoration is a fluent, organic extravaganza of design. But it is never simply indulgent or arbitrary. It is always completely integrated with the letters and divisions of the text. Its purpose is to guide, as well as to delight, the eye of the reader.

The decoration varies in quality and in somewhat in style. This suggests that several artists worked on the manuscript. Perhaps as many as ten individuals provided the borders and initials. The best work must have been done by persons with specialist training and experience. The inferior work could have been carried out by apprentices or assistants.


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