Manuscript Illuminations

What is a “Frontispiece” in a Medieval Manuscript?

Illuminated manuscript. Frontispiece. Running Title. Coat of arms. Presentation miniature. Pen-flourished initial. Lettrine. Enluminure. Manuscrit enluminé. Frontispice. Titre courant. Rubrique. Rubric.
Genève, BM, fr. 77, f. 9r

A frontispiece in a medieval manuscript is a fully illuminated folio that is found at the beginning of the text it contains.

It is worth noting that lavishly illuminated manuscripts count several frontispieces. In that case they are found at the beginning of every main section of the text.


A frontispiece usually displays a full or a three-quarter border that is often filled with an abstract floral pattern. It can contain a running title (1), hybrid creatures (2), a coat of arms (3) seldom accompanied by a motto written in a label, and parodic scenes (4).

Many French and Flemish frontispieces also exhibit a sizable miniature. In this case, we’re faced with a prefatory cycle including four miniatures. The first one is what we call a presentation miniature (5) for it depicts the author handing his work to the lord who ordered it. The last three miniatures of the prefatory cycles depicts various scenes of the upcoming narrative. Presentation miniatures are typical in opening frontispieces and have often been subverted to include hints of the work itself.  

A frontispiece is only complete if it also displays the very first lines of the text. It often begins with a red caption, or rubric (6) and exhibits wonderful pen-flourished initials, or lettrines (7).