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The letter-initial

Traditions of texts decoration have deep roots. It is impossible to imagine artistic presentation of books without letters or initials.

A letter or initial (from the Latin alphabet initialis “standing at the beginning”) is a letter at the beginning of a word, a chapter, or a paragraph that is originally decorated; it is one of the oldest elements of the artistic presentation of books. They were used to attract the reader’s attention to the beginning of the text and reflect its topics. Masters sought specifically to decorate letters with paints made from natural materials. They used colored inks, sometimes whitewash on a colored background and even artificial gold. Each letter was a work of art, and it never repeated. A letter and an initial came a long way of development and from century to century they were acquiring new features.

The exhibition includes manuscripts of the 16th –19th centuries on the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets. Some of these items are of the Belarusian origin. The exposition also displays the early printed editions (incunabula) dated by the first half of the 15th century. The presented items demonstrating a variety of styles and techniques of handwritten decoration of capital letters have been taken from the collections of the National Library of Belarus.

Some exhibits were made on the Belarusian land. Among them are a Gospel, an Apostle and an Irmologion dated by the 16th –18th centuries (Cyrillic) and the Himnorium of the 17th century (Latin) where initials are decorated with vermilion and filled with simple or complex geometric floral patterns. Multi-colored letters have wicker motifs. Sometimes initials are decorated with stylized images of animals and humans.

The collections of the Old Believers vocal sheet music with hooked notation chants of the 17th–19th centuries (Octoechos, Irmologion, Church Holidays) are decorated extremely rich. They have large letters with a black outline and filled with a gold, dark green paint (the Pomeranian pattern), or with splendid "paradise" motifs of bright blue, red, green, yellow and golden paints with images of plants and birds (the Guslitsky handwritten book pattern).

The initials of the first printed European books of the 15th century are also handwritten. The exhibition presents items of Germany’s and Switzerland’s best printers. These manuscripts include monochromatic and bright multicolored initials decorated with a gold paint and made up of various objects and figures enclosed in a sophistically decorated frame.

The exhibits reflect the historical development and improvement of the art of the decoration of letters-initials.