Professor Emerita Michelle P. Brown explores the world of medieval illuminated manuscripts, their makers and readers, in the context of the famous Rothschild Prayer Book.
Widely published, Michelle Brown is Professor of Medieval Manuscript Studies at the University of London, and was previously Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, British Library.
The Prayer Book and the World of AD1500
Michelle P. Brown
11 June 2015
National Library of Australia
Speaker/s: Margy Burn, Assistant Director-General Australian Collections and Reader Services, NLA; Michelle P. Brown
Margy Burn: I’m Margy Burn and I’m the Assistant Director General responsible for Australian Collections and Reader Services and in that capacity I’m responsible for many of the National Library’s medieval manuscripts which of course are nothing to do with Australian Collections but just the way they end up with us. So it’s a privilege and a pleasure for me to introduce tonight’s lecture by Emeritus Professor Michelle Brown. And this is a time I think for reflecting on the centuries of our shared European cultural heritage because of course we’re in the middle of thinking about the 21st century meaning of Magna Carta especially as we have an Australian copy of the Inspecimus, copy of Magna Carta here in Canberra. But I want to say that as we find ourselves in this time can we also stop and reflect for a moment that we’re privileged to live among the custodians of the world’s oldest living culture and so let’s ... as we celebrate European culture this week and this night let’s also acknowledge the Nanawal and Nanbury people, their ancestors, their elders and their children you know thinking about all those kids playing with swords and crowns and our indigenous children are the next generations in whom we all and they all hold such hope. So acknowledging the past and present so as we can do in Canberra, I can walk from my home to Mt Madura and literally we can stumble across flint tools if we have the eyes to see them. Acknowledgement of indigenous people and country is important, reconciliation matters and it matters to me and so let’s celebrate tonight our ancient histories, the living cultures across the centuries in this land we now share and also in the lands that we come from who are here tonight.
Before I introduce Michelle I want to give some thanks to just set the scene for her lecture. She would not be here tonight were it not for the generosity of National Library donors and no doubt many of you are in the audience because this time last year we had our tax time appeal for a medieval manuscripts project and you donated over $125,000. And that’s enabled an eight-month special project to research the history of the 12 volumes and the 250 individual manuscript items, medieval manuscript items held by the National Library, some 6,000 pages and leaves and fragments in all and we’ve used that money to preserve and digitise them, to improve their online description in our catalogue and in our ... in finding aids and to share them with Australians and the world through these ... the magic of the online world that we now live in. And we really will be sharing them with the world; we’ve discovered that we have many things that are of really quite interest to European centres in Portugal, in the UK, in Germany so it’s been wonderful. And you can see a small selection of the Library’s medieval manuscripts in the Treasures Gallery which are I think a lovely backdrop to the very beautiful star of the show which is the Rothschild Prayer Book.
So this donor-funded project was stimulated by an earlier two-day visit that Michelle made to the National Library in 2013 which was us just taking advantage of her being in Australia for other academic work and at the height of summer rather than the middle of winter she gave a spellbinding public lecture in this theatre to a capacity audience. But more importantly for me she worked intensively with Library staff over two ... the two days that she was here, giving us new insights into the significance of what had previously been a somewhat neglected collection at least in recent times. So thanks to the generosity of the donors to last year’s tax time appeal we have Michelle back with us, this time for two weeks and we’re working her just as hard but thanks to her generosity we’re fortunate again to be able to offer another public lecture tonight. She’s also giving a public master class, she’s meeting donors, she’s working again with Library staff during her visit to develop our knowledge about our medieval manuscript collection and to help us to understand it and know it better and take even better care of it into the future. So keep that in mind particularly those of you who were donors as you enjoy what Michelle has to tell us tonight.
If I can now segue back into what is normally expected of an introduction to a distinguished speaker. I do think Michelle is really loving being back in a national library. She worked for many years in the British Library as Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts before taking up her position, her most recent position as Professor of Medieval Manuscript Studies in the School of Advanced Studies at the University of London. Her personal bibliography runs to 12 pages including major publications on the Luttrell Psalter, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Holcomb Bible. She’s made many broadcast contributions to radio and TV programs but there are some lesser known facts about her which I can share. She’s the devoted owner of two Serbian rescue dogs called Stalin and Lenin which we find very entertaining and we’ve seen the pictures and she’s restoring a 16th century Cornish farmhouse which comes with its own well and she published her first novel last year so she’s not only expert but she’s very, very interesting and a joy to have with us again and we’re very grateful that Michelle has returned to Australia and we will enjoy her lecture tonight. So please welcome Emeritus Professor Michelle Brown.
Michelle P. Brown: Hello. It is indeed wonderful to be back, I’m having the best time and tonight we actually get to linger over some cheese and wine. Do you remember those of you who were here last time when the Library was closing and we had a little sort of get-together on the front steps? Which was fun. So I hope to have a bit more time to chat to a few of you tonight afterwards. Yeah, one of the things that I did when I was here last time was actually push back some of the parameters to find that we now here have the oldest surviving manuscript in Australia which is a 10th century Anglo Saxon piece which is on display next to the Rothschild Prayer Book and it’s interesting that we can tell as much about 10th century Canterbury from things that are outside of the country including here as we can from things that are still in the UK so the diaspora of materials as well as people that mixes it up, mashes it up internationally I think is quite an exciting thing.
But what I’m here to talk to you about tonight is Australia’s newest ancient treasure, the Rothschild Prayer Book and what I want to do with you tonight is bring it alive and actually get you thinking about some of the ways in which it functioned to set it within the context of those who made it and also the world around 1500, one of those great periods of transformation in western culture when we tip over from the late middle ages into the early modern world. So we’re going to embark on a real voyage of discovery with this one. But although I’m going to be here mediating it for you what I want you to start thinking about with medieval manuscripts of this sort is that these are peformative works and the relationship between word, sound and image is a very interesting and complex one which the medievals had explored to the enth degree and some of which gets put on a bit of a backburner with the advent of print in which gradually for a while some of the colour drains out of the page. And the beginnings of electronic communication when we very much import book culture into the electronic environment which is now giving way to a far more interactive environment in which again we can explore the aurality as well as the meaning of images as well as the core text that link us together as communities of reading.
And what you have to bear in mind in this period as well as in our own, to be literate was really to be well read. For example if you were to talk to Bede in early 8th century Northumbria he would say that to be literate was to be literate in Latin, well read in the Bible, patristics and whatever classics you could get your hands on. If I were to say of you guys now do you know the works of Jane Austen? Pride and Prejudice? How many of you have read it in the original first edition? How many of you know it from sex on a stick Colin Firth coming out of a lake? In a damp shirt. Now we’ve all got a buy-in to a shared community of reading on that but people’s way of accessing it can be very, very different. For many people now as then the moving image and the sound very much the ways in which you access things, through drama, the mystery players etc through the great doom paintings that you saw on the walls of churches or the portals with all the terrifying demons and the gorgeous sinuous angels and you know the whole thing is very, very vibrant and the way in which you pass stories on from generation to generation, very well disciplined.
When you tell your kids a bedtime story and you try and go off or you’ve had a hard day and you can’t quite remember the right pattern of the words how quick are they to pick you up? And so for many people who would congregate around books, their access to the written text, the books mean an awful lot more than the text itself and the images are ways of actually getting deeper into the heart of the text and taking off the layers of the onion. And you would also need a fair bit of intertextuality so that if for example you’re looking at a book like this and you see an image of the enunciation to the virgin or let’s say the crucifixion. And you see in the bottom margins a porcupine. What’s that doing there? Is it just to amuse? Well yeah, in part because these are your multimedia entertainment systems. In addition to getting you to partake in the beatific vision in the world to come these are the things that women who could would teach their children to read from and they would be entertaining as well. But they would be morally edifying too and so your intertextuality, your familiarity with other things such as the medieval bestiary would tell you that a porcupine symbolises the crucified Christ. Because of course any child knows that when it rolls over it picks up all the rotten apples on its quills just as Christ picks up everybody’s sins at the crucifixion, okay? So it’s a rich interconnected world of communication with words to be seen and images to be read.
Okay so let’s explore some of this. So what can we say about the book? Well we think that it was the ... part of the last flowering of a great school of illuminators during the late middle ages based in the Flemish towns of Gent and Brugge and made around 1500 to 1520. Now it’s by quite a very accomplished team of leading artists of the day, some of them anonymous, some of them well known through their collarfins and even through portraits as we’ll see, included one who’s not known other than for some of his key works but master of the first Prayer Book of Maximilian. And we’ve also got another one; the master of James IV of Scotland who we think was Gerard Horenbout. Now these are taking the names master of from some of their key works who are associated with patrons such as James IV of Scotland. Then we’ve got Gerard David who was a leading panel painter as well as an illuminator and likewise Simon Benning. Okay. Now this team seem to have worked together on a number of projects and they’re all leading lights in the scene at the time. It would be like imagining ... imagine you were going to order an incredible wedding dress or I don’t know, some incredible thing from leading designers of the day. It was like saying well I want the undergarment by Armani but I want Gucci to do the overgarment and I want the oversewing and the postmodernist twist by Ste ... Alexander McQueen. Have I got the right McQueen? Yeah.
Okay so you know somebody has really gone to trouble to put together and pay for the leading illuminators of their day but interestingly enough the patron of this remarkable and incredibly opulent book is anonymous. Now many of the really deluxe books of this period will have some clues to the patron. Either their mottos, their emblems, their coats of arms or something of that sort insinuated into the designs. We don’t know. Of course this period, the merchant bankers and others were vying with the traditional aristocracy and nobles and royalty to have equally impressive commissions. And a book of this sort would be the equivalent of one or two years’ salary for a high earner. So you could either have a new house on the canals of Gent and Brugge, you could have a shiny new barge in which to navigate and trade on them or you could have a book of hours. This one’s a prayer book. It’s actually technically a book of hours but it’s called a prayer book in this case because there are several prayer ... books of hours in the Rothschild collection and this is to signal this one out. So let’s look a little bit at its provenance and what we know about its life history, where it went after it was made, who it met and to interrogate it a little bit about its biography.
Now the book is a book of hours, I’ll tell you more about that in a moment but it’s also got some extra maths texts and prayers beyond the things that are normally found and those distinctive elements relate it to a monastic house called the Chartreuse De Dune near Brugge. Have any of you ever drunk Chartreuse? Green Chartreuse? Well the Chartreusians brewed a particularly fine liqueur and they had houses in Flanders especially that would attract a lot of retired men and women, widows for example to actually move in and pursue a cloistered vocation often later in their life so perhaps the connection here might be something of that sort. By 1500 of course deluxe handmade books of this sort were beginning to be supplanted by printed books of hours which had a lot of imagery but again not much colour unless you paid somebody to literally colour in the wood block ornaments. So it’s a conscious decision to ... if you like to look back and to go high-end, high spec and to venture into the world of fine art patronage as well as commissioning a working devotional book.
We know that the manuscript belonged to the princely family of Wittelsbach in the 16th century so they obviously saw it as high status enough to wish to acquire it and then the Counts Palletine in Heidelberg. We then know nothing about it from 1623 until it reappears in the collection of the Viennese banking family ... branch of the banking family, the Rothschilds, in the late 19th century. And of course in 1938 with the German annexation of Austria it was confiscated from the Rothschilds and passed to the National Library of Austria who in 1999 agreed under international agreements of holocaust repatriation which all major libraries and cultural institutions undertook to restore the volume to the Rothschilds who promptly sold it at Christie’s for what was then a record amount for any illuminated manuscripts, US$30m. A lot of money. And again recently in 2014 it was sold for over £8m to the Australian media magnate, Kerry Stokes, in Perth and of course this is the first outing for the book to be displayed here in Australia in our library which is wonderful.
Okay so what’s a book of hours? Well Christopher de Hamill, the wonderful, wonderful and very, very plummy Kiwi Curator of Manuscripts at Corpus Christi College Cambridge and doyenne of Sotheby’s used to pride himself on any manuscript that’s brought into Sotheby’s for opinion, he would be able to tell before the little brown paper parcel was opened what the book was from its size etc, didn’t always work. And he liked to say that one day a London black cab driver came into Sotheby’s and he was called down to look at this little parcel and before he opened it he said oh this is very simple, my man, it’s a book of hours to which the cabbie replied, no, it ain't, mate, it belongs to me. But anyway we’re talking hours, not ours and the hours in question are the monastic hours of the divine office, the eight times of every day and night, the hours of matins, Lourdes, prime, terce, sext, none, compline and vespers at which members of the monastic orders would go into the church or chapel and recite prayers, psalms and the divine office.
Now from the mid-13th century onwards it was a time of great sort of social upheaval and unrest, the Mongols for example were beginning to threaten the borders and lay people wanted to engage in similarly rigorous devotions and so they started having books of hours in an abbreviated form produced for their own domestic use. If you were particularly devout you might say your whole book of hours during the course of a year. Okay? Some people however really were the hard men and women and would do it in a week. They can’t have had time for an awful lot of else. And the degrees of money that you could spend on it were sort of depending on your status, how much perhaps that meant to you devotionally but also the fact that you would be seen in your public observance often carrying these books which often had beautiful tooled bindings and chemises to match ladies’ frocks etc and you would be seen in church using them as well as I said using them for other purposes including education. And so you know you could really spend as much as you chose on them.
And by this period from around about 1200 onwards you’d moved outside of the world of monastic scriptoria primarily producing such books into the world of the urban subcontracted specialist. So if you were commissioning a book of this sort you would go along to your favourite stationer in whichever town you had access to and over a lot of the equivalent of mint tea, malmsey wine or whatever, I guess, you would ... he or she would plumb the depth of your purse. Very subtly. And work out whether they could sting you for full page miniatures, all the appropriate places, whether you would want individual miniatures or initials showing all of your favourite saints in the calendar and the litany etc and so you make decisions for example if you’re commissioning such a book for a betrothal or a marriage, you might want obviously to include St Margaret of Egypt and St Catherine who are the patronesses who will get you safely through childbirth, for example. If your confessor happens to be from any of the individual orders, a Dominican perhaps or a Franciscan then your choice of saints will allude again to that. Or if you’ve got a particular patron saint or line-up of saints for your particular home town. Or family, they too will be ... make their way in so there’s a degree of customisation that’s possible as well as choosing which of the major offices you want included, the hours of the cross, the one that everybody wanted, the hours of the virgin, the office of the dead because let’s face it, you’re going to need that at some point, the hours of the holy spirit and various other prayers, suffrages to different saints, all sorts of things that you could have in.
So the stationers who then took your order would then subcontract the work to jobbing artists and scribes and they would do the work in often streets adjacent to one another and they would marry in to keep the work within the family if you like and to get extra men and women to work. And interestingly enough it’s only the book trades in the middle ages where women can trade independently having inherited firms from husbands, fathers etc as well so they play an equally prominent role often as we’ll see within the production of such works. And then the stationer would have to make sure all the work was brought back in together and get it all bound up and make sure everything literally stitched together well. So that’s something of the process.
So yeah let’s have a little look through and see some of the details and how we might begin to read these. Now the first thing that’ll strike you here is that you’ve got rather a saucy image of the virgin and child, she’s suckling and there’s perhaps a little bit more information there than might usually be included and she’s appearing in a vision to St Bernard here so this is about as racy as it gets at this time. So that’s ... it’s a strikingly devotional image but it is very graphic. And almost as if to defuse some of that exuberance you can see that the whole is contained within a very restrained super-elegant border in which you can see statuary ... so this is looking just like the sort of church architecture in Gent and Brugge around 1500 that the patron’s book would be using the book within.
And if you look carefully at either the reproductions online or the book as well as the manuscript itself you can see that this work is immaculately produced in prisography so it’s a mixture of techniques of work in gold. You can either lay gold on as leaf over gesso and modern calligraphers tell me that if you have one cubic square inch of gold leaf you can guild a football pitch. I’ve yet to see any of them do it, I must challenge them on that one day. Or you can powder it as shell gold because you would mix it in a shell, powdered gold with a little alum and honey etc to get the right mordant and texture and lay on that with a quill pin or a brush as an ink to give you those very, very fine details but that takes about 25 times as much gold as rolling it out very finely for gold leaf and so the amount of shell gold to achieve this very, very fine modelling makes this a very, very expensive commission indeed.
And again just to show us the level of detailing now what we’re looking at here is about ... ooh it’s about 18cm by 9cm so again you can see just the level of painterliness and I think quite easily see the connection with the panel paintings of the day, people like Quentin Metzis, Memling and others. You’ve got the same level of artistry and modelling at work here and in fact the panel painters’ art grows out of 1,500 years of manuscript painting as well as more recent Italianate fresco work as well.
Now this is a particularly beautiful image and it gives you an idea of the user of the book and how it would have appeared when it was actually first being used with probably a chemise binding rather than the one that we see now. It’s like the equivalent of a dust jacket if you like but sometimes they could be of simple homespun or alum tooled sheepskin but often they were very, very elaborate textiles as you see here. Now this is St Helena who was the mother of Constantine the Great who was the first Roman emperor to formally embrace Christianity and to issue edicts of toleration to all religions including Christianity in the early thir ... fourth century and she was an amateur archaeologist who went on a tour of the holy land and wherever her native guides told her to dig she would dig and lo and behold she found wonderful things like the true cross. It must have been a very, very large cross if the number of fragments that then circulated throughout the middle ages is to be believed. And she’s wearing the sort of opulent fabrics that are known from Burgundy and the Spanish Netherlands at this sort of period.
And around again one of these beautiful shell gold borders we’ve got what we call a strew border which is like that phase in ancient Roman art when they liked things to be incredibly, incredibly almost photographic in their verism and naturalism and the interest very much is in the flora and fauna which are being increasingly studied in a university environment in the 14th and 15th centuries and of course with the opening up of trade after Marco Polo’s voyages and others with areas beyond the eastern Mediterranean, again a great interest in the exotic plants for example that were coming in. And from the 14th century onwards the palette of earlier medieval illumination explodes into a wealth of new exotica such as Brazil woods, not from Brazil in South America but from the Orient and a whole range of different colours that are adopted by the textile industry, saffron, Saffron Walden in England which made its living from crocus stamen dyes for example. So a whole range of new vegetable dyes and also artificially manufactured colours such as a whole range of acidic copper blues which are being manufactured through advances in the scientific elements of the university syllabus.
And again the whole spectrum is imbued with deep imagery, each flower, each animal, each insect, each gemstone that we’ll see depicted all imbued with ... like the medieval bestiary with deep, deep, deep, more significance so here for example you’ve got a peacock whose flesh is thought never to putrefy and so it becomes a symbol of the resurrection and also interestingly in England the symbol of queenliness. And so it’s sort of doubly appropriate with Helena finding the cross, the resurrection that’s implicit within it and also her own status, royal status. And then you have the red and white roses, symbol of the virgin and of virginity. And here you’ve got the snail and again our intertextual reading of the bestiary would tell us that the snail is the symbol of humility because it draws in its antennae when faced with righteous authority. The one I’m not too ... well the fly, well what's the fly going to say to you? Again that’s death, okay? With the ... so you’ve got the death on the cross and the resurrection to come.
And the virginity through the incarnation through the virgin and also Helena’s own sort of born again virginal status through discovering the cross. The thing I’m not too sure about, and there’s always a mystery to be pursued in these things, is the donkey which resembles both obviously the donkey of the nativity but also the donkey that the virgin is normally shown on fleeing Egypt. But here it’s got two little black babies or some ... yeah, I think that ... they are babies rather than little apes you also see sometimes aping the actions of mankind but I think these are actual children so two little children in a pannier. Now that’s unusual. So there’s probably a little bit more work to be done to decipher that.
Now here you can see St Gerome engaged in writing his Folgate Latin translation of the Bible in the 4th century but you can see he’s doing it not in 4th century holy land but in Gent or Brugge in the sort of church and monastic enclave that the book was probably used in. And you certainly wouldn’t be sitting outside writing in a readymade book if you were a scribe of this period as we’ll see in a moment and again look at all of the gemstones and the way in which these flowers look more like enamelled brooches, don’t they? So again similar symbolism with the rose etc. There are an awful lot of pearls in this particular volume and lots of rubies and again that might well say something about the patron. I’m sure some of you remember ... we don’t do it so much now but you remember it used to be the thing that you had a birth gemstone. Yeah? It’s that sort of thing, people would have a patron saint, a gemstone that was peculiar to either that saint or the month that they were born in, the star sign, all of those sort of symbolisms implicit. And note the little flower, the viola which keeps cropping up in very prominent positions. Now often these can be a play on name forms as well.
Now the actual circumstances of production would have been more like this, this is from a German gradual of about the same period, 1512, in which you can see an interesting conjunction, you’ve got a scribe still in monastic orders ‘cause the monasteries didn’t pack up the minute the town started producing, who’s wearing his eyeglasses and is busy doing musical notation over here while here we’ve got a secular scribe and illuminator, Nicholas Birchie, with his wife, Margaret, who are named in the little colifen underneath and you can see Margaret’s helping out by bringing him a pint of beer to encourage him in his work. And often it would be as I say husband and wife and family teams who would undertake work of this sort.
Now if you were really, really accomplished people would ask for you by name, okay? And word would get out and one such lead artist is the person who did this beautiful opening which is Gerard David, okay? And we can track him from other works in which he actually signs his name and if you look again at the beautiful, beautiful modelling of the virgin here, very much related to his panel painting work but then look again at the farm that we’ve got here. You’ve got a little husband and wife team again pushing a very heavy wheelbarrow with one of these specimen plants of the sort that are adorning the window sills of the houses in the Netherlands and Holland at this time so again leading the way with the plantsmanship and bringing new species into the west and beautiful, beautiful roses and our little viola again. And time and time again we get the strawberry which is the symbol of purity ... again it’s the ... one of the fruits of the virgin ... appearing with a little marguerite. So again is there a marguerite or a viola aspect? There are quite a few women saints mentioned in the book so perhaps it might well be for female use.
And this is Gerard David’s self-portrait in which he shows himself as one of the bystanders if you like in one of his panel paintings such as this Salani family tryptic for their chapel. And look at this gorgeous little flight into Egypt panel painting that he was responsible for. And the preoccupation in the Flemish Netherlands with beautifully depicted perspectival landscape that you find in both the miniatures first and then in the panel paintings.
Now the volume opens with a calendar and this basically gives you the key to which saints feast days occur on which days of the year and I’m sure you’ve heard tell of red letter days? That would be ... the more important of them would be written in red ink rather than text ink. In a really flashy book you would have gold ink for the top grade feasts then blue then red then text ink and so you can see that things like the enunciation to the virgin. George, the martyr, who is one of the patrons of Gent is shown there, the evangelist, Mark, and then other sort of second-tier saints and again by looking at the ones that are more unusual within any such calendar you can help customise it and localise it if you’re lucky. Okay?
And then a series of illuminations that go right back to late antiquity, you’ll find these in mosaic decorations of the 3rd and 4th century. You have signs of the zodiac so here you’ve got Aries and Taurus and underneath the labours of the months appropriate to ... March, we’ve got a beautifully observed little urban garden of the period with the gardener digging up the raised beds and the lady of the house coming to ... giving instruction on what herbs etc she wishes to be planted and here you can see in April the herdsman getting the sheep ready to go out to pasture and you note you’ve got the goat in amongst them, the parable of the sheep and goats.
And this is another work by the artist that probably did those calendar miniatures in the Rothschild Prayer Book and he’s Simon Benning. And this is another calendar by him in a book in the British Library in London and this one is known as the Golf Book because for some of you gentlemen and ladies out there it contains the earliest depiction of the game of golf.
And here returning to the Rothschild Hours we’ve got a very fine depiction of the nativity and note that that’s sort of set like a panel painting within another background image in which you’ve got Mary and Joseph arriving very, very tired at Bethlehem and being told that there’s no room in the inn by the innkeeper’s wife. He’s hiding inside ‘cause he can’t ... doesn’t want to take the flak if you like and so she and the baby have been sent outside and you’ve got this lovely dog just lolling on the thing. But of course they are shown to the rather ramshackle stable nearby. And here you can see the angel announcing the birth of Christ to the shepherds up on the hillside here and picking up on that at the opening of the office of prime in the hours of the virgin you can see this wonderful scene where the shepherds have gone out subsequently and have told everybody the wondrous tidings and all those who are then going to be saved are having a good old knees-up around the sheep to celebrate the coming of the Messiah.
And here you’ve got further on in the same off ... the beginning of the office of the virgin where you’ve got the coronation of the virgin by father, son and holy spirit, father and son shown as identical. And underneath this scene of three figures actually praying in a church of the period, some of them with their books of hours and this nun with a scroll with the equivalent of this sort of Victorian hatbox that scrolls would be kept in. And this beautifully observed landscape and I love this detail here, let’s focus in on him. Interestingly enough Seven Network ... ‘cause of course Kerry Stokes, the doyenne of Seven Network ... and here you see this little figure who I think in some respects is symbolising the senses because the treatise on the senses and the way in which you access spirituality through engagement with the material world ... matter matters ... is an intriguing concept that goes right back to the Anglo Saxon period. And you can see this little figure who’s holding I think ... I think it’s a ... it might actually be a little bird and I think the reason for that is that he’s a scribe. This little leather container on his belt is what his quill pens would go in so that might be a reference to the origin of the quill pen here. And look at Alveola again, how prominent that is. And then what would normally be his ink horn is used as the feeding trough or water trough for the little caged bird and there’s our strawberry again so there are a lot of caged birds and other free birds chattering. And Chaucer for example refers to chattering birds symbolising gossip and spreading news so gain a relationship between the written word of the scribe and the oral proclamation of the word perhaps?
Here we’ve got a beautiful processing of saints of the sort that you would see going through the streets of such towns during major feast days and here you’ve got the virgin in her celestial blue ‘cause the colours again have got lots of symbolism imbued within them. And just as the banners and statues etc are being carried here so these two little drollery figures are making really hard work of carrying a really big black beret around with them so again the sort of fruits if you like of that sort of observance and a bit of fun, basic fun. And here you can see the little ape, the similes as they’re known in Latin because they simulate the follies of mankind and there he is trying to pluck his own little flower and berry as well. Gentians also in the margins there.
And here onto the more serious side of life which is of course death and here you can see opening the office of the dead, a contemporary funeral with a clerk figure here and a number of mourner monks who would be paid to sing souls ... masses for the souls of the dead set upon beautiful figured silk grounds of the sort that we see of the saints decked out in for their costumes. But lest one get too carried away with the panoply and the theatre of it all of course there’s the inevitable memento mori, the three living and the three dead so as you in your finery etc or remembering your finery and the days of wine and roses, look at your prayer book, you’re brought face to face with your own mortality with the skulls placed in the charnel house and the scene of the burial itself.
But nil desperandum because a few pages later we’ve got the resurrection. And again with beautiful delft pottery with your plants and your vases etc and Christ raising from the dead ... others from the dead in a beautiful side street of Gent. You think about Stanley Spencers you know resurrection at Cookham, things like that, it’s making it ... it’s situating yourself and your society within the ongoing timeliness ... a timelessness of the Biblical landscape. And the same device that you have in byzantine icons of gold being a sort of spiritual quantum, other dimension if you like. And look we’ve got our flies there as well.
What have we got here? Oh this is the beginning of the office of the holy spirit showing the sort of members of the congregation who would own books such as this taking part in services. And again this little figure who’s rather fun riding his horse out on business. And this is the opening that we’ve got in the exhibition at the moment which is from the litany and suffrages of the saints and this is the memorial of St Stephen and of course you would know that even if you didn’t read the rubric. The rubrics are the bits in red from Rubeim which distinguish titles or instructions relating to the text from the actual text itself. And then you’ve got a hierarchy of decorative initials and major initials for the beginning of the prayer and then a minor initial for the next paragraph if you like so S for Stefanis, D for Darnobis give to us. And you should be able to recognise Stephen anyway from his attributes ‘cause not only has h got a particularly fine and hefty service book under his arm because he was a deacon of the church who would carry the gospels in their treasure bindings for reading out of during services but he’s also got a whole load of stones that he’s looking at rather wistfully and offering to you and of course one of them is embedded in his skull because he was martyred by stoning.
And if you look carefully ... do go and look at the actual thing in the gallery and just look at how beautifully fine ... rather than having the circular nimbus of holiness you’ve just got this tiny little radiation, emanation of energy coming off of him with the shell gold.
And here you’ve got an angel zapping St Francis with little lights of gold with the stigmata and what have we got in the margins? Very ostentatious and beautiful peacock feathers, again for eternal life and our little viola yet again. And here the commemoration of St Thomas and I love this detail, you’ve got you know they used of have the thing about ... or still do about the canals freezing over and everybody going skating on them, you see them in Voigel paintings and here we’ve got two little grotesques taking advantage of the fact that it’s not quite frozen over yet but it’s getting there and so you’ve got one of them in full armour, a sort of merman in full armour and the other one perching on a little phoenix. Wild men, the men of the forest, the symbols of otherness and the chaos that lurks outside on the margins. And of course Thomas being famous for what? Doubting so again chaos that comes through allowing yourself to be tempted too far down the path of uncertainty rather than dwelling in aketsian uncertainty which is probably a different thing altogether.
And here we see St Catherine again, patroness of those going into childbirth, Catherine of Sinai and she’s got her own lovely little book of hours with chemise and her bodice embroidered with pearls and the sort of figured silks that we saw on some of the backgrounds earlier and little snails leaving little illuminated trails of humility all over the place.
And here Susannah and the elders. Now it’s amazing how risqué a bare ankle could be even up and to including the Victorian period and you can see Susannah just going for a little early morning dip and these rather sinister figures and the most sinister of all is this one whose face you can’t even see, you just see this incredibly vibrant mass of his body in his orange drapery and these are the elders who spy on Susannah and because they’re afraid of their own lust being found out try to sacrifice her. And opposite you can see St Veronica holding the cloth that she wiped Christ’s face with on his way to the crucifixion. And all of our pearls again.
Now a little bit veering away from the book itself into the background. Now this is William de Brailes and we know that because he’s written in the margins in French ... a Latin book but W de Brailes key med de pas. William de Brailes who painted me and here he is with the hand of God lovingly stroking his cheek, beloved son. And here’s a clerk in minor orders, you can see that ‘cause he’s got the corona tonsure, okay? But we know from ... a lot of people would enter minor orders especially if they were involved in the book arts so they were like tertiaries but they were still married, he had a wife, Selina, who ran his illuminator’s business with him in Catte Street in Oxford which is here just beside the Bodleian and the Sheldonian Theatre, you can still go there and walk in the footsteps of William de Brailes and Selina who owned a lot of property around the area which is why we know a bit about them because the legal documents about their transactions survive. And the Rouses have done an awful lot of work on profiling the book trade in medieval Paris from the documents that were generated by the book fraternity. And William de Brailes illuminated the first book of hours, this one, around the 1240s in Oxford, the De Brailes Hours.
The sort of environment are places like Paris and Oxford, the book trade was very much fuelled by the university and its demands for provision of syllabus books. And that obviously means that you get an intensity of book trade workers but you’re also working for high-level patrons, courtly patrons and others on all sorts of other texts as well as university texts. But these little pocket bibles are amongst the most prolific products of such university centres and everybody who graduated from the Theology Tripos would be given one to take out for preaching with them and again we’re fortunate enough to have a couple of those in the collection here. I think one of those is on display in the gallery next to the Rothschild Hours and it’s amazing that ... how suddenly in the 13th century with this radical transformation of book production you could get a bible that ... previously a single volume bible would be something that six people would need to hold and lift up but by dint of writing them on very, very fine split sheepskins where you could get two skin ... two pages out of one split sheepskin and then fold it into eight, an octava, to get a little volume. You would find that you could then write with a crow quill very, very finely and use lots of abbreviations and shorthand symbols and you could condense it into the sort of format that we have in Gideon bibles and NIVs etc today. And that’s the 13th century one.
Now sometimes the relationships between the scribes and artists who worked in different roads etc wasn’t always quite so congenial. Here you can see the scribe has done his best and often they would be rush jobs but the artist has noticed that oh, he’s gone and left a whole line and a half out there. And he’s written it in the margins and that looks awful and I’m not going to cover his tracks so I’m going to draw attention to it in the worst way possible, I’m going to point to where it should be, I’m going to haul those words up on a rope and I’m going to step on the scribe in the process.
Thinking about modern-day scribes and of course other traditions, the Islamic and Judaic traditions obviously producing illuminated manuscripts as well even if not focusing on figural ornament within sacred texts and here you find a manora from a Spanish Hebrew bible of the 14th century and here you find a similar manora in the St John’s bible which was made in the 1990s for the Hill Monastic Library at St John’s, Minnesota by the leading calligrapher from England, Donald Jackson, and his scriptorium. And here you can see him working at the Hendra near Monmouth and this is a quote from him, not a particularly religious man. When we pinned him to actually say how he felt when he was producing this work he said when I was a nine-year-old desire led me to copy ancient scripts and decorated letters, I loved the feel of the pen as it touched the page and the breathtaking effect of coloured ink as its wetness caught the light. Those sensations which I still experience as I work ... think of our scribe with the senses, smelling, listening, touching ... are what seem to direct the shapes and colours of my designs and letters. The quill and the brush, not my conscious thinking, make the choice. The continual process of opening up and accepting what may reveal itself through hand and heart on a crafted page is the closest I have ever come to God. And that from a modern secularist. Interesting of think what the different experiences in the Middles Ages would be. And here he is ... I showed him bibles of all different periods in the British Library and we worked to find what were the best sort of scripts and idiom for producing and then for the artwork of course he wanted to situate his society and environment and styles in a similar way as the medieval had and so here the crucifixion in stunning gold leaf is done in a very sort of abstract form.
And this is what a book looks like when you’re working on it, it’s not nicely bound until all the work is finished and brought back to the stationer. The scribes normally do the layout, do the art ... do the scribal work, the rubricator comes in and does the rubrics and then the spaces that are left, decorators put in the initials, the minor pen flourish initials. You would people who spend all day every day just doing red and blue flourishing, red and blue flourishing, red and blue flourishing or laying on disembodied bits of gold leaf onto very faintly drawn designs that would then pass to the colourist for full illumination while for some of the really, really glitzy full page miniatures they might be done separately by a high-class illuminator and their team. And so this is what it looks like when you bring it all back together.
And this is his scriptorium. The young girl here was 18 at that time. This chap was 64. Now you’ll hear a lot of pscyhopalliography. It used to be said oh it’s clumsy, it must have been nuns’ work. Well we now know that some of the most stunning things of the middle ages were by women. Or that oh, he’s old, he’s got a tremulous hand etc. Beware this is a pastiche of their different scripts and they’d all schooled themselves to write a house style. And professional scribes then and now will write many different types of scripts so tracking their hands can be difficult. I challenge you to tell me which is the 18 year old girl and which is the 64 year old man.
And this is Gent just to situate us. And the sort of background that these artists would have grown out of would be seeing beautiful works such as the Gent altar piece by the Van Eyks. Individuals such as Edward IV of England would go to Gent and Brugge to buy some of their key works. This is a beautiful copy of Vincent De Bouve’s speculum. You would hold up human history to you to reflect your own identity and that of your society and the magnifying glass that you see here would do the same so that’s the symbolism there. And this is the author at work in his study. Now this is a book that was made for off-the-peg sale on spec by a Gent Brugge stationer and spaces were left for the coats of arms and he hit jackpot because he got a king who must have paid top dollar and so the arms of England were added in the workshop once the king had made his purchase.
And this is a gorgeous piece, this is by the same team as the Rothschild Prayer Book so somebody liked the line-up or they liked working together and replicated it across a couple of works and this stunning edifice is the tower of Babel being constructed. Made for the Grimani banking family of Venice. And these are from the calendar where the calendar is given full page miniatures of the labours of the month so the peasant and his wife keeping warm inside their house and in spring the courtly love scenes of life in the field for the nobles. And this is another stunning miniature of the rest of Christ by Simon Benning for a book of hours made for Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg now in the Getty. And look at the ways in which the faces of the captors are sort of given exaggerated facial features. And another set of miniatures for calendars for Benning now in the V&A with the labours of the months.
Now this is a good corollary, this is Clifford Manuscript 9 from the collections here made in Gent Brugge only about 30 or 40 years before the book that we’re looking at. Now it’s not just that we’ve moved a little later, this is the sort of book that as you know not doing too badly burghers we might aspire to if we saved up all our lives. And note the way in which Christ’s head has been rubbed as a devotional act and Eamon Duffy has written a marvellous book called Marking the Hours which actually looks at the signs of use and wear in such books to see how they were actually used.
And this is a second-hand book of hours that was owned by Richard III and was probably the one that accompanied him to Bosworth, the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. It may be that it had a family association or something, he liked his mother’s books particularly. This one had been commissioned in London in the 1420s and we know from people like the household inventories of John, Duke of Bedford, in the early 15th century that he had seven or eight books of hours and sorters and he would keep some in individual houses, some he would take on campaign with him and so there are you know different horses for courses if you like.
This one is lovely, this is the Hours of Mary and Burgundy made in a similar area to ours in 1477 and I love the spatial play here, you’ve got Mary who’s the daughter of Charles the Bold reading the book that we’re looking at in its chemise binding with her rosary beads and her little dog symbolising fidelity and looking through the open window at herself being presented to the virgin and child in eternity through the process of meditative reading of her prayers.
And here to show the interaction between the northern renaissance and the Italian renaissance this is a beautiful book of hours made for Bonas Fortser, the Duchess of Milan, in the 1490s and this was made by leading court illuminator Juvan Pietro Birago and look how the young men of ... oh God, they’re sexy, aren’t they? They’re wearing up to the minute sort of clothing for Milan haute couture of the day and looking very much like some of the artworks that we’re familiar from the young Leonardo for example and his master. Now the book was stolen by a priest while it was being worked on and subsequently retrieved and the amount paid, the insurance valuation if you like was a king’s ransom even though it was incomplete. And it was bequeathed by Boner to one of her relatives, Margaret, Reagent of Australia and she had it completed in Gent and Brugge around the 1510, 1520 mark by Gerard Horenbout who’s one of our artists in the Rothschild Prayer Book and so here you can see Horenbout from the Gothic north responding with his puttee and jewels etc to the sort of work that he’s seeing in the Milanese work. And also commissioned by the Sportser family at about the same time, Leonardo’s famous last supper and of course his experiments with pigments in the fresco albeit not as accomplished obviously as the centuries of traditions of handling pigments in manuscript illumination.
But just to set the scene for us again to finish off around the ti ... 10, 20 years before our work is being produced Leonardo is exploring the golden section with his Vitruvian Man that we see here and experimenting with flying machines for court pageants with his famous mirror writing as a cloaking device, writing back to front. And here we’ve got Christopher Columbus writing his notes in Latin in the margins of an early printed version of the Travels of Marco Polo with this little maniculum, the pointing hand, being the forerunner of the noter bene in the margins. So it really sort of situates it, doesn’t it? In that sort of personal world of exploration and pushing frontiers in this world as well as in the next. And here, 1490s, from Lisbon you’ve got Bartolomeu and Christopher Columbus’ portolan chart that’s produced of the coast of Africa and of Europe and of course they’re projecting their exploratory voyages across the Atlantic.
And again around the same time Polish astronomer and mathematician Copernicus is beginning his experiments in Bologna to prove that the sun rather than the earth lay at the centre of the universe and was about to be condemned as a heretic for his labours.
And the world of manuscripts, grotesques importing into the world of panel painting with the wonderful Bosch Garden of Earthly Delights painted around our time in the South Netherlands where you’ve got this wonderful abuse of all of the delights of nature and all of the pleasures given to us. Look at the young couple in their bubble where everything seems wonderful in that first flush of romance but it’s going to be a long eternity trapped in that bubble together when it goes horribly wrong as we’ll see in the next part of the tryptic. And here you can see us all almost Pythonesque. You can see where Terry Gilliam was getting a lot of his inspiration from here you know what happens? And this sort of almost apocalyptic World War 2 vision of what happens if you abuse the Garden of Earthly Delights and all of our medieval grotesque creatures, this little mouse onion creature eating a human leg down the bottom here etc.
And meanwhile Henry VIII is busy commissioning beautiful manuscripts and here you can see the Marguerite and the Marigold and the Rose and the Rose of Lancaster and York growing up to form the combined Tudor Rose as the new dynasty takes over in the aftermath in the Battle of Bosworth with the Welsh Tudor dragon as well as the English lion etc. This was produced to celebrate the marriage of his sister to the King of France and also contains some of the beautiful motets. This is the rose motet including some compositions by Henry himself.
And of course the natives are getting restless. This is a Wycliffe bible for Thomas of Woodstock. Not only ordinary people but members of the nobility were wanting access to scripture in their own language and of course the Lollards pinned their demands for reform on the doors of St Paul’s Cathedral in London way before Luther did the same with his 96 theses. And of course that led directly into Martin Luther’s work who anointed the Protestant reformation with his 96 theses in 1517. And that of course would lead to the Tyndale Bible being printed in Worms in English in 1526 and being burnt in the churchyard of St Paul’s when it was brought into London. Ironically enough within 20 years St Paul’s was the first church to have an English language bible readily available for consultation by the public and so the thing turns.
Portraiture, Holbein’s stunning 1523 portrait of the Dutch humanist priest Erasmus who in the midst of the horrors of the reformation charted a very sane and humane middle course based on both his religious faith and on his absorption of humanism and the classics in which you would have something that would lead into Elizabeth I’s famous quote about I do not wish to creative windows into men’s souls. And again you see with the classical architecture here and the Greek on the foredge of the book symbolising his scholarly pursuits and inclinations. And here another one who thought he had scholarly pursuits and inclinations, this is Henry VIII’s personal sorter in which he has the hutzpah to have himself depicted as King David as a musician as ever with the fool says in his heart there is no god and this a portrait of ... from life of Henry’s own court fool and harshest critic, Will Sommers. So the tradition of illumination carrying on well into the print era. And just to end with, this is a beautiful manuscript portrait of Simon Benning, one of our lead artists in the Rothschild Prayer Book painting an image of the virgin and childlike St Luke who painted them from life in the byzantine icon tradition with his eyeglasses etc and his very lined brown eyes ‘cause he’s 75 now, painting himself and still working in 1558. But the line continues, here we’ve got one of the most beautiful early images of Queen Elizabeth I of England painted by Levina Teerlinc who was one of Simon Benning’s six daughters, many of whom went into the trade.