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Techniques of the scribes  

by
18 November 2016

Nicholas Cranfield visits an account of the illuminators’ art

© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

St Peter reads the Office: in a Dormition of the Virgin, c.1420, by the Master of the Murano Gradual (active c.1420-40), Venice, Italy

St Peter reads the Office: in a Dormition of the Virgin, c.1420, by the Master of the Murano Gradual (active c.1420-40), Venice, Italy

WALKING into the Adeane Gallery to see the latest exhibition of illuminated manuscripts to go on show in Cambridge in more than a decade, I was immediately reminded of how, last time, I had allowed myself only two-and-a-half hours, and that had been insufficient.f

That exhibition, “The Cambridge Illuminations” (Arts, 12 August 2005), celebrated the acquisition of the Macclesfield Psalter, from the 1330s, which is included again, open at the scene showing the anointing of King David (catalogue no. 65), and ten centuries of book production in the medieval West.

Although not as extensive, the current one marks the Fitzwilliam Museum’s bicentenary, and its focus is as much on scientific analysis and the history of book production as much as on the undeniable artistic brilliance.

We see how pigments were obtained from sources as varied as malachite, insects from east of the Caucasus, and the ochre pits of Bury St Edmunds. An illustration within the text of the Third Letter of St John in the “Dover Bible” shows an apprentice, with his sleeves rolled up, grinding pigments (16) in Norman England, even though the author himself eschews pen and ink (3 John 1.13).

The majority of the 120 works on show come from the Museum’s own collection, and many have been subject to a four-year research project, involving scholars and researchers across Europe, that has analysed the technical methods of production, using spectroscopy, and making vital use of the EU-funded Charisma Project.

That research has found, for instance, the earliest known example of smalt (ground blue glass) in the painting of an historiated initial of the letter G for a choirbook, a gradual (81), made for one of the Camaldolese houses in Murano.

No doubt the artists benefited by the local glassblowing industry, which continues to this day; two of them we know by name, Cristoforo Cortese (active 1390-before 1445), who also worked in Bologna and Padua, and Belbello from Pavia.

Cortese produced Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and a Last Supper for an antiphoner (47 and 51). In illustrating Mark 14.21, Cortese depicts the Twelve around the table, indistinguishable but for the fact that the halo on the head of Judas has been tarnished black. Comparison of both with the tinted drawings of the much earlier Gothic Gospel book from the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds is fascinating, as the richer later decoration contrasts with the simpler and yet more atmospheric English drawing.

Fittingly, the traces of blue smalt that have been found are demonstrated in a Marian scene (81); is it also traceable, perhaps, in another initial G from the same Gradual, in which the artist depicted St Blaise offering his blessing (J. Paul Getty Museum, ms. 73)?

In the scene before us, God steals in at the foot of the deathbed quite unnoticed by the grief-stricken apostles. St Peter, vested in a cope with blue orphreys, reads the Office of the Dead, which is bound in rich blue and held for him by an acolyte.

In front of our Lady’s bier are three supplicants, two of whom, one with a wooden peg-leg and the other a poor friar, recognise the presence of God in their midst, while the beadsman, clutching his paper indulgence, turns his back on the source of his redemption.

The choice of materials on display is also somewhat broader than shown in 2005, and is not wholly confined to the Christian West. It includes an Armenian page (13) depicting St Luke, from a Gospel book produced in 1274 for the Cilician Marshal Ošin which in part reflects absorption of the Byzantine tradition encountered by the Franks during the establishment of the Crusader Kingdom in Jerusalem.

We tend to forget that the Crusades brought a degree of social and economic migration which had rarely been experienced in Europe before, and it is good to be reminded that William the English, prior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, became the first Latin Archbishop of Tyre, serving from 1127 to 1135.

Did he get to see the sacramentary from which a page showing Christ with seraphs is shown near by (11)? That was commissioned for the French-born Patriarch of Jerusalem, Stephen de La Ferté, c.1128/1130. Its rich use of ultramarine in the decoration of these pages indicates the trade routes to the East opened up by the Crusades.

There are also pages from an illustrated 16th-century Farsi poem, The Seven Beauties, written by Nizami, in which a young slave girl presents her princely lover with an ox that she carries on her shoulders (14) and from the poem Bustan, completed in 1257 and illuminated in Kashmir in CE 1505 (38). Elsewhere, Nepalese formulaic prayers appear on multi-layered indigo-coloured paper (15).

Throughout, the exhibition is a feast for the eye and the heart, and is a rich treasure store not least thanks to the generosity of the founder’s bequest. Richard, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion (1745-1816), was an avid collector of antiquities, paintings, sculpture, and books, and his gift to the university furnished the core of a museum collection of international standing to which successive generations have generously given.

One of his last purchases, made in the year before Waterloo, was a Florentine missal completed for Cardinal Angelo Acciaiuoli (1340-1408) in 1405 (28). The Medici-sponsored cardinal became Chancellor of the Holy See in 1387, and, although he was commendatory abbot of the Badia in Florence from 1385 until his death, he seems to have resided in Rome. Nevertheless, he paid four artists in Florence to undertake the work.

His portrait appears in the margin of a page for the observance of Whitsun; kneeling in prayer, he watches as the Holy Spirit descends on the Virgin and apostles, who have gathered behind closed doors; so it is difficult to tell how pleased he was with the final work, which has 66 illuminations and cost him 32 gold florins, reckoned roughly as £30,000 in today’s earnings.

In the same year, Fitzwilliam had bought a slightly later Florentine minuscule, a life of Charlemagne, written by another member of the Acciaiuoli family that had been presented to Louis XI of France by Florentine ambassadors after his 1461 coronation at Reims (82).

The coronation had been arranged in haste as Louis determined to assure himself of his inheritance, and ambassadors had not been present. One legend in the Vita recalls that Charlemagne had re-founded Florence after the Goths had sacked it, as, no doubt, the astute envoys would have reminded the new king.

Fitzwilliam, an antiquary, Fellow of the Royal Society, MP, and expert on French Baroque music, also bought Books of Hours, Psalters, and Bibles. From their pages, we glimpse a penitential King David kneeling in prayer before God (46) and a giant St Christopher forging his way through the waters with the Christ child on his shoulders in a Flemish Book of Hours made for an English patron; it offers the Sarum Use and still retains the feast day for Thomas Becket (50).

The first image we see (9) is an extraordinary portrait of the wasp-waisted René d’Anjou (1409-80), the titular king of Naples, Sicily, and Jerusalem. It was painted to illustrate the travel diary kept by an ambassador from the Holy Roman Empire, Georg von Ehingen, as he travelled across Europe and the Levant in the years after the fall of Constantinople. It can be dated to 1455 when black cloth was dyed with tannin-rich oak gall apples, an effect that the artist conveyed by using carbon black mixed with iron.

Neatly, the last item in this sumptuous gathering of colour picks up the association with King René. He was the author of an improving treatise Le Mortifiement de vaine plaisance (122), in which the Soul, depicted as a naked female figure with rainbow-coloured wings, sits abjectly by a riverbank clutching her fickle heart to her breast with little or no regard for her modesty; even the bunny rabbit on the bank has turned aside.

Carelessly, we might associate book illumination with the high Middle Ages, but the exhibition includes many earlier works that draw on the much older Hellenistic and Byzantine tradition; the gold, silver, and purple of the tenth- century Gospel books produced in Reichenau and St Gall (3 and 40) deliberately mimic much earlier book production and feature a style still kept alive in Germany into the 12th century to be found in a Gospel book from Cologne of 1160/1170 (4).

One of the earliest volumes on display is the eighth-century Northumbrian Gospel Book that probably came from St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury into the ownership of Elizabeth I’s first Archbishop, Matthew Parker.

Like so many other books that he garnered after the Reformation this was bequeathed in 1575 to his Cambridge college, Corpus Christi. Likewise, the two-volume large format “Dover Bible” (16), that had been produced at Christ Church, Canterbury, in the 1150s, found its way on to the Archbishop’s library shelf.

Archbishop John Whitgift who died in 1604 was the last Primate of All England who chose to dispose of his books as his own personal possession. Whitgift obtained an early-tenth-century Frankish copy of a poem by Hrabanus Maurus (117) from the library of Gilbert Bourne, the ejected Marian bishop of Bath & Wells and John de Foxton’s volume on cosmography from the scientific collections of the suppressed priory church of the Austin Friars in York (80).

Both volumes were among the 150 or so manuscripts that Whitgift gave to expand the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, of which he had been Master (1567-77). A high proportion of his bequest came from Christ Church and St Augustine’s, Canterbury, and from the dissolved Cistercian abbey at Buildwas on the Severn.

Whitgift’s cosmography contains images of the four temperaments: Melancholic Man appears as a naked negroid with tight black curly hair who is lacerating himself with a dagger. This is an extraordinarily early image of an African (1408).

The present Archbishop, benefiting from the library at Lambeth Palace, endowed by Whitgift’s successor Richard Bancroft in 1610, which belongs inalienably to the office-holder at any one time, has loaned one of the finest illustrated English Apocalypses (59), in which we see the Faust-like Theophilus being redeemed at the intercession of the Virgin. As Queen of Heaven, she storms into the hell-mouth to bring back the contract that the hapless Theophilus (the name itself means Lover of God, as in Acts 1.1) had made with the devil.

One of the first volumes in the current display is an unfinished pontifical commissioned for Renaud de Bar (d.1316), consecrated Bishop of Metz in 1303 (6b). It remained in the successive possession of the Bishops of Metz, and came to the library at Albi when one of them became Archbishop there mid-16th century.

Its companion volume (6a) remained at Metz and later was sold into a Czech collection. The volumes that illustrate the duties of senior clergy at, for instances, consecrations, the dedication of churches, and the blessing of kings were copied by four scribes and illuminated by at least three artists, and are brought back together for the first time in 400 years.

Perhaps one day the 14 pages of the Latin sacramentary (11) which are in Cambridge will be reunited with the rest of the missal, which is kept in the public library the Biblioteca Angelica, in Rome. For now, until the year end, we can rejoice in the generous disposition made by Lord Fitzwilliam.

 

“Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts” is at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, until 30 December 2016 (closed Mondays and 24-26 December). Phone 01223 332900. www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

 

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