Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

13 January 2022

Portraits of Elizabeth I

The British Library’s current major exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens offers visitors the opportunity to see five portraits of Elizabeth I. At the start of the exhibition, Elizabeth’s beautiful mother of pearl locket ring is displayed open to reveal enamelled miniature portraits of her and Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth is depicted in profile as she looked in the mid-1570s; her mother’s likeness is similar to a portrait medal struck in 1534. 

Locket ring containing portraits of Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn

Locket ring containing portraits of Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn, c. 1575: The Chequers Trust

Inside the ring there is a small oval plate of gold ornamented in enamel, with a phoenix rising in flames. A mythological bird reborn from its own ashes, the phoenix became associated closely with Elizabeth after her accession to the throne of England in 1558. It symbolised the virtue of chastity, but also Elizabeth’s reversals of fortune under her father, brother and sister, and her restoration of Protestantism from the ashes of the persecutions of Mary I’s reign. Elizabeth had endured her deepest calamity when not yet 3 years old. In July 1536, she was declared illegitimate and excluded from the succession, following Anne’s execution on charges of adultery and incest. The locket ring suggests that Elizabeth never accepted the guilty verdict and found ways to honour the memory of her mother.

On a number of occasions when she was a child, marriage negotiations were opened on Elizabeth’s behalf, only for them to collapse due to her illegitimacy. But, from autumn 1542, Henry VIII made gestures towards rehabilitating his daughter, describing her as ‘endewed with vertues and qualities agreable with her estate/ whom we esteme and regarde, as natural inclination with respecte of her place and state doth of congruence require’ (Add MS 32650, f. 127r). As a precaution against dying on campaign in a new war with France, in spring 1544 Henry restored both his daughters Mary and Elizabeth to the succession, but did not legitimate them. Among the most striking pieces of evidence for Elizabeth’s new-found status is a portrait of her by the court painter Guillim Scrots. Commissioned in about 1546, it is one of the few likenesses of Elizabeth made before she became queen. Dressed in crimson silk and the cloth-of-silver ‘tissued’ with gold that was restricted to the royal family, she is portrayed as self-possessed, pious and scholarly. She marks her place in the book she is holding, possibly a primer. Another book, a Bible perhaps, sits on a lectern in the background. The portrait may, in fact, have been completed during the reign of her brother, Edward VI, which is probably also when the near-contemporary copy on display in the exhibition was made.

Portrait of Princess Elizabeth after Guillim Scrots

Portrait of Princess Elizabeth after Guillim Scrots, 16th century: Private Collection

At her brother’s request, in May 1551 Elizabeth sent Edward another portrait of herself, telling him ‘for the face, I graunt, I might wel blusche to offer, but the mynde I shal neuer be asshamed to present’. 

Letter from Princess Elizabeth to Edward VI, 15 May [1551]

Letter from Princess Elizabeth to Edward VI, 15 May [1551]: Cotton MS Vespasian F III, f. 48r

Made by the court painter Levina Teerlinc for marriage negotiations underway between Elizabeth and a French prince, the portrait itself does not appear to have survived. But another likeness of her from this time does, at least in a mid-17th-century copy generously loaned to the exhibition. Elizabeth appears in a family portrait, the original of which probably dated to Edward’s reign because of the prominent position he occupies in the centre of the composition, with Henry VIII to his right, and both his sisters to his left. The figure standing behind Edward and his father has been identified as the court fool Will Somer, who served in the royal household for many years. Somer’s presence here, and in a number of other royal portraits, perhaps represents continuity between reigns or offers ways of interpreting each image allegorically.

Group portrait of Henry VIII and family by an unknown artist

Group portrait of Henry VIII and family by an unknown artist, 17th century: By kind permission of His Grace, the Duke of Buccleuch & Queensberry, KBE, KT and the Trustees of the Buccleuch Chattels Trust

Even after she became queen in November 1558, Elizabeth’s reluctance to sit for her portrait continued. Most early portraits of her as queen are simple images depicting her in black, some of them poorly executed. In April 1565, during an audience with the English ambassador, Catherine de’ Medici had complained ‘by that that everie bodie telleth me [of Elizabeth’s beauty], and that which I see painted, I must say she hath no good painters’. ‘I will send my self a painter ouer’ to England, she concluded (London, The National Archives, SP 70/77, M. f. 125v). Over the next few years Elizabeth’s portraiture changed, with the production of more realistic likenesses for the purpose of marriage negotiations. These include a full-length and a small portrait bust, both recently attributed to the English painter George Gower, and made directly from life. The portrait bust, currently on loan to the exhibition, may have been commissioned specifically for presentation to Archduke Charles II of Austria, with whom marriage negotiations were underway. In June 1567, Elizabeth sent the chief proponent of the Austrian match, Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd earl of Sussex, as her ambassador to the Hapsburg court. He probably carried this portrait bust with him, which he showed to Margaret of Parma, the governor of the Netherlands. One of Margaret’s courtiers declared that the portrait ‘lacked but speche’ (London, The National Archives, SP 70/92, M. f. 19r). Capturing her guarded self-possession, it is among the very best likenesses of Elizabeth, then aged about 34.

Portrait of Elizabeth I attributed to George Gower

Portrait of Elizabeth I attributed to George Gower, c. 1567: Private Collection

As Elizabeth aged, her portraiture became more elaborate and less lifelike, as realistic depictions of her were no longer required for the purpose of marriage negotiations. The queen was still occasionally painted from life, as for instance in the ‘Darnley portrait’ of about 1575 (London, National Portrait Gallery, 2082). But most works were based on patterns. One imposing example, displayed in the exhibition, dates to the late 1580s. Elizabeth is shown in her Parliament robes of ermine-lined crimson velvet, which create an exaggerated silhouette, subsuming her as an individual into an icon of queenship. Demand from her loyal subjects for Elizabeth’s portrait was growing, particularly after the outbreak of war with Spain in 1585, and this painting may have been commissioned for a public space like a guildhall.

Portrait of Elizabeth I by an unknown artist

Portrait of Elizabeth I by an unknown artist, late 1580s: Private Collection

Our major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, is on at the British Library in London until 20 February 2022. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.

 

Alan Bryson

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11 January 2022

Reach for the stars

Marcus Tullius Cicero (b. 106 BC) is one of the best-known ancient Roman authors. A formidable speaker at court trials and political debates as well as a prolific theorist of rhetoric and philosophy, he influenced generations of scholars and students. It is less known, however, that through his striking and often beautifully illustrated work the Aratea, he was also responsible for introducing many a medieval and early modern reader to the Classical constellations.

Animation of the constellation Sirius, based on a drawing from a medieval copy of Cicero's Aratea
An animation of the constellation Sirius the Dog Star, from a 12th-century copy of Cicero’s Aratea (England, Peterborough, around 1122): Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r

In addition to his many prose works, Cicero was also a poet. However, his reputation as a poet was tarnished somewhat by an infamous work he wrote about his own political genius, The history of my own consulate, which is now lost. Nevertheless, other examples of his poetic texts are preserved, including his translation of an epic poem by the 3rd-century BC Greek poet Aratus.

Portrait of Cicero
'Portrait' of Cicero and his friends from a Renaissance copy of his treatise on friendship (France, Tours, 1460), Harley MS 4329, f. 130r (detail)

Aratus was asked by the Macedonian king Antigonus Gonatas (320 – 239 BC) to compile a handbook on stars and constellations. The resulting work, entitled Phaenomena (Appearances on the Sky) is in hexametric verse and presents an overview of the entire astronomical knowledge of Aratus’s time in polished poetic language. It was highly esteemed, and survives in many copies, often with commentaries. An early example is a fragment of a 4th-century papyrus codex that contained the poem with notes on the right-hand margin.

Papyrus fragment of Aratus’s Phaenomena
Fragment from a papyrus codex containing Aratus’s Phaenomena in Greek with marginal notes (Egypt, 4th/5th century) Papyrus 273 (fragment B)

The popularity of this work is also demonstrated by the fact that the Phaenomena is the only pagan poetic text that is explicitly referred to in the New Testament. In the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul speaks to the Athenians on the Areopagus, his speech begins with a quotation from ‘one of the poets’ of the Greeks. The unnamed poet was in fact Aratus. Paul cites from line 5 of his Phaenomena claiming that ‘we are all offspring’ of a supreme God (Acts 17: 28).

St Paul preaching in Athens
St Paul preaching in Athens, in a Bible historiale (Paris, c. 1350), Royal MS 19 D II, f. 498v (detail)

It was perhaps this wide-reaching popularity of Aratus’s poem that attracted Cicero to translate it into Latin at the very beginning of his career. His translation became known as the Aratea, after the original Greek poet. Unfortunately, Cicero’s translation does not survive in its entirety; the prologue and several other portions of the work are now lost and less than half of the original text has eventually come down to us. However, what the manuscripts did preserve is the illustrative tradition of the text, which may date from Late Antiquity.

Allegories of five planets
Allegories of five planets from a 9th-century copy of Cicero’s Aratea (France, Reims, c. 820), Harley MS 647, f. 13v 

One of the earliest and fullest copies of Cicero’s Latin translation of Aratus’s poem is a manuscript made in the early 9th century (Harley MS 647). The manuscript preserves a carefully edited text: Cicero’s Latin verses are arranged in blocks copied on the lower half of the page in Caroline minuscule. Above, there are lavish coloured illustrations, which contain explanatory notes written in old-fashioned Roman rustic capitals inside the images. The work, therefore, is both useful and beautiful, as is apparent in the section on the constellation Cygnus the swan.

The constellation of Cygnus the swan
The constellation of Cygnus the swan, Cicero, Aratea (France, Reims, ca. 820), Harley MS 647, f. 5v

This early layout comprising text, illustration and commentary proved very successful. It had a long afterlife surviving in a number of later manuscripts, such as a deluxe copy produced at a Benedictine abbey in Peterborough around 1122. This adaptation of Cicero’s Aratea shows a similar layout to the manuscript 300 years earlier but the illustrations are now drawn in pen, without colours except for red dots marking the stars of the constellation.

The constellation of Cygnus the Swan
The constellation of Cygnus the Swan from a 12th-century copy of Cicero’s Aratea (England, Peterborough, around 1122), Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 24r

Manuscript copies of Cicero’s Aratea were produced up until the end of the 15th century when they were replaced by printed copies retaining the illustrative tradition of the earliest manuscripts on the printed pages. This longstanding history of the textual and illustrative tradition of the Aratea shows not only the success of Cicero’s poetical skills in translating Aratus but also the wide-reaching influence of ancient literature and scientific thought on the evolution of science through the manuscripts and their illustrations. You can read more about medieval astronomical manuscripts in our article Medieval science and mathematics on the Polonsky Foundation Medieval England and France, 700–1200 website.

Peter Toth

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07 January 2022

Dürer's Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist

The British Library has loaned five manuscripts to Dürer's Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist, which is on display in the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery until 27 February 2022. The exhibition traces the travels across Europe of the German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), including his journeys to the Alps, Italy, Venice and the Netherlands, through his works and journals. The exhibition follows on from its successful opening at the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen, Germany. For more about the manuscripts included in that venue, see our blogpost on Dürer in the Low Countries

The curators Susan Foister and Peter Van den Brink explore various aspects of Dürer's art and interests, and elaborate on them in the accompanying publication. One aspect of this is Dürer's theories of proportion and perspective, and features one of his drawings of infants to illustrate this point (British Library, Add MS 5228).   

A proportion drawing of infants by Albrecht Dürer

A proportion drawing of infants by Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Dürer's proportion drawings of infants, before 1513: Add MS 5228, ff. 186v–187r

Other evidence comes from Dürer's own letters and his travel journal. Many of Dürer's letters from his travels survive, including those to his friend, the Nuremberg humanist Willibald Pirckheimer (1470–1530). One of the Library’s letters is included in this section of the exhibition (Harley MS 4935).

Dürer travelled to the Low Countries in 1520–21, where he made many drawings in different techniques, such as silverpoint and leadpoint, chalk and charcoal, ink applied with pen and brush, and watercolour.  He kept a journal of his visit, which survives in two copies' at least one page of his original journal remains, with sketches of pieces of folded cloth with instructions on how to make a woman’s cloak (Add MS 5229).  

A page from Dürer’s original diary of his Netherlandish journey in 1520

A page from Dürer’s original diary of his Netherlandish journey in 1520: Add MS 5229, f.50r

Dürer’s interest in Martin Luther (1483–1546) is also documented in his journals. Dürer owned a number of Lutheran tracts, as well as recording a list of Luther’s works, which dates from around 1520 (Add MS 5231). 

List of works by Martin Luther

List of works by Martin Luther: Add MS 5231, f.115r

On his travels Dürer met several other artists, including Gerard Horenbout (1465–1541) and Horenbout’s daughter Susanna.  Dürer and Horenbout met in Antwerp in May 1521, shortly before Horenbout moved to England to the court of Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547). Two leaves from the Sforza Hours painted by Horenbout around this time are featured in the exhibition: the Virgin and Child and the Virgin as Queen of Heaven. 

Image of the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven, by Gerard Horenbout

Image of the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven, by Gerard Horenbout, from the Sforza Hours: Add MS 34294, volume 2, f. 133v

The Sforza Hours is a complicated manuscript, first made for the Duchess of Milan, Bona Sforza, who died in 1503. The miniatures made for Bona were painted by the Milanese court painter and miniaturist Giovan Pietro Birago (active 1471–1513). On her death, her nephew Philibert II, Duke of Savoy (1497–1504), and subsequently his widow, Margaret of Austria (d. 1530), inherited the book. Margaret served as regent of the Netherlands on behalf of her nephew, the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (r. 1519–1556), and at this point Horenbout added 16 full-page illustrations of the life of the Virgin, including the two images featured in the exhibition. 

Image of the Virgin Mary and Child, by Gerard Horenbout

Image of the Virgin Mary and Child, by Gerard Horenbout, from the Sforza Hours, Add MS 34294, volume 3, f. 177v

We hope you enjoy the opportunity to see these fascinating documentary and artistic manuscripts at the National Gallery, together with the many other loans and paintings on display there.

 

Kathleen Doyle

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