05 May 2022
We’re going on a bear hunt
It's not every day you recognise a bear in the Library. But in a Book of Hours we recently catalogued as part of the Harley cataloguing project, we came across a furry figure who seemed strangely familiar. He is a rather plump little bear, clambering with some determination up a stalk of foliage in one of the richly decorated margins. He reaches up with one paw, his belly towards us, his head raised to reveal the underside of his snout. Once seen, such a cute bear is hard to forget.
And we had seen him before. We recognised the bear from an engraved playing card by an anonymous artist known as the Master of the Playing Cards. So how did he end up in this manuscript margin, and what can he tell us about this Book of Hours?
The Master of the Playing Cards
The Master of the Playing Cards was an early printmaker active in southwestern Germany from the 1430s to the 1450s. This artist seems to have specialised in engravings (prints made from metal plates), as opposed to the more common woodcut prints of the period. Although their real name is no longer known, the artist is known after their most famous work: a set of finely engraved playing cards.
Playing cards were introduced into Europe from Asia in the 14th century. In the Middle Ages, the suits in a deck of cards were not fixed as hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades as today, but came in all kinds of designs. The surviving cards from the Master’s deck are suits of flowers, birds, deer, beasts of prey and wild men. Each card is printed with beautifully studied illustrations of the subject in a variety of inventive poses.
Playing cards as manuscript models
Almost as soon as they were printed, artists saw the potential of the Master’s playing cards for book illumination. It was common practice to speed up the process of decorating books by copying designs from models. With their appealing subjects, skilful drawing and small size, the playing card figures were perfect for adorning the margins of books. Figures based on the Master’s playing cards have been identified in over twenty manuscripts from the 1430s onwards, originating in centres across Europe.
One example in the British Library’s collection is the Saluces Hours, made in the duchy of Savoy (modern-day southeast France and northwest Italy) in several stages between the 1440s and 1460s. You can read more in our previous blogpost, Antoine de Lonhy and the Saluces Hours. The playing card figures in this manuscript are from the wild man and deer suits, and they date from the earliest campaign of work, attributed to the artist Peronet Lamy in the 1440s.
The playing card figures were not only copied onto the pages of manuscripts. Some copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the earliest full-scale work printed in Europe using moveable type, were hand-painted with figures based on the Master of the Playing Cards. Both the printing and illumination were done in Mainz, Germany. Here is an example with our climbing bear:
The bear moves to Flanders
Our Book of Hours (Harley MS 2433) is another instance of a book decorated with figures from the Master of the Playing Cards. Testament to the wide geographic influence of the playing cards, this manuscript was not made in Savoy or Germany, but in Flanders. We do not know who the original owners were because the coats of arms which appear in the manuscript’s margins remain unidentified. Yet there are several clues which suggest that it was probably made for use around Ghent. The Hours of the Virgin are a variant version for the Use of Tournai, a diocese which in the Middle Ages included Ghent. Several of the texts are in Middle Dutch, the main language of Ghent (but not of French-speaking Tournai). The calendar and litany contain a host of Flemish saints, including several especially associated with Ghent, such as Sts Pharaildis, Amand, Amalbergha and Bavo.
A series of luxurious illuminated initials and borders are all that remain of the manuscript’s decorative scheme. Originally it probably also contained full-page miniatures, but sadly these have been cut out leaving visible stubs of parchment in some margins. Yet the remaining decoration provides plenty to admire. As well as the climbing bear, several other animals roaming in the manuscript’s lush margins are recognisable from the Master of the Playing Cards’ deck:
These creatures can provide further clues about the origins and connections of our Book of Hours. If we look up other manuscripts from Ghent-Tournai that are known to feature designs from the Master of the Playing Cards, we soon come across a close match. An illuminated manuscript recording the Privileges and Statutes of Ghent (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 2583) contains borders similar to those in the Harley Book of Hours. It was probably begun as a commission for some of the leading citizens of Ghent and then completed for Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, after he defeated the city of Ghent at the Battle of Gavere in 1453. The illumination is attributed to an artist known as the Master of the Ghent Privileges. The borders include familiar faces from the Master of the Playing Cards, including our friend the climbing bear:
Yet the Harley Book of Hours and the Ghent Privileges also share marginal designs that are not based on the Master of the Playing Cards:
This combination of shared motifs suggests that the designs in the Harley Book of Hours and the Ghent Privileges were probably not copied directly from the playing cards. Instead, it is likely that they were copied from an intermediary source, such as a model book containing designs gathered from a variety of sources, including the playing card deck.
Although the Ghent Privileges is on a grander scale than the Harley Book of Hours, the margins of the two manuscripts have enough in common that they may have been made by the same or a closely related workshop. The climbing bear also appears in other manuscripts attributed to the Master of the Ghent Privileges, such as the Missal of Jean de Lannoy (Lille, Médiathèque Municipale Jean Lévy, MS 626, f. 174v, image here), and a leaf from a Book of Hours in a private collection (image here).
Previously, no one had noticed that the Book of Hours with the shelfmark Harley MS 2433 had marginal decorations based on the Master of the Playing Cards, or that it shares models with the Ghent Privileges. Who would have thought that one little bear could lead us such a long way?
You can read about some of the other discoveries from the Harley Cataloguing Project in our previous blogposts: deciphering an English exorcism manual, a newly discovered manuscript from Byland Abbey and the lost miracles of St Wulfsige of Evesham.
Anne H. van Buren and Sheila Edmunds, 'Playing Cards and Manuscripts: Some Widely Disseminated Fifteenth-Century Model Sheets', The Art Bulletin, 56: 1 (March 1974), pp. 12-30.
Gregory Clark, Made in Flanders: The Master of the Ghent Privileges and Manuscript Painting in the Southern Netherlands in the Time of Philip the Good (Turnhout, 2000).