Medieval manuscripts blog

268 posts categorized "Decoration"

04 April 2021

Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal

One of the most glorious celebrations of the feast of Easter in a medieval manuscript is surely the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal. In November 2020 we took a detailed look at this page and its beautiful artwork for the BBC Radio 4 Moving Pictures programme, which you can still listen to on the BBC website. If you didn’t get chance to listen to the programme at the time, or even if you did, we think it would make perfect seasonal listening for this Easter weekend.

The Resurrection of Christ from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal
Decorated initial letter ‘R’ containing a scene of the Resurrection of Christ, from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

Moving Pictures is a radio series that offers listeners the chance to take a long, slow look at great artworks, photographed in incredible detail. You're invited to view a high-resolution image on Google Arts & Culture while presenter Cathy FitzGerald and a group of experts talk you through the details. The speakers on the Sherborne Missal episode are Kathleen Doyle (the British Library), Eleanor Jackson (the British Library), Alixe Bovey (the Courtauld Institute of Art), Paul Binski (the University of Cambridge) and Patricia Lovett (professional scribe and illuminator).

Details of portraits of the patrons and craftsmen of the Sherborne Missal
The patrons Bishop Mitford and Abbot Brunyng (left), and the scribe and artist, John Whas and John Siferwas (right), from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (details)

Made in the early 15th century for the Benedictine abbey of St Mary in Sherborne, Dorset, the Sherborne Missal is a particularly impressive example of a book containing the texts that were read as part of the Mass on the different feast days throughout the year. The page for Easter Sunday is lavished with intricate decoration exploring the significance of Christ’s Resurrection, as well as portraits of the main people involved in the making of the manuscript, whimsical fight scenes and beautifully observed representations of the natural world.

A detail of a picture of a bittern from the Sherborne Missal
Probable bittern, from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

Discover the hidden meanings behind the artwork and celebrate the joys of medieval Easter by listening online while viewing the high-resolution image. You can also find out more about the Sherborne Missal in our previous blogpost.

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22 March 2021

The colour purple

Purple is a colour replete with imperial and spiritual associations. Certain Roman emperors famously reserved the use of purple clothing for themselves. It was also expensive: Diocletian’s Edict of Maximum Prices issued in the year 301 set the limit on a pound of purple wool at 50,000 denarii, the same value as a pound of gold. Books, too, written on purple were high-status objects. According to one account, Constantine the Great (r. 306-337) received a gift of poetry written in gold and silver on purple leaves (ostro tota nitens, argento auroque coruscis scripta notis) (P. Optatianus Porfyrius, Carmina I: 1-4.).

One of the earliest surviving manuscripts written in gold and silver on purple-stained parchment is in fact named for this colour: the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, a Greek manuscript of the Gospels written in the 6th century. In the Middle Ages, it seems probable that scribes and artists were inspired by these Late Antique manuscripts to incorporate purple into the design of prestigious books.

A page from the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, coloured purple with script in silver
Fragment from the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, Antioch, 2nd half of the 6th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 3r

From an early date, the use of purple in Christian biblical texts, often in combination with gold or silver writing, came to symbolise their sacred nature. For example, Godescalc, the scribe of a Gospel Lectionary made for the Emperor Charlemagne in 780, explained that ‘golden words’ on purple pages ‘disclose the joys of heaven’ (the manuscript is now BnF, MS nouv. acq. latin 1203).

One of the places where purple features in illuminated manuscripts is in full-page title or ‘incipit’ pages (from the Latin word incipit, meaning ‘it begins’), often paired with text written in gold or silver. An impressive example is found in a 9th-century manuscript made in the important centre of Tours. It is framed by decorated rectangular panels and interlaced golden corner pieces, which introduce the Gospel of St Matthew: ‘Incipit Evangel[ium] Sec[un]d[u]m Mattheu[m]’ (The beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew), written on painted purples panels.

Title page with a decorative frame and gold script on a purple background
Beginning of the Gospel of St Matthew, Tours, 2nd half of the 9th century: Add MS 11849, f. 26v

Sometimes an entire page is coloured purple, as in this early Bible from Canterbury, which although incomplete, retains four purple leaves. Three feature text written in alternating lines of gold and silver capital letters, while the fourth includes an Evangelist portrait of St Luke. The columns, formed of complex decorative interlace patterns in circles and rectangles redolent of metalwork provide a setting for the beginning of St Luke’s text: Quoniam quidem (forasmuch), written in gold and silver letters. 

Title page from the Royal Bible, with purple parchment and script in gold and silver
Title page from the Royal Bible, Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 9th century: Royal MS 1 E vi, f. 30r

Title page from the Royal Bible, Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 9th century: Royal MS 1 E vi, f. 30r

Evangelist portrait of St Luke with his symbol of an ox, on a purple background, in the Royal Bible
Evangelist portrait of St Luke with his symbol of an ox, at the beginning of his Gospel, from the Royal Bible, Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 9th century: Royal MS 1 E vi, f. 43r

It seems likely that the purple was achieved through painting or staining the parchment, rather than by dipping the entire page in dye, particularly considering the many examples of purple background on only part of the page. Recent analysis of a manuscript now in Cambridge revealed that its purple background was achieved by painting a purple made from a plant, probably orchil (Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS McClean 30, discussed in Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts, ed. by Stella Panayotova (London, 2016), no. 3. You can find out more about how medieval manuscripts were made in our video article.

The use of this colour was particularly popular in the early Middle Ages, when scribes and artists demonstrated the preciousness of the Gospel message through extraordinary decoration in gold, silver and special purple stained or painted leaves. 

Kathleen Doyle

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23 February 2021

Illuminated Canon Tables

Canon tables are ubiquitous and fundamental to Christian copies of Scripture over many centuries, in both Greek and Latin. Devised by the early Church Father Eusebius (d. c. 340), bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, the tables present a unifying gateway to the Gospels, the four biblical accounts of the life of Christ written by the Evangelists, Sts Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The tables contain numbered lists of passages that are either shared in two or more Gospel accounts, or are unique to a particular Gospel. As Eusebius explains in a letter to his friend Carpianus, he compiled the ten tables (or canons, in Greek) to help the reader ‘know where each of the Evangelists was led by the love of truth to speak about the same things’.

In deluxe copies of the Gospels, the canon tables offered an opportunity for artists to explore a different type of decoration from pictorial illustration and narrative initials. Typically the tables are presented in micro-architectural frames, sometimes complete with faux marble or porphyry columns under elaborate arched pediments.

Perhaps the most well-known canon table in the British Library is also the earliest: a sophisticated 6th- or 7th-century example in Greek made in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). These canons are now fragmentary, comprising only two leaves that were added to a 12th-century manuscript of the Gospels in Greek. The fragments give a glimpse of what must have been a truly splendid book, as they are written on gold, and embellished with bust portraits above the arches.

The Golden Canon tables, written on gold parchment with rich decoration
The Golden Canon tables, Constantinople, 6th-7th century: Add MS 5111/1, f. 11r

In an elegant 9th-century Latin example the decoration is enhanced by the presence of an archer who prepares to shoot an arrow across the pediment at another man, who is preparing to launch his spear.

Canon table 2, decorated with an archer and spear-thrower
The Eller Gospels, canon table 2, with an archer and spear-thrower, northeastern France, 2nd quarter of the 9th century: Harley MS 2826, f. 5r

In a later, 12th-century Latin version of the tables from the Benedictine abbey of St Pierre in Préaux in Normandy, the columns feature lush foliage topped by elaborated capitals, with twisted winged creatures embedded in the design. The first canon is set out as seven groups of five passages identified by Roman numerals (the Ammonian section references), divided by horizontal lines and presented in four columns. Each column is headed by the name of the relevant Evangelist (Math[eu]s), Marcus, Lucas and Joh[ann]es). At top, the Abbey’s patron saint St Peter sits above the central column, identified by the key held in his right hand. This attribute was derived from Christ’s statement that ‘That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church . . . And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 16:18-19). 

The Préaux Gospels, canon table 1, with St Peter
The Préaux Gospels, canon table 1, with St Peter, northwestern France, 1st quarter of the 12th century: Add MS 11850, f. 10r

The other nine canons all include a central nimbed figure holding a gold book, presumably representing an Evangelist and the Gospels themselves, which are to come following the elegant correlation of their contents.

The Préaux Gospels, canon table 6, with a nimbed figure
The Préaux Gospels, canon table 6, with a nimbed figure, northwestern France, 1st quarter of the 12th century, Add MS 11850, f. 14r

To find out more, you can also explore our articles on Manuscripts of the Christian Bible, Illuminated Byzantine Gospel-books, and Biblical Illumination, as well as our earlier blogpost on the Golden Canon Tables.

Kathleen Doyle

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19 January 2021

Merovingian illumination in a manuscript of Gregory's Moralia

The British Library holds one of the earliest surviving copies of Pope Gregory the Great’s (d. 604) Moralia in Job, a highly influential commentary on the Old Testament book of Job. It was made only about a century after St Gregory’s death, possibly in Laon during a period of Merovingian rule. The Merovingians were a dynasty that ruled over the Franks in the territory similar to Roman Gaul from the time of Merovech (or Merovich), by tradition the father of Childeric I (d. 481) and grandfather of Clovis I (d. 511).

A detail view of an initial ‘I’ in the shape of a fish
Initial ‘I’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 5v (detail)
Full page of text with an initial ‘I’ in the shape of a fish
Full page with an initial ‘I’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 5v

The decoration of Merovingian manuscripts is distinctive. It features a limited palette of brown, green and yellow, and the use of zoomorphic initials (as the name suggests, where animals form all or part of the letter). Some letters, such as ‘I’ are formed of just one animal, like the fish of ‘I’(nter) (among) at the beginning of the first book, while other letters are more composite. The beginning of the third book of the commentary is a letter ‘B’ for Beatus Iob (blessed Job), made up of a fish and two birds.

A detail of an initial 'B' in the form of two birds and a fish
Initial ‘B’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 55v (detail)
A full page of text with an initial 'B' in the form of two birds and a fish
Full page with an initial ‘B’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 55v

Another characteristic feature of these manuscripts is the display script – enlarged coloured letters typically used to delineate important divisions, such as the beginning of new sections of text. The first book of the text begins with a heading ‘In expositione Beati Iob’ (An Exposition of the Blessed Job). Similarly, the beginning of the third book (incipit liber [tertius]) is announced in capital letters of alternating colours.

Detail of an uncoloured initial ‘Q’ in the form of two birds and a fish
Initial ‘Q’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 78v (detail)
Full page with an uncoloured initial ‘Q’ in the form of two birds and a fish
Full page with an initial ‘Q’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 78v

Something of the way in which these manuscripts were made is revealed by the letter and display script at the beginning of the fourth book: ‘Q’(ui) (who), formed of two facing birds and a fish, and ‘Incipit liber quartus’ (beginning of the fourth book). Both are carefully drawn in ink but left without any added colours. This suggests that the writing and drawing were done first and the colours were added later, but in this case not completed.

You can read more about Gregory the Great in our article on the works of the Church Fathers, and find out more about Merovingian art in our article on French manuscript illumination, both on the Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website.

Kathleen Doyle
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13 January 2021

Over 4,500 manuscripts now online

Long-term readers of our blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts, the last of which was published in July 2020. With the arrival of the New Year and the beginning of a new lockdown in the UK, we are releasing an update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for readers and researchers to explore our amazing digitised treasures online.

A detail from a 16th-century grant of arms, showing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick within a letter O.
A historiated initial ‘O’(mnibus) containing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick (b. c. 1510, d. 1584), Officer of Arms of the College of Arms, London: Add MS 89166, f. 1r detail

There are now over 4,500 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Here is a full list of all the items currently available, as of January 2021:

PDF: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021
Excel: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

The upper cover of the Basikilon Doron, an autograph manuscript of the text with a purple velvet binding.
The velvet binding of the autograph manuscript of the Basilikon Doron, handwritten by King James I: Royal MS 18 B XV, upper cover.

During this period of terrible uncertainty, the Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever, working to make more manuscripts available for our readers online. Over the last 6 months alone, we have published over 850 items, from medieval and early modern codices and rolls to Greek papyri and ostraca. All the images featured in this blogpost are from collection items that we have digitised since June 2020. Here is a list of our most recent additions:

PDF: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021
Excel: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021(this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms
A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms: Harley MS 6563, f. 53v

Over the last months, some 620 Greek papyri have been published online, spanning from the 3rd century BC to the early 8th century. These include pieces of Greek literature, such as the famous ‘Harris Homer Codex’, an 1800-year-old manuscript preserving portions of Homer’s Iliad, as well as hundreds of fascinating documents, such as letters of parents to their children, managers and employees, magical charms and shopping lists. You can view this video for a short introduction to cataloguing the Greek papyri.

Thanks to a collaboration with the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, more than 250 inscribed pottery sherds (ostraca) from the 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD are now available online for the first time. A short overview is presented in our previous blogpost on ostraca.

A framed papyrus, featuring the text of Book II of Homer's Iliad.
The first frame of the ‘Harris Homer Codex’, containing Homer’s Iliad, Bk. II, ll. 101-149: Papyrus 126 (1) recto.

In September, we reported on the progress of a major digitisation programme, Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts. This collaborative project, involving teams across the British Library, intends to publish approximately 600 Tudor and Stuart manuscripts online. The selection encompasses original letters by members of the Elizabethan court; literary manuscripts of the works of important Elizabeth and Jacobean poets such as John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney; notes by the alchemist and astronomer John Dee; and collections of state papers that highlight numerous aspects of the political and social history of this period, particularly the relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. As of the start of this year, over a quarter of these manuscripts have now been published.

A letter from Queen Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, bearing her signature.
An original letter from Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, her ambassador in Scotland, concerning the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots, dated 27 July 1567: Add MS 88966, f. 1r

Since this summer, two particularly significant manuscripts have been digitised, both of which can be explored in their entirety on the British Library’s new Universal Viewer. The Sherborne Missal, acquired by the British Library in 1998, has been called the ‘unrivalled masterpiece of English book production in the fifteenth century' (Kathleen Scott), with each of its hundreds of pages replete with astonishing illumination. Readers can learn more about the Sherborne Missal in our previous blogpost. The volume was also recently featured on BBC Radio 4’s Moving Pictures programme.

A miniature of the Crucifixion from the Sherborne Missal
The Crucifixion, from the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 380

Meanwhile in November, the British Library acquired and digitised the most important surviving manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon, a highly influential mathematician, theologian and astronomer, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London towards the end of the reign of Richard III (r. 1483-1485). The volume contains the most complete collection of his astronomical and mathematical works, including texts that are unattested elsewhere, as well as its original medieval binding and an unparalleled series of astronomical tables and diagrams. Learn more in our earlier blogpost on the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript.

Astronomical tables and diagrams from the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript
Astronomical tables and diagrams from an autograph manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon: Add MS 89442, pp. 30-31.

Many images of our manuscripts are also available to view and download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.

A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines
A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines: Harley MS 3450, ff. 5v-6r

Enormous thanks to all the members of staff across the Library whose hard work has made these achievements possible despite the difficult circumstances this year.

We wish all our readers a Happy New Year and hope you enjoy exploring our digitised collections!

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24 December 2020

The ox and ass at the Nativity

Picture a traditional Nativity scene. The Christ Child is at the centre with his parents, Mary and Joseph, surrounded by a host of familiar characters who played a role in the unfolding events. There are angels, shepherds, the Three Wise Men or Magi (although they can be in a separate scene of the Epiphany), the innkeeper, sometimes even midwives, and, of course the ox and the ass.

The Holy Family with the ox and ass in a Book of Hours
The Holy Family with the ox and ass in a Book of Hours, France, Tours, 1510 – 1520: Add MS 35214, f. 52v

Images of the Nativity in medieval manuscripts also tend to contain some of these familiar characters. Yet after the three members of the Holy Family, the most frequently depicted are the ox and the ass. This is rather surprising as they are not mentioned in the Gospels, but they are one of the most ancient and stable elements in the iconography of the Nativity.

The earliest surviving text mentioning their presence dates from the 8th century (the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which was not included in the New Testament). However, the first known example of a Nativity scene in art, a carving on the Sarcophagus of Stilicho in Milan dated to AD 400, contains just Christ in the manger with the ox and ass on either side; Mary and Joseph are absent.

Nativity scene on the Sarcophagus of Stilicho in Milan
Nativity scene on the Sarcophagus of Stilicho in Milan, AD 400 (Giovanni Dall'Orto / Attribution only license / Wikimedia Commons)

One of the oldest medieval images of the Nativity in our collections contains a friendly-looking ox and ass, watching over Jesus in a rather elaborate crib, hidden in a corner beneath Mary, who takes centre stage. The midwife and Joseph appear to the right (midwives are found most often in earlier images but gradually disappeared from the iconography). This elaborate and stylised miniature is from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, a manuscript made in Winchester in the 10th century.

Nativity in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold
Nativity in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, Winchester, 963-984: Add MS 49598, f. 15v

The ox and ass (or donkey) remained prominent features of Nativity scenes, often found alongside the Christ child. In this image below Christ is placed above Mary in a raised manger and the animals appear to have their noses in the manger where Jesus lies. Some commentators have interpreted this as a kind act by the animals, breathing on the baby to keep him warm, while for others the animals are feeding from the manger, referring to the passage in the Gospel of John, where Christ calls himself ‘the bread of life’ and promises eternal life to those who feed on him.

Scene of the Nativity in an architectural setting with the ox and ass at the manger from Germany
Scene of the Nativity in an architectural setting with the ox and ass at the manger, Germany (Swabia, possibly Hirsau): Egerton MS 809, f. 1v

A charming domestic scene in a Book of Hours in French (below) shows Mary reading or saying her prayers, while Joseph seems to watch her in bemusement (though his head-in-hand pose may denote that he is tired or sleeping). Both seem unaware that the baby Jesus, again at some distance, apparently has his hand in the donkey’s mouth. Of the two animals, the donkey is often seen as more playful, and so perhaps he is allowing the baby to prod him, while the ox (traditionally a sacrificial animal in the Bible) was seen by early Christians as symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice, so he is often shown as the more serious of the two.

Nativity with Ox and Ass in a Book of Hours
Nativity with Ox and Ass in a Book of Hours, France,  1400-1425: Harley MS 2952, f. 142v

In the 14th century, St Briget of Sweden’s vision of the Nativity had a major influence on subsequent iconography. She described seeing the ox and the ass and the Virgin kneeling before a ‘glorious infant lying on the earth, naked and glowing’ with ‘ineffable light and splendour’. And so images of Christ lying naked, worshipped by Mary (and sometimes Joseph) became common in devotional manuscripts. The ox and ass are never too far away, a benevolent presence, Christ’s first playmates.

Nativity Scene with the Holy Family, animals and shepherds with musical instruments
Nativity Scene with the Holy Family, animals and shepherds with musical instruments, Sept articles de la foy, France (Rouen), c. 1440: Royal MS 19 A XXII, f. 4v
Nativity with Mary kneeling, Joseph sleeping, and a cuddly ox and ass
Nativity with Mary kneeling, Joseph sleeping, and a cuddly ox and ass, in Eusebius, Chronici canones (trans. Jerome), Italy (Rome), c. 1485- c. 1488: Royal MS 14 C III, f. 119v

A page from the Hours of the Virgin in the Tilliot Hours contains an unusual two-part image where the ox and ass are present in both scenes. The lower image shows Joseph and the heavily pregnant Mary arriving at the inn, leading a tired-looking donkey which has been carrying Mary in a saddle, followed by the ox. They are greeted by an inkeeper who in this telling of the tale is a woman. In the Nativity scene above, the ox has his nose to the manger, joining in the adoration of the Christ Child, while the donkey looks on from behind.

Nativity scene in two parts with shepherds above and Mary and Joseph arriving at the inn (below), from 'The Tilliot Hours
Nativity scene in two parts with shepherds (above) and Mary and Joseph arriving at the inn (below), in The Tilliot Hours, France (Tours), c. 1500: Yates Thompson MS 5, f. 41v

A picture of the two animals beside a baby in a manger is the simplest and most easily recognisable symbol of the Nativity. An example of this is a set of representations of key events in a medieval almanac. Each event is depicted with the number of years since it occurred, and, following the Ark (4308 years ago), is a simplistic drawing of an ox and ass on either side of a Christ in a crib. The animals make it obvious to the viewer that this is not just any baby, but Christ at his Nativity and so we know that the almanac was produced 1412 years after the birth of Christ, around the year 1412.

Illustrated almanac showing the number of years since key events in history including the Birth of Christ
Illustrated almanac showing the number of years since key events in history including the Birth of Christ (1412 years previously), England, 1400-1412: Harley MS 2332, f. 20v

And lastly, in this rather worrying scene the Christ Child seems to be trying to leap out of the manger. The donkey is holding him back by grasping his swaddling garments with its teeth. Again, Mary and Joseph are oblivious, though the ox watches in horror.

A Nativity scene with musicians in the four corners, from the Maastricht Hours
A Nativity scene with musicians in the four corners, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century: Stowe MS 17, f. 15v

Whether symbols, playmates, transport or babysitters, it certainly seems that the ox and the ass were useful characters at the Nativity.


Chantry Westwell

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17 November 2020

Announcing the Acquisition of the Lucas Psalter

We announce today the British Library’s acquisition of the Lucas Psalter, which was made in Bruges for an English patron in the 1480s, at a time when such luxury Flemish books were sought after by English owners.

A page from the Lucas Psalter with a decorated floral border and a coat of arms at the bottom
A page from the Lucas Psalter with a decorated floral border and a coat of arms: Add MS 89428

The manuscript (now British Library, Add MS 89428) is a deluxe Psalter, including the book of the Psalms and other devotional material, such as a calendar and lists of hymns appropriate to various Sunday services throughout the liturgical year. The book has 183 folios, is of large format (305 x 205mm), and is written in a Gothic textura script, presented in two columns. This type of script was more usual in England than the bȃtarde or rotunda scripts used on the Continent. Taken together, the layout and size of the volume more generally suggest that it was intended as a lectern book rather than one for private devotion. It may originally have been intended to form part of a Breviary, which includes the texts necessary to celebrate the various services of the Divine Office throughout the day.

The manuscript was acquired by Thomas Houchon Lucas (1460-1539) of Suffolk, the secretary to Jasper Tudor and Solicitor General under Henry VII. Lucas is identified by the added arms in the manuscript of Lucas and Morieux quarterly, and of these arms impaling Kemys of Monmouthshire. This identifies the owners of the manuscript for whom these arms were added as Thomas Houchon Lucas and his wife Elizabeth Kemys (d. by August 1528) who married in 1486 (or 1489). The manuscript remained in the family and has the bookplate of Thomas Philip Earl de Grey of Wrest Park (1781-1859) inside the upper cover. Thomas Philip succeeded to the titles 2nd Earl de Grey and 6th Baron Lucas of Crudwell in 1833.

Detail of the coat of arms of Lucas and Morieux quarterly in the Lucas Psalter
Detail of the coat of arms of Lucas and Morieux quarterly in the Lucas Psalter

The manuscript has a contemporary 15th-century binding of red velvet over wooden boards, with metal bosses at the four corners and in the centre of both covers, and corner pieces in unusual shapes with bird head terminals. Although worn in places, the bosses have protected the velvet and accordingly much of the red velvet is remarkably well preserved given its age. The binding may have been added in London shortly after the book was produced.

The Lucas Psalter binding of red velvet with metal bosses at the corners
The Lucas Psalter, with its 15th-century binding of red velvet with metal bosses

We plan to digitise the manuscript and will publish a further blog with more details about the manuscript and its artist, the Master of Edward IV, when it is available on the Digitised Manuscripts website. You can read more about the manuscript in the British Library’s press release.

The Lucas Psalter was purchased by the British Library with the generous support from Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), the Bernard H. Breslauer Fund of the American Trust for the British Library and the British Library Collections Trust.

Kathleen Doyle

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12 November 2020

Ottonian imperial style in Echternach Gospel-books

After the break-up of Charlemagne’s empire, his heirs continued his policy of patronising and commissioning great works of art.  The king of East Francia, Otto I (d. 973), revived Charlemagne’s title of Holy Roman Emperor in 962, and together with his son and grandson (also Ottos) gave his name to a monumental, imperial artistic style now known as Ottonian art.  These emperors and their Salian successors (a subgroup of Franks from the Lower Rhine area), Conrad II (r. 1024-39), and Henry III (r. 1039-56) commissioned some of the finest illuminated Gospel-books ever made.

A small but incredibly lavish group of these manuscripts were produced at the wealthy Benedictine Abbey of St Willibrord in Echternach, in modern day Luxembourg, 16 kilometres (10 miles) from Trier.  These include two manuscripts now in the British Library, one in the Harley collection (Harley MS 2821) and one in the Egerton collection (Egerton MS 608).

‘Carpet’ page, resembling a textile, with a central medallion of a lion and four corner medallions of birds
A patterned page with a lion and four birds before the opening of St Luke’s Gospel: Harley MS 2821, f. 99r

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Harley Echternach Gospels is their use of fictive textiles as decoration, including facing pages painted to resemble silk before the individual Gospels.  In many Echternach manuscripts the patterns are monochrome or in varying shades of the same colour, and include animals familiar from Byzantine silks, often in facing or opposing pairs.  In the Harley example the patterns are more colourful and centralized, and resemble the patterns of Late Antique weaving or mosaic floors. 

These decorative pages may serve to make the opening of the Gospel text a more revelatory event.  In this sense they may be similar to the actual silk curtains remaining in some manuscripts which can be lifted to view individual miniatures, such as those in the Arnstein Bible which we blogged about previously. 

Evangelist portrait of St Mark holding a book and blessing, with his symbol of a lion above, and opposite, the Nativity with the animals and the Christ Child, the Virgin and St Joseph below
Miniatures of St Mark the Evangelist and the Nativity before the opening of St Mark’s Gospel: Harley MS 2821, ff. 67v-68r

In addition to their independent use as carpet pages, the textile patterns are used as marginal decoration for the first time in the Echternach Gospel-books (Nordenfalk, Codex (1971), p. 98).  This is seen, for example, in the full border around the Evangelist portrait of St Mark and the facing depiction of the Nativity. 

The painting of the figures is also highly stylised, using jewel-like vibrant colours.  In content they are indebted to earlier models, with some innovations.  For example, according to tradition, St Mark established the Church in Alexandria and was the first bishop there; in the Harley Echternach Gospels, he wears a chasuble, or outer vestment of a bishop, and he makes a gesture of blessing.  This contrasts with the more typical portraits in which the Evangelists are depicted in the act of writing out their texts. 

Opposite each of the Evangelists in the Harley Echternach Gospels is a full-page scene, reflecting four important episodes arranged in chronological order: the Annunciation faces St Matthew; the Nativity, St Mark; the Crucifixion, St Luke; and the Ascension, St John.  This selection may result from the contraction of a much longer narrative cycle that appears in three of the surviving Echternach Gospel-books. 

Evangelist portrait of St Mark holding a book and blessing, with his symbol of a lion above, and opposite, the Nativity with the animals and the Christ Child, the Virgin and St Joseph below
Evangelist portrait of St Mark and a miniature of the Nativity, before the Gospel of Mark: Egerton MS 608, ff. 59v-60r

The Echternach Gospel-book in the Egerton collection has been digitised recently as part of The Polonsky Foundation Medieval England and France 700-1200 project.  The similarities in composition, content and style with the Harley Echternach Gospels are immediately apparent.  For example, the Evangelist portrait of St Mark also depicts him seated frontally, holding a book on his lap and making a gesture of blessing.  His chair features dog-head and feet terminals, and St Mark is flanked by columns and curtains, with his symbol of the lion above.  Opposite, the Nativity scene parallels the two-level composition in an enclosed architectural space, with the Child and animals above St Joseph and the Virgin. 

Oak front cover with a hollow in the centre
Original oak board of the upper cover: Egerton MS 608

The Egerton Echternach Gospels is a slightly smaller book and doesn’t include the patterned textile margins that are so prominent a feature of the more elaborate Echternach Gospel-books.  However, it retains its thick original oak binding, with a hollow in the front cover.  Originally it is likely that this space was filled with an ivory or metalwork plaque, and perhaps relics, indicating the importance and status of this still lavish Gospel-book. 

Kathleen Doyle

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Further reading

Carl Nordenfalk, Codex Caesareus Upsaliensis: An Echternach Gospel-Book of the Eleventh Century (Stockholm, 1971). 

Henry Mayr-Harting, Ottonian Book Illumination: A Historical Study, 2nd edition (London, 1999), pp. 186-205.

 

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