Medieval manuscripts blog

13 posts categorized "Gold exhibition"

01 October 2022

‘Do you like gold? Use it!’: A golden binding by Pierre Legrain

‘Do you like gold? Use it!’ So said the fashion designer and art collector Jacques Doucet (1853-1929) to the interior decorator and designer Pierre Legrain (1889-1929) when he encouraged him to apply his talents to designing modern bindings for Doucet’s modern books. Thus began the fruitful collaboration between a collector and a designer which would produce some of the most striking binding designs of the early 20th century. Following his work for Doucet, Legrain became known as a designer of bookbindings in the early 1920s and worked for a number of different clients. He was widely recognised as the leading designer of French bindings of the early 20th century and produced some of his best and most famous work towards the end of his life.

The cover of a book, made of yellow leather decorated with an art deco design of gold semi-circles and blue and white circles
Gold-tooled book binding by Pierre Legrain on a copy of Colette La vagabonde (Paris, 1927): C.108.w.8

The final case in the British Library’s Gold exhibition contains a number of bookbindings which are all decorated with gold using various techniques. Among them is the most recent object in the exhibition. It is a binding designed by Pierre Legrain in Paris on an edition of La vagabonde by Colette, printed in 1927. The binding was designed by Legrain at the height of his career in the late 1920s and is a great example of the very effective and skilful use of gold tooling. The book is bound in citron goatskin, Legrain’s favourite covering material, and is decorated with blue goatskin onlays and tooled in gold and silver to an all-over art deco design. It is signed by Legrain on the doublure inside the upper cover and belonged to the book collector Major J. R. (John Roland) Abbey (1894-1969) before it was acquired by the British Library in the 1970s.

Pierre Legrain was a designer rather than a bookbinder, and his designs were transferred to bindings by skilled craftsmen, always to the highest standards, first in their studios, and later, once he had become successful and well-known, in his own studio. His style was revolutionary and a departure from all French bookbinding designs produced in previous centuries. His designs were not centred on each cover as had been the case previously, but he instead used both covers and the spine of a book as a blank canvas for which to create a design going all the way across, looking to contemporary art and design for inspiration. Legrain often made use of a ruler and a divider, and his early designs were often geometrical before he moved to more asymmetrical and complicated designs later on in his career.

Spine of the book, with a yellow leather cover tooled with a design of gold lines and blue and white circles, and with a gold-tooled title 'COLETTE LA VAGABOND'
Spine of the gold-tooled book binding by Pierre Legrain (Paris, 1927): C.108.w.8

Legrain was of the opinion that a binding should prepare the reader for the book it encloses. The designs he produced and the way he looked at a binding as a work of art set the tone for how French – and other European – bookbinding design was to develop in the first half of the 20th century.

You can visit Gold in the British Library until 2 October 2022. If you would like a taster of the exhibition or are unable to visit in person, you can watch the virtual exhibition opening on the British Library Player, or purchase the accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World from the British Library shop. 

Karen Limper-Herz

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

18 August 2022

The man with the golden bulla

Our current Gold exhibition includes a number of the Library’s most famous treasures, but it also contains some little-known gems. One of the objects that was most fun to research is also one of the least familiar: the golden bulla of Baldwin II, Latin Emperor of Constantinople, attached to a land grant from May 1269. When I first came across this item while scoping for the exhibition, I had never seen a golden bulla before, nor had I heard of the Latin Emperors of Constantinople. But a bit of digging turned up the fascinating story of a failed emperor and his golden self-promotion.

A medieval charter with a gold seal attached to the bottom by red cords
Charter and golden bulla of Baldwin II, Latin Emperor of Constantinople (Biervliet, May 1269): Add Ch 14365

What is a golden bulla?

In medieval Europe people authenticated documents by attaching a seal impressed with their unique design. Usually these seals were made from wax, but occasionally they were made from metals such as lead or gold. These metal seals were known as bullae (from the Latin for ‘bubble’) and were generally reserved for the most prestigious papal and imperial documents.

The use of golden bullae to seal documents is associated most closely with the Byzantine Emperors. The Byzantine Empire was the Greek-speaking eastern half of the Roman Empire which continued as a major power until 1453, when its capital, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), fell to the Ottoman Empire. The golden seal, or chrysobull in Greek, was an effective emblem of Byzantine government, used by the emperor to authorise formal documents such as diplomatic correspondence, decrees of law and grants of privileges. The earliest surviving examples are from the Byzantine Emperor Basil I (r. 866-86).

A Byzantine gold seal, showing two figures holding a military standard, with inscriptions round the edges
Gold seal of the Byzantine Emperor Basil I, depicted with his eldest son Constantine (Constantinople, 866-86) (Source: The British Museum © The Trustees of the British Museum)

Some western rulers imitated the Byzantine practice of sealing important documents in gold, especially the Holy Roman Emperors. The British Library holds just one other medieval golden bulla, that of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (r. 1440-1493).

A gold seal showing a enthroned emperor, with inscriptions around the edges
Gold seal of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (Germany, 1440-1493): Seal XLIII.161

The high material value of golden bullae meant that they were frequently melted down and reused. For example, in the 11th century the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III gave a letter from the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX to the church at Goslar, where the gold bulla was melted down to make a chalice (as recorded in the Chronicon Sanctorum Simonis et Judae Goslariense). With their restricted use and low survival rate, medieval gold bullae are extremely rare today.

Who was Baldwin II, Latin Emperor of Constantinople?

The golden bulla that features in the Gold exhibition is particularly fascinating because it was not issued by a Byzantine emperor, but by a man who was pretending to be one. In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, a crusader army from western Europe captured the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. The crusaders founded a new Latin Empire of Constantinople with one of their leaders, Baldwin of Flanders, as emperor. His Flemish family ruled Constantinople for the next 57 years until the city was retaken by the Byzantine Greeks in 1261. The final Latin Emperor of Constantinople was Baldwin II, nephew of the first emperor and issuer of our golden bulla.

Baldwin II was born in Constantinople in 1217 and became Latin Emperor in 1228 at the age of eleven. He spent his reign struggling to hold onto power and desperately attempting to raise funds from western rulers. Perhaps his most notable legacy is that he sold one of the most holy Christian relics, the Crown of Thorns, formerly kept in Constantinople, to King Louis IX of France, who built the royal chapel of Sainte-Chapelle to receive it. The relic was preserved at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris until the fire of 2019, when it was rescued from the blaze and moved to the Louvre.

Medieval miniature showing King Louis receiving the Crown of Thorns and other relics from a group of churchmen
Louis IX receiving the Crown of Thorns and other relics from Constantinople, Les Grandes chroniques de France (Paris, 1332-1350): Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 395r

 

The Crown of Thorns
The Crown of Thorns, encased in a circular crystal reliquary of 1896, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris (Source: Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Baldwin’s reign came to an end on the night of 24 July 1261 when Greek Byzantine soldiers launched a surprise attack and recaptured Constantinople. Luckily, Baldwin and many other inhabitants were rescued by the Venetian fleet. Although he spent the rest of his life in exile in western Europe, Baldwin never gave up his claim to the throne of Constantinople nor stopped using the title of emperor.

Decoding Baldwin’s golden bulla

The golden bulla at the British Library dates from after Baldwin was deposed and fled west. The charter to which it is attached was issued in May 1269 at Biervliet, a small town in the Netherlands. In it, Baldwin confirmed the grant of lands at Biervliet by his uncle, Philip I, Marquis of Namur, to the church of St Bavo in Ghent. The seal is made from two thin gold plates, each stamped with a different design, then joined together, rather like the foil on a chocolate coin. It is affixed to the document with red silk cords which pass through the interior of the bulla between the two plates.

Although the charter deals with the administration of Baldwin’s ancestral lands in Flanders, its gold seal speaks of his pretensions in Constantinople. The rare use of the golden bulla emulates Byzantine imperial practice, and the images and inscriptions reinforce Baldwin’s claim to be emperor.

The front of the seal shows Baldwin seated on a throne in full Byzantine regalia. He wears a Byzantine-style crown with pendilia (hanging ornaments) and holds the imperial sceptre and globe. He also wears a loros, an embroidered cloth wrapped around the torso and draped over the left arm. The Latin inscription reads:

‘BALDUINUS DEI : GRATIA : IMPERATOR ROMANIAE SEMPER: AVGUSTUS’

(Baldwin Augustus, by the grace of God, Emperor of Romania forever).

Romania (‘the land of the Romans’) was one of the contemporary names given to the Latin Empire of Constantinople, which was claimed to be the second Rome and the legitimate heir of the Roman Empire.

The front of the golden bulla, showing Baldwin seated on a throne, holding the orb and sceptre and weating a crown and loros, with a Latin inscription around the edge
The golden bulla of Baldwin II (Biervliet, May 1269): Add Ch 14365, obverse

The reverse of the bulla shows Baldwin on horseback bearing the Byzantine crown and sceptre, perhaps as a reference to the famous equestrian statue of Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565) that stood in the main square of Constantinople in the Middle Ages. Remarkably for a seal issued in the Netherlands, the inscription on this side is in Greek. It reads:

‘BAΛΔOINOC ΔECΠOTHC . ΠOPΦIPOΓENNHTOC ΦΛANΔPAC’

(Baldoinos despotes Porphyrogennetos Phlandras / Baldwin the Ruler, purple-born, from Flanders).

The term Porphyrogennetos (‘born in the purple’) was used to refer to individuals born legitimately to a reigning emperor. The term was said to refer to the porphyry chamber in the imperial palace of Constantinople where empresses traditionally gave birth. Baldwin’s description of himself as Porphyrogennetos emphasises his birth-right as a Byzantine emperor as well as his birth location in the imperial palace in Constantinople.

The reverse of the golden bulla, showing Baldwin on horseback with the crown and sceptre, with a Greek inscription round the edge
The golden bulla of Baldwin II (Biervliet, May 1269): Add Ch 14365, reverse

They say that all that glisters is not gold. Baldwin’s bulla is certainly golden, but the message of imperial power it conveys is illusory. By the time it was issued, the crown of Constantinople was firmly planted on another man's head. Still, this rare object is fascinating for its cross-cultural mix of features and its insight into one man’s construction of a public persona at odds with reality.

The British Library’s Gold exhibition runs until 2 October 2022. You can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Eleanor Jackson
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

14 August 2022

Gold galore in the Harley Golden Gospels

Every one of the glistening treasures in the Gold exhibition will startle and impress our visitors. But there are some more than others that may cause them to catch their breath, especially at the dates on the labels. The Harley Golden Gospels is one of these, a magnificent imperial book, written entirely in gold at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (r. 800-814), perhaps for emperor himself. Amazingly, this treasured book has survived in near-perfect condition for over 1,200 years.

The court of Charlemagne was Christian while modelling itself on the splendours of ancient Rome. In the decoration of the Gospels, evocations of the Roman past are combined with Christian images and symbolism. Though only one page can be displayed in our exhibition, images of every page are online and here we show a selection of the most beautiful among them. 

A detail of the gold writing in the Harley Golden Gospels, taken at an angle so it catches the light
A detail of gold writing in the Harley Golden Gospels, the Carolingian Empire, c.800: Harley MS 2788, f. 25v

Golden writing

While the Harley Golden Gospels is often exhibited for its picture pages, the page on display in the Gold exhibition shows off the manuscript's remarkable golden script. It was very unusual for a manuscript to be written entirely in gold, so this is an outstanding display of wealth and scribal skill. Every text page is also ornamented with a different patterned frame, beautifully painted in colours and gold. This amount of attention lavished on the Gospel text was probably intended to show that it represented the word of God in physical form, with its radiance emphasising the value of divine wisdom.

A text page, written in two columns of gold script, with a patterned frame
Text page with decorated gold border from the Harley Golden Gospels: Harley MS 2788, f. 25v

Canon Tables

Following the biblical prefaces at the beginning of the volume there are eleven pages of canon tables, lists of parallel and unique passages in the Gospels. The lists of Roman numerals are set among classical columns and arches decorated with rich patterning and animals. They may evoke the Roman porphyry columns in Charlemagne’s palace chapel at Aachen. 

Canon tables, lists of numbered passages from the Gospels inside an ornately decorated architectural frame
Canon tables with decorated gold columns and symbols of the four Evangelists: an angel, a lion, an ox and an eagle: Harley MS 2788, f. 6v

Title Page

The title preceding the Gospels is written in gold and silver on a large red medallion surrounded by geometric designs, with the space around it filled by bright turquoise peacocks and colourful roosters.

Title page with a roundel containing an inscription announcing the four Gospels written in silver and gold ink, surrounded by plants and animals
Title page in gold and colours with a full border, Harley MS 2788, f. 12v

Evangelist portraits

Each of the four Gospels is preceded by a full-page portrait of the evangelist, the authors of the Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are each seated on a throne that resembles in shape the throne of Charlemagne at Aachen, and are surrounded by an imperial setting of columns and arches. On the facing page is an elaborate initial and the opening words of the Gospel in large gold capitals

At the beginning of his Gospel, Matthew points to an open book, with an angel above. The opposite page contains the opening words of his Gospel in gold capitals; the large ‘L’ of ‘Liber generationis’ (The book of the generation) is topped with two lion-like creatures in a medallion.

Frontispiece to Matthew’s Gospel
Frontispiece to Matthew’s Gospel with an evangelist portrait and facing incipit page with display capitals: Harley MS 2788, ff. 13v-14r

Mark dips his pen in an inkwell while holding an open book. The lion above holds an unfurled scroll with the opening words of his Gospel. On the opposite page the first letter ‘I’ of ‘Initium’ (The beginning) has interlace patterns and contains a roundel with a bust of Christ. The name ‘Marcum’ (Mark) appears in red in the central column among the gold lettering. 

Frontispiece to Mark’s Gospel
Frontispiece to Mark’s Gospel with an evangelist portrait and facing incipit page with display capitals: Harley MS 2788, ff. 71v-72r

The opening page of Luke’s Gospel has a colour palette dominated by warm reds and ochres. Above him, a white ox with wings holds an open book. On the facing page, an angel announces the future birth of John the Baptist to Zacharias, his father, who is at an altar in a round Temple. On either side are roundels of Elizabeth, his wife, and her cousin Mary, mothers of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.

Frontispiece to Luke’s Gospel
Frontispiece to Luke’s Gospel with an evangelist portrait and facing incipit page with display capitals: Harley MS 2788, ff. 108v-109r

The evangelist John is a more solid figure than Luke and faces straight out of the page. He is shown with his symbol of a golden eagle, and he, like Mark, dips his pen in an ink well. On the facing page, John the Baptist and two disciples below all point upwards to the Lamb of God, illustrating a passage from John’s Gospel (1: 36-37). The purple inscribed with gold capitals on this page further emphasises the imperial connotations of this work, since purple was especially associated with the Roman emperors (you can read more about gold and purple manuscripts in a previous blogpost).

Frontispiece to John’s Gospel
Frontispiece to John’s Gospel with an evangelist portrait and display capitals: Harley MS 2788, ff. 161v-162r

With such a wealth of shining decorations, this splendid manuscript certainly earns its name as the Harley Golden Gospels.

The British Library’s Gold exhibition runs until 2 October 2022. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost and you can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Chantry Westwell
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

28 July 2022

Masters of gold tooling

‘Gold is gold is gold’ it is said, but the Library’s current Gold exhibition shows that this is not the whole story. In book bindings, it appears as paint, lacquer, powder and leaf and was (and is) used all over the world. The more pure (and expensive) the metal, the less likely it is to tarnish. Light is the catalyst which brings such a decorated binding to life. The covers glow in the restricted light levels of a gallery display case today, just as they once did in the candlelight of the medieval royal court, on a church lectern or in a scholar’s study.

An illustration of an 18th-century bookbinder at work
A bookbinder working on a gold tooled binding, India, 1798-1804: Add Or 1111

There are many reasons why such cost and effort should be expended but a celebration of the wealth and discernment of the owner, the skill of the craftsman and honouring the text or manuscript contained within surely played a part. Bound books which were destined to be gifts were frequently ornamented with gold.

Arguably, the technique that creates the most astonishing result is tooling in gold. This is achieved by impressing a heated engraved brass tool into the surface of leather through a thin layer of gold. The skill needed is considerable, as I learned during my first attempt. The temperature was far too hot which resulted in me tooling through the leather into the workbench beneath! To avoid expensive errors like this, apprentice bookbinders were required to train for many years (usually seven in England).

Gold tooled binding motifs
An enlarged pointillé motif popularised by the Maître Doreur, and a solid flower motif used by Cobden-Sanderson

One of the spectacular gold-tooled bindings in the exhibition is by the 17th-century French binder known as the Maître Doreur (C.14.c.12). In some countries, practitioners specialised either in the structure of the book or on the decoration. In France the term for the latter was ‘doreur’ (which references ‘or’, the French for gold). The fact that this binder was given the epithet Maître Doreur (i.e. Master gold tooler) indicates the level of his expertise. The delicately tooled motifs comprising dots and coloured onlays repeat in a hypnotic fashion until the entire glowing surface is covered. This use of tiny dots of gold leaf to form a pattern is known as pointillé technique. It is hard to calculate how long such work took. It would be many hours, if not days.

Binding by the Maitre Doreur
Gold-tooled pointillé binding by the Maître Doreur, France, 17th century; Alonso Chacon, Historia vtriusque belli Dacici a Traiano Caesare gesti (Rome, 1616): C.14.c.12

Another beautiful example of gold-tooling in the exhibition is an Arts and Crafts binding by Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson (1840–1922), who may be considered the ‘Maître Doreur’ of the late 19th century (C.68.h.17). Gold was the key to his decorative schemes on goatskin bindings, but solid motifs were preferred to the pointillé favoured by the earlier binder. Lettering in gold was particularly important. Only four tools comprise this all over pattern.

Gold was often the first choice of decoration for a binding intended to be a gift, as this was to Cobden-Sanderson’s daughter, Stella Gabrielle. The binder wrote:

‘This book, Stella, I was binding when you were born, and being one of the noblest books I know I covered it with such glory as I could of roses and of stars and set your name in the midst and gave it to you.’

What a way to mark one’s birth day!

Cobden Sanderson binding tooled in gold with roses and stars and the name 'Stella Gabrielle'
Gold-tooled binding by Cobden-Sanderson, London, late 19th century; John Ruskin, Unto this last (Orpington, 1884): C.68.h.17
 
Portrait of Cobden-Sanderson
Portrait of T. J. Cobden-Sanderson by William Rothenstein, 1916 (Source: Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons CC0 License)

Cobden-Sanderson’s apprentice, Douglas Cockerell taught at London County Council Central School of Arts and Crafts. He passed on his expertise to promising younger craftsmen including the founders of the Sangsorksi and Sutcliffe workshop (established in 1901), Francis Sangorski (1875–1912) and George Sutcliffe (1878–1943). They created the beautiful jewelled binding on a copy of Spenser’s Epithalamion and Amoretti (C.109.p.20) which appears in the exhibition.

Sangorski and Sutcliffe binding tooled with gold floral patterns and set with jewels
Gold-tooled and jewelled binding by Sangorski and Sutcliffe, London, 1903; Edmund Spenser, Epithalamion and Amoretti (London, 1903): C.109.p.20

 

Detail of the Sangorski and Sutcliffe binding, showing the rose motif in the centre surrounded by jewels
Enlargement of the binding by Sangorski and Sutcliffe; Edmund Spenser, Epithalamion and Amoretti (London, 1903): C.109.p.20, detail

In the Middle Ages, ‘treasure bindings' on religious manuscripts sometimes incorporated jewels with lustrous precious metals (you can read about them in our article on medieval bindings). Sangorski and Sutcliffe revived this style but used it on secular texts, which were frequently poetic or exotic. Gold and gems make ideal partners on a surface due to the reflective nature of both materials, as can be seen on the binding on display.

The success of the trend inspired the creation of a stupendous binding on an engraved copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam featuring over a thousand jewels and a hundred square feet of gold leaf. The latter became perhaps the most famous bookbinding in the world after it was lost on the Titanic and a recreation was destroyed in the Blitz. A third version is in the British Library.

Photo of Sangorski and Sutcliffe’s workshop, with rows of men working on book bindings
Sangorski and Sutcliffe’s workshop, 1923 (Source: Shepherd's bindery, which incorporated Sangorski & Sutcliffe bindery)

Gold can contribute to the all-over splendour of a binding in other ways including metal ‘furniture’ (e.g. bosses and corner-pieces) and gilded edges on text blocks. Gilding protects the contents of the book from moisture and dust.

An ornate gold book clasp with a figure of Christ
Gold clasp on a Dutch Bible, 18th century: Davis 672

It can be gauffered, i.e. further decorated using tools which catch the light. An article in The Bookbinder of 1888 notes that 'a gilt edge is as necessary to a well-bound book as the gold chain is to an alderman's robes.'

Three books lined up next to each other with their fore-edges towards us, displaying elaborate gold edges
Gilt and gauffered edges from Davis 239, Davis 820, and C.46.f.5

The British Library’s Gold exhibition runs until 2 October 2022. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost and you can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

P. J. M. Marks
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

18 July 2022

The golden splendour of the Queen Mary Psalter

Our Gold exhibition includes some of the most justly famous illuminated manuscripts in the Library. One of these, the Queen Mary Psalter, is one of the most extensively illustrated biblical manuscripts ever produced, containing over 1000 images. Extraordinarily, all of the Psalter’s illustrations were completed by the same person, an artist who is now known as the ‘Queen Mary Master’ after this book.

Illuminated figures against a gold incised background
Detail of figures with gold-decorated backgrounds, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r

The Psalter was created in England, probably in London or East Anglia, between 1310 and 1320. We don’t know for whom it was originally created, as there are no contemporary ownership inscriptions or other clues such as coats of arms that would identify the original patron. Nevertheless, the magnitude and quality of its illustrations are certainly grand enough to have been for a royal or aristocratic owner. The manuscript later belonged to Queen Mary I (r. 1553–58), from whom it takes its name. It was presented to her in 1553 by a customs officer, Baldwin Smith, who had prevented its export from England.

You can hear Kathleen Doyle, Lead Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, talking about the Queen Mary Psalter in the Gold Exhibition Virtual Private View which is available to watch on the British Library Player (starting at 10:28):

For the Gold exhibition, we exhibit an opening which forms a sort of diptych of the Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinship, placed together after a blank recto to form a coordinated pairing. Together they provide a commentary on the ancestry and family of Christ. 

An opening from the Queen Mary Psalter, with fine miniatures in colours and gold
The Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinship, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, ff. 67v-68r

The Tree of Jesse on the left begins at the bottom with the recumbent Jesse, the ancestor of David. A large branch growing out of his torso curves around forming roundels in which his crowned descendants are seated on branches in the central and to either side of the middle king. Four figures with round hats stand laterally above and below the kings, perhaps the four major prophets. The only descendant who is identifiable by an attribute is David, who is playing his harp, directly above Jesse.

Miniature of the Tree of Jesse, showing Jesse lying at the bottom with a tree growing from his body, and figures in roundels within the tree
The Tree of Jesse, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 67v

The iconography of the Jesse Tree is derived from Isaiah’s prophecy that ‘there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root’ (egredietur virga de radice Iesse et flos de radice eius ascendet, Isaiah 11:1), in which the virga or rod is interpreted as a reference to the virgo, or Virgin. However, in this instance the Virgin is not included at the top of the tree, as is usual, but rather she is featured on the opposite page with a more unusual Psalter subject, the Holy Kinship.

Miniature of the Holy Kinship, with four levels each with a row of figures
The Holy Kinship, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r

The depiction of the Holy Kinship on the right is shown in registers that are aligned with the levels of Jesse and the kings in circular branches in the Tree of Jesse. At the bottom is St Anne, by tradition the mother of the Virgin, with each of her three husbands, Joachim, Cleophas and Salome. These couples are not identified by a label or caption, but their identities are clear from the figures in the register above them, namely their respective daughters, all called Mary. In this second register the three Marian half-sisters appear with their respective husbands. They are each labelled with their names written beneath them (rather helpfully, as Mary I, Mary II and Mary III).

In the next register the Virgin (labelled Maria Virgo) holds the Christ Child, next to St James the Less, in the centre, one of the sons of Mary Cleophas (II), and with St James the Great, to the right, the son of Mary Salome (III). In the top register Christ appears on his own to the left, here in Majesty, holding a globe of the world, next to the other two sons of Mary Cleophas who became apostles (Sts Simon and Jude), and St John the Evangelist, the other son of Mary Salome to the right.

Illuminated figure against a gold and blue chequerboard background
Detail of figures with gold-decorated backgrounds, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r

Throughout, the figures are set on a glimmering gold backgrounds, on the right, with incised with intricate patterns, or alternating with coloured diamonds or squares.

For more on the textual basis for and other manuscript examples, see our previous blogpost on the Holy Kinship. To see this interesting pairing in person you can book tickets to the Gold exhibition. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Kathleen Doyle
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

14 July 2022

African kings on medieval and Renaissance maps

One of the questions that we consider in our current Gold exhibition is ‘where did the gold come from?’ In medieval Europe, natural deposits of gold were limited so most gold had to be either recycled by melting down older objects or imported by long-distance trade. From the 8th to 16th centuries, the kingdoms of West Africa were major suppliers and traders of gold, which was carried by camel caravans across the Sahara Desert to North Africa. From there, the gold travelled with merchants into the Middle East and Europe. Some of it ended up illuminating manuscripts thousands of miles away. 

Medieval Europeans had little reliable information about West Africa, but they did know that it was an abundant source of gold. One account that made it all the way to medieval Europe was of the phenomenally wealthy Mansa Musa (r. 1312 to 1337), emperor of Mali, whose empire covered an area larger than Western Europe. In 1324 Mansa Musa made a pilgrimage to Mecca, bringing so much gold with him that it devalued the price of gold in Egypt, where he stopped on the way, for years afterwards. He is sometimes said to have been the richest person in history. In Europe, tales of this gold-drenched ruler made such an impression that he was portrayed on luxurious illustrated maps from the 14th to 16th centuries.

Detail from a map showing two people travelling on camels surrounded by palm trees
Detail of people travelling across Africa on camels, from a map probably produced in Messina, Sicily, (between 1520 and 1588): Add MS 31318 B

The earliest surviving map to depict Mansa Musa is the famous Catalan Atlas of 1375 (Paris, BnF, MS. Espagnol 30). This manuscript is attributed to Abraham Cresques, a 14th-century Jewish cartographer from Majorca. It includes a picture of Mansa Musa seated on a throne, wearing a gold crown and holding a sceptre and a round gold object, perhaps an orb, coin or nugget of gold. An accompanying caption in Catalan explains:

‘This Black ruler is named Musse Melly (Musa of Mali), lord of Guinea. This king is the richest and noblest ruler of this whole region because of the abundance of gold that is found in his lands’.

Illustration of Mansa Musa as a seated king holding a round gold object
Illustration of Mansa Musa from the Catalan Atlas (around 1375): Paris, BnF, MS. Espagnol 30 (Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF)

From then on, the figure of Mansa Musa sometimes appears on luxurious illustrated maps, always with emphasis on his vast riches of gold. In the Gold exhibition, you can see an example from the Queen Mary Atlas. This impressive volume, probably made for Queen Mary I of England and her husband Philip II of Spain, was completed by Portuguese cartographer Diogo Homem in 1558. You can read more about it in a previous blogpost.

A map of the Southern Atlantic
A map of the Southern Atlantic, showing the western coast of Africa with the eastern coast of South America, from the Queen Mary Atlas (completed 1558): Add MS 5415 A, f. 14r

While the detailed outlines and place names along the coasts reveal the extent of Portuguese exploration of Africa by sea, the interior of the continent is depicted more vaguely. Some of the information is based on centuries-old traditions, including the pictures of African rulers, labelled in Latin: ‘Emperor of Mali’, ‘King of Nubia’ and ‘Manicongo’ (ruler of the kingdom of Kongo). Although not specifically named, the ‘Emperor of Mali’ is probably intended as Mansa Musa, given the long tradition of portraying him on illustrated maps. The depictions emphasise the wealth and power of the African rulers, with their prominent golden crowns, sceptres and jewellery.  

Three detail images of African Kings
Details of African rulers, the ‘Emperor of Mali’, ‘King of Nubia’ and ‘Manicongo’, from the Queen Mary Atlas (completed 1558): Add MS 5415 A, f. 14r

Another example is on a map showing Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, made around 1529 by cartographer Conte di Ottomanno Freducci, who was based in Ancona, Italy (active 1497-1539). Unusually Mansa Musa is represented with white skin, wearing European-style clothing and playing a stringed musical instrument.

A map of Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa
A map of Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, made in Ancona, Italy (around 1529): Add MS 11548

 

Detail of Mansa Musa as a seated figure with white skin, playing a stringed instrument
Detail of Mansa Musa, from a map made in Ancona, Italy (around 1529): Add MS 11548

The image of Mansa Musa on this map is accompanied by a caption in Latin which praises him as a ruler and emphasises his great wealth in gold:

‘This king Mansa Musa rules the province of Guinea and is no less prudent and knowledgeable than powerful. He has with him excellent mathematicians and men versed in the liberal arts, and he has great riches, as he is near the branch of the Nile which is called the Gulf of Gold. From this is brought a great quantity of gold dust or tibr, and this is a passage through his kingdom, and these regions abound in all the things that there are above the ground, particularly in dates and manna, and the best of all other things that can be had — they only lack salt’.

(Translation from Chet Van Duzer, 'Nautical Charts, Texts, and Transmission', eBLJ 2017, p. 32, available online)

Despite the whitewashing of the image of Mansa Musa on this map, the caption does seem to contain some authentic information about the trans-Saharan trade in gold. It refers to the Arabic word for gold dust ‘tibr’, and correctly identifies salt as one of the major commodities exchanged for gold in West Africa. 

A further example is on a map attributed to Jacobo Russo, a cartographer who was active from 1520 to 1588 in Messina, Sicily. On this map, the rulers are not captioned but their identities are implied by the cities they are pictured beside. The figure of a Black ruler holding two large gold rings next to a city labelled ‘Guinea’ is most likely intended as Mansa Musa. The large gold rings suggest his wealth in gold, while the camels and camel-riders pictured nearby hint at the importance of this region for trading caravans. 

A map of Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa
A map probably produced in Messina, Sicily (between 1520 and 1588): Add MS 31318 B

 

Detail of a map, showing a seated king holding two gold rings, beside him two camels
Detail of the ruler of Guinea, next to camels, from a map probably produced in Messina, Sicily (between 1520 and 1588): Add MS 31318 B

These 16th-century maps stand at a turning point in the history of relations between Europe and West Africa. On the one hand, they illustrate the trans-Saharan trade in gold which had flourished for centuries. On the other, they show that Europeans had already managed to bypass the caravan routes by establishing direct overseas trade with West Africa. Initially their main goal was to obtain gold, but increasingly also people to enslave. In the following centuries, West African gold would become marginalised and the region devastated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Yet these depictions of medieval African rulers are a vivid reminder of an earlier time when West Africa was a centre of wealth, power and global connections, celebrated the world over for its glorious gold. 

If you would like to find out more about medieval West Africa, we recommend the article Building West Africa on the British Library’s West Africa webspace, and the companion website for the past exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time by the Block Museum of Art. 

The British Library’s Gold exhibition runs from 20 May to 2 October 2022 and you can book your tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Eleanor Jackson

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Supported by: 

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The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous. 

05 July 2022

Virtual private view of Gold on the British Library Player

Many thanks to all of our readers who have visited the Gold exhibition of illuminated manuscripts at the Library; we’ve had some great feedback from you.

A cutting from a Gradual, illuminated in gold

Cutting from a Gradual (Florence, 2nd half of the 14th century): Add MS 35254C

For those who aren’t in London and may not be able to make the trip to the Library to see the exhibition in person, you can now watch two videos about the exhibition: (1) a highlights video outlining the exhibition and featuring curators discussing seven manuscripts in detail as a virtual private view; and (2) a film of a live question and answer session with the curators, chaired by Professor Alixe Bovey, Dean and Deputy Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art. Both videos can be viewed on the British Library Player.

A page from a Book of Hours, showing the scribe or artist at work, sitting before a lectern with a pen in their right hand

Jean Bourdichon, Book of Hours (Tours, 1510–25): Add MS 18855, f. 13v

The virtual private view includes much more detailed information about the featured manuscripts than available on the labels, or in the exhibition book, so do have a look for a focus on the Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinship in the Queen Mary Psalter, for a detailed description of the techniques of using gold leaf in a cutting from an Italian gradual and of shell gold in a Jean Bourdichon Book of Hours, of gold tooling on a French Art Deco book binding, and for the process of extracting gold as seen in an 18th-century Japanese scroll of gold mining. 

The Tree of Jesse in the Queen Mary Psalter

The Queen Mary Psalter (London, early 14th century): Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 67v

Gold in on display at the British Library in London until 2 October 2022. Tickets can be purchased on the day or in advance from the online ticket office.

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

30 June 2022

Golden Books

Lecture on Tuesday, 12 July, 7:00 pm in the British Library main entrance hall and online

You won’t want to miss this lecture focusing on the illumination in Western manuscripts, given both in person and online by Professor Lucy Freeman Sandler, the Helen Gould Sheppard Professor Emerita, New York University. Professor Sandler has been researching illuminated manuscripts for over seventy years through her long, productive and distinguished career, and has published widely, particularly on English 14th-century illumination, including her indispensable volume in the Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles

The upper golden binding on the Psalter of Anne Boleyn

The gold binding on the Psalter of 'Anne Boleyn', c. 1540: Stowe MS 956

As many will know, Lucy is a wonderful speaker, and she will be sharing her reflections on the British Library's Gold exhibition, and more broadly on the function and use of illumination in books. Her lecture will be drawn in part from her most recent book, Penned and Painted: The Art and Meaning of Books in Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, researched during lockdown, which includes fascinating new insights into some of the Library’s best-known manuscripts. 

Here is a sneak preview of two of the images that Lucy will be discussing in her lecture. If you who have been to the exhibition, you may recognise them:

A Chi-rho monogram in the New Minster charter, written in gold ink

King Edgar’s New Minster Charter, 966: Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 4r

St John standing on the right, dictating his Gospel to a scribe seated on the left, on a golden background

John dictating his Gospel, in the Burney Gospels, 2nd half of the 10th century: Burney MS 19, f. 165r

For some manuscripts featured in Gold, Lucy will be discussing a different image from that shown in the exhibition, such as the image of Christ with a golden book, in the spectacular Benedictional of St Æthelwold, open in the exhibition to the image of St Æthelthryth, founder and abbess of Ely Abbey. 

Christ with a golden book

Christ with a golden book, in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, 2nd half of the 10th century: Add MS 49598, f. 70r

She’ll include a discussion of the use of gold on figures, like that of the Bourdichon Annunciation featured in the exhibition, to golden bindings and the representation of books as golden.

The exhibition continues to receive rave four and five star reviews, most recently from Time Out, adding to those of the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard. Book your tickets to see the exhibition and to attend the lecture.

You may also wish to order Professor Sandler’s wonderful new book, Penned and Painted: The Art and Meaning of Books in Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, available from the Library's online shop. Lucy will also be signing copies of the book after her lecture.

Gold is on display at St Pancras until Sunday, 2 October.

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

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