A jewel of a book

This is a guest post by Dr. Stella Panayotova, Keeper of Manuscripts and Printed Books at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

fol. 285r from the facsimile

In 2015 Cambridge University Library acquired a rare modern book about a unique medieval manuscript (F201.b.4.1). One of only 999 copies printed in 2015, it is a facsimile of a Book of Hours made in Angers c.1450. While the original manuscript is among the treasures of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris (MS NAL 3244), the facsimile supports research and teaching in Cambridge. Faithfully recreating the richly illuminated and highly personalised prayer book, precious and tiny (10 x 7.8 cm) like a jewel, the facsimile invites the modern-day reader-viewer to relive the experience of the manuscript’s early owners.

The Book of Hours belonged to Jeanne de France (1438-1482), daughter of Charles VII. She may have received it as a wedding gift upon her marriage in 1452 to Jean, Count of Clermont, who would become Duke of Bourbon in 1456. The coats of arms sprinkled throughout the Book of Hours reveal Jeanne de France’s ownership as well as the fact that after her death the Duke of Bourbon re-gifted the manuscript to his next wife, Catherine d’Armagnac.

fol. 9r from Nn.3.2, incorporating the coat of arms of Jean de Montferrant

The Bourbon court was famous for its patronage of poetry, music and illuminated manuscripts, and enjoyed close dynastic and cultural links with the Burgundian Dukes. Jean de Bourbon’s mother, Agnes of Burgundy, was the sister of Philip the Good of Burgundy. Cambridge University Library preserves an important example of these connections – a deluxe manuscript recording of the poetry debate that took place in 1463 or 1464 between Jean Robertet, secretary of Jean de Bourbon, and Georges Chastellain, chronicler of Philip the Good (MS Nn.3.2).

Jeanne de France was not the original owner of the tiny Book of Hours. Her arms were painted over an earlier lozenge which combined the arms of Orléans and Visconti. A close examination of the facsimile, even with the naked eye, allows one to discern beneath Jeanne’s arms, on the lower right, a viper – the device of the Visconti, Dukes of Milan. A small miniature on fol. 285r provides further clues as to the manuscript’s intended owner. It shows a girl wearing the white headband of her confirmation and first communion, and kneeling in prayer before an open book – this Book of Hours? The image and the Orléans-Visconti arms point to a daughter or a niece of Duke Charles d’Orléans, the prince-poet and son of Valentina Visconti who claimed the Duchy of Milan after the death of Filippo-Maria, the last Visconti Duke, in 1407.

fol. 5 showing calendar and borders

The manuscript contains the range of texts and images that made Books of Hours the main devotional tools and the richest galleries of painting in the late Middle Ages. The miniatures, marginal images and charming Calendar vignettes are surrounded by borders filled with narrative scenes, lush foliage, apes, lions, cats, courtiers, soldiers, angels and alluring nudes.

The illumination was the work of an itinerant group of artists active between Anjou, Poitou, Touraine and Brittany in the mid-fifteenth century. The most prominent among them was the Master of Jouvenel des Ursins, named after a manuscript he painted for Charles VII’s chancellor in the late 1440s. A slightly earlier work by the Master, another Book of Hours made c.1435-1440 for Louis d’Anjou, Bastard of Maine, and now preserved at the Fitzwilliam Museum (MS 39-1950), offers the prototype for Jeanne de France’s Hours. The two manuscripts share texts and images as well as the tiny format and precious pigments that make them jewels of the late medieval art of the book.

Stella Panayotova

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