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Illuminations

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History and Literature: Sacred and Secular

Latin was the dominant language of church and state throughout the Middle Ages, but it co-existed with an ever-growing number of vernacular texts. This section of the exhibition illustrates the fluid boundaries of medieval literature, intended to satisfy the needs of increasingly literate and diverse audiences. Sacred and secular themes, history and legend, poetry and courtly ethics, rhetoric and pastoral instruction were often found within the same volume and even within the same text. They enjoyed equal popularity in the courts of princes, the households of archbishops, and the town houses of civic dignitaries. These texts challenged artists to create some of the most novel and imaginative programmes of illustration.


Manuscript

Life of St Edward the Confessor
England, Westminster, c.1255

As the patron saint of King Henry III, St Edward the Confessor enjoyed growing popularity in the thirteenth century. First embraced by a small political elite, his cult was promoted as the royal equivalent of St Thomas of Canterbury. This manuscript is its finest monument. The images show the burial of St Edward in Westminster Abbey and the miracles performed at his tomb, notably the healing of the blind. The text is the Anglo-Norman verse translation of the saint’s Life dedicated by Matthew Paris to Eleanor of Provence, Henry III’s queen. Its delicately restrained illustration reveals the elegant taste of a sophisticated patron, presumably Eleanor’s daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Castile, who married the future Edward I in 1254.

Cambridge University Library, MS Ee.3.59, fols. 29v-30

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Manuscript

Matthew Paris, Chronica majora
England, St Albans, 1236-1259

This is one of the most enduring monuments of the Benedictine tradition of historical compilation. Following an earlier career in the lay world, Matthew Paris (d. 1259) professed at St Albans and succeeded its previous historian Roger of Wendover in 1236. Matthew’s outlook on the reigns of Henry III, Louis IX, and Frederick II, the crusades, or the deeds of the Tartars and Saracens shows a strong sense of moral purpose. A skilled diplomat and writer who moved with ease between religious and secular texts and audiences, Matthew was also a talented artist. His illustrations are as eloquent as his words. This page records Henry III’s solemn procession with the relic of Christ’s Holy Blood through London and Westminster in 1247.

Corpus Christi College, MS 16, fol. 215

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Manuscript

Leaves from Frère Laurent, La somme le roi
France, Paris, c.1290

This leaf is among the most beautiful works of art ever made in Gothic Paris. It belonged to a copy of the princely manual, La somme le roi, illuminated by the most famous artist in late thirteenth-century Paris, Master Honoré (documented 1289-1312). Its beauty is an aspect of its utility. Compiled in 1279 for King Philip III of France by the Dominican royal confessor Frère Laurent, La somme le roi was preoccupied with the fundamentals of Christian belief and moral edification. The virtue of Equity is personified above its Old Testament analogue, Noah’s Ark, while the corresponding vice, Felony, is exemplified by Cain murdering Abel and by men contending with sticks, separated by Moses.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 192

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Manuscript

Guillebert de Lannoy, L'Instruction d'un jeune Prince;
René d’Anjou, Le mortifiement de vaine plaisance
Northern France, Hesdin or Valenciennes, c.1465-c.1468

Made for Jacques de Luxembourg, Seigneur de Fiennes (c.1426-1487), this volume combines two texts representative of the moral, spiritual and political education of the nobility. The first, a princely manual composed c.1435 - 1442 by the ambassador and counsellor Guillebert de Lannoy for Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, was illuminated by Simon Marmion of Valenciennes (c.1425-1489). The second is an allegorical romance written in 1455 by René, Duke of Anjou, Count of Provence and King of Naples (1409-1480). The image of the Heart being nailed to the Cross by Fear of God, Faith, Love and Grace was painted by Loyset Liédet (c.1420-1479), an artist active in Hesdin until 1469.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 165, fol. 59v

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Manuscript

Jean Robertet, Georges Chastellain, and Jean de Montferrant, Les douze dames de rhétorique
Flanders, Bruges, 1467-1468

The original owner of this manuscript was Jean de Montferrant, whose arms were painted on the first page and enamelled on the clasps. He was chamberlain of Philip the Good, tutor of the young Jacques de Bourbon, and the key link in the debate on poetry recorded on the pages of this volume. It preserves the account of an extraordinary event, the appearance of twelve ladies, the delightful companions of Rhetoric. Their solo acts are depicted by the Master of Anthony of Burgundy (active c.1460-1480), who specialised in the illustration of secular texts. Eloquence is shown here in the garden of a stately home overlooking the streets and canals of Bruges.

Cambridge University Library, MS Nn.3.2, fol. 27v

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Manuscript

Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Creseyde
England, perhaps London, c.1415-1425

This magnificent frontispiece shows Chaucer among a party of noble men and women in a wonderful landscape topped with fairytale castles. Ninety more illustrations were planned, but never added, in what must have been a princely commission. The patron was probably Charles d’Orléans (1394-1465), the highly educated and multi-talented French royal aesthete and poet, who was taken prisoner at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and spent the next twenty-five years as a hostage in England, living in style and collecting manuscripts.

Corpus Christi College, MS 61, fol. 1

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