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Liturgical books were central to medieval religious practice and ceremony. By the twelfth century, two volumes, the Missal and the Breviary, became indispensable for the celebration of the Mass, the Eucharistic liturgy, and of the Divine Office, the services for the eight hours of daily prayer. The musical parts of the Mass were contained in the Gradual and those of the Office in the Antiphonal and Hymnal.

High-ranking ecclesiastics also needed books, such as Pontificals, Benedictionals, and Coronation Orders, for the services only they could perform. The liturgical books commissioned for wealthy individuals and religious houses are among the most splendidly illuminated manuscripts to survive from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Missal, Italy, c.1455-c.1465Missal
Italy, Siena, c.1455-c.1465

This richly illuminated Missal was made for the Augustinian friars of Siena. The Crucifixion miniature preceding the Canon prayer, Te igitur, is of the ‘humility’ type. It shows the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist overwhelmed by grief, sitting on the ground by the cross. The monumental treatment of the figures and the bold painterly technique assimilate the miniature to a panel painting. This is the work of an artist who excelled in both media, the Sienese painter Sano di Pietro (1405-1481).

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 6-1954, fol. 160v

The Breviary of Margaret of York Flanders, Ghent, c.1475, St John’s College, MS 13. H, fol. 57vThe Breviary of Margaret of York
Flanders, Ghent, c.1475

Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy (1446-1503) and wife of Charles the Bold, was a major manuscript collector. This Breviary contains her motto Bien en aviegne (‘May good come of it’) and the initials C and M, which suggest that it was completed before her husband’s death in 1477. The Duchess favoured devotional and didactic texts, and employed the leading artists of the time, including the Vienna Master of Mary of Burgundy (active c.1470-1480) who contributed to this manuscript. Complex groupings of figures are set in spacious landscapes or receding interiors, such as the one seen in the Last Supper here.

St John’s College, MS 13. H, fol. 57v

The Pontifical of Renaut de Bar France, Metz or Verdun, 1303-1316, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 298, fols. 72v-73The Pontifical of Renaut de Bar
France, Metz or Verdun, 1303-1316

This is one of the most sumptuous Pontificals in existence. It was made for Renaut de Bar, Bishop of Metz (1303-1316), member of a powerful aristocratic family and a passionate manuscript collector. The miniatures showing the blessing of an abbot are characteristic of the artist’s elegant and restrained style, perfectly suited for the solemn dignity of the pontifical ceremonies. The illumination at the end of the volume was left incomplete, probably at Renaut’s death, and offers fascinating insights into the making of a medieval manuscript. A modern reconstruction of the process is presented in an interactive form on the Museum’s web site.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 298, fols. 72v-73

The Benedictional of Robert de Clercq Flanders, Bruges, c.1520, Cambridge University Library, MS Nn.4.1, fols. 4v-5The Benedictional of Robert de Clercq
Flanders, Bruges, c.1520

A Benedictional contains blessings, prayers, and rites intended for the personal use of an abbot. This one was made for Robert de Clercq, abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Ter Duinen (‘Les Dunes’) at Kokside near Bruges between 1519 and 1557. His arms, initials, and motto Sperans gaudebo (‘In hope I will rejoice’) are found throughout the volume. He is portrayed in the Crucifixion miniature, wearing his white Cistercian habit, with his abbatial crosier and mitre. The manuscript was illuminated by Simon Bening (1483-1561), one of the foremost Flemish miniaturists of the sixteenth century. It preserves its original covers made by the well-known Bruges binder, Ludovicus Bloc (d. 1529).

Cambridge University Library, MS Nn.4.1, fols. 4v-5

Historiated initial from a Gradual Italy, Florence, 1371-1375, Fitzwilliam Museum, Marlay cutting It. 13AHistoriated initial from a Gradual
Italy, Florence, 1371-1375

The Presentation in the Temple is among the finest works of Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci (1339-1399), the leading Florentine illuminator of the last quarter of the fourteenth century. It once introduced the Introit to the Mass for the feast of the Purification of the Virgin in a splendid Gradual made for the Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence. Conceived on a grand scale and imbued with solemn introspection, the scene has the impact of a monumental painting. Indeed, it is based on Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s altarpiece completed in 1342 for the Crescentius Chapel in Siena Cathedral. Don Silvestro blended the refined nuances and exquisite delicacy of manuscript illumination with the sweeping freedom and powerful immediacy of a large panel. He linked the image to the feast it illustrates in the manuscript and to the liturgical text which he heard and probably sang together with his fellow monks from this volume.

Fitzwilliam Museum, Marlay cutting It. 13A

Antiphonal Flanders or Brabant, c.1510, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 41, fol. 31Antiphonal
Flanders or Brabant, c.1510

Because the complexity of the Divine Office called for the singing of different texts throughout the liturgical year and the chants were performed by members of religious communities gathered in front of a lectern, Antiphonals were enormous books and frequently came in multi-volume sets. This volume contains the chants for the winter part of the liturgical year. It is open at Christ’s Nativity and the Annunciation to the Shepherds.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 41, fol. 31