This Book of Hours combines features typical of manuscripts made for the open market with unique elements designed for the volume’s discerning patron, a Cardinal. Although Books of Hours are often associated with lay women, in fact many were produced for male patrons, both secular and religious. This example demonstrates the crowning achievement of Flemish scribes and artists, the leading suppliers of deluxe manuscripts for local use and for export across Europe. It contains illuminations by two of the most innovative artists of the Northern Renaissance, the Master of the Dresden Prayer Book and the Master of James IV of Scotland.
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Four main artists collaborated on this manuscript. The Painter of Additional 15677 designed the illustrative programme and completed most of it, assisted by talented associates. The other three main artists – the Master of the Dresden Prayer Book, the Master of James IV of Scotland and the Master of St Michael – made brief, but brilliant guest appearances. The Painter of Additional 15677 and his associates painted the majority of illusionistic borders throughout the volume, perhaps the most delightful parts of the decoration. They are of three main types, the first two representing major inventions of Flemish illuminators during the 1480s. The first type features landscapes, cityscapes and interiors which are among the earliest examples of genre painting. The second type has flowers, plants, insects and birds painted as if scattered across the surface and casting their shadows upon it. The third type presents complex architectural structures popular in Italian, French and Flemish painting and illumination c. 1500.
The manuscript was made for a Cardinal. By the 19th century, it belonged to John Malcolm of Poltalloch (d. 1893) and to Lord Malcolm of Poltalloch (d. 1902). It was purchased by Charles William Dyson Perrins (1864-1958) in 1906 and sold at his London sale (Sotheby’s, 9 December 1958, lot 38). Henry Davis (1897-1977) gave it to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1975.
The manuscript combines the texts and images characteristic of late medieval Books of Hours with less canonical, but equally popular texts and illustrations found in deluxe commissions. The four large clusters of texts received double openings with a full-page frontispiece facing a large initial surrounded by a full border. Three of the frontispieces are still in the manuscript; the fourth one, originally inserted before fol. 36, has been lost. Painted on single leaves, the frontispieces demonstrate an expedient measure adopted by manuscript professionals by the early 15th century, namely the production of individual images ready for insertion into a volume as and when a client wished to upgrade a standard manuscript into a richly illustrated one. Another deluxe feature is the provision of full historiated borders for all twelve Calendar pages and for many other texts throughout the volume. Large miniatures of Christ, the Virgin and the saints with full borders mark major text divisions. Less important texts open with historiated initials, also surrounded by full borders. Every page has a one-sided strewn-flower panel in its outer border, and a profusion of initials and line fillers with violet-grey acanthus delicately graded in white against russet backgrounds patterned with exquisite shell gold motifs.
The rich palette shared by the four main artists and their assistants includes carbon black, lead white, chalk, vermilion and red lead. Pink hues were obtained with insect-based dyes, which were mixed with azurite to obtain the purple hue visible in the violet-grey initials present on most pages and in selected details on a few folios. In a few cases, however, a purple organic dye was identified. Shell gold was used extensively and shell silver was detected on a few folios. Mosaic gold was used to paint the full architectural borders on fols. 166r, 168v and 180r. Flesh tones contain variable amounts of lead white, chalk, vermilion as well as traces of earth pigments, at times supplemented by indigo or copper-based pigments in the shadows.
No less than four different yellow and orange pigments were identified, as well as four different blues and four greens. Each of the four Masters made specific choices in the use of some of these materials; the technical analysis therefore supports the stylistic attribution of hands and helps characterise each artist’s palette.
Agony in the Garden (Passion according to St John)
The Master of the Dresden Prayer Book who painted this page was a remarkable storyteller. He captured both the essence of an event and the tenor of its setting. He constructed pictorial narratives rich in detail and pulsating with energy. The Fitzwilliam image conveys the breathless pace of the incidents unfolding before the viewer and builds suspense through the contrasting moods and actions of the protagonists. The central miniature shows Christ praying in the garden of Gethsemane. The historiated border depicts subsequent events: Christ addresses the Apostles, confirms his identity to the soldiers, and allows them to arrest him, while St Peter is about to cut Malchus’ ear.
The elaborate border with sequential narrative, integrated with the main image, the use of extreme foreshortening and of raised angle of vision to overcome the limitations of space and format are all characteristic of the final, most mature phase in this artist’s career. The novelty of his palette, including bright oranges, teals, burgundies, rich blues, and sometimes black, often arranged in surprising combinations, further attests to the refreshing originality of his art. To obtain such a wide range of colours, the Master of the Dresden Prayer Book made use of numerous pigments and a number of mixtures, including some which set him apart from the other artists who decorated this manuscript. He was the only one to include ultramarine blue in his palette in addition to azurite and indigo. He used the latter mainly in mixtures, to obtain grey and purple-brown hues, and mixed red lead with lead-tin yellow in orange areas.