Leaves from Choir Books

Italy, Siena
c. 1460-1477
MSS 196, 197, 198

The Choir Books of Santa Maria della Scala were commissioned by its rector Niccolò Ricoveri (1456-1476/1477). The ambitious project coincided with a major building campaign at the hospital c. 1450-1480. The large number and enormous size of the Choir Books required the collaboration of scribes and artists over several decades. Two of Siena’s foremost artists illuminated these three leaves c. 1460-1477.

Learn more about these leaves by exploring the sections below or selecting one of the images on the right. Discover further details by choosing any of the images, where you can view the hotspots by clicking on .

The leaves were illuminated by two of the most prominent Sienese artists, Sano di Pietro and Pellegrino di Mariano Rossini. From the 1450s until the 1480s, they collaborated on many prestigious commissions, including other sets of Choir Books made for major patrons and religious houses in Tuscany.

The set of Choir Books to which these leaves belonged were made for the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena during the rectorship of Niccolò Ricoveri (1456-1476/1477). Some volumes from this set survive only in single leaves, which were dispersed on the art market from the early 19th century onwards. Others are still in Siena, though in a mutilated state. MS 197 may have been the first leaf in one of the surviving, incomplete volumes (Siena, Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo, MS 84.D). Its lower border contains the overpainted arms of Santa Maria della Scala which combined the hospital’s emblematic ladder (scala, covered by the black field on the left) with Ricoveri’s rampant griffin (still discernible beneath the yellow and red fields on the right). The Fitzwilliam Museum purchased the leaves in 1891.

The images marked the start of texts chanted during religious feasts throughout the year at Santa Maria della Scala. The leaves came from two types of Choir Books. MS 196 and MS 197 belonged to Antiphoners, which contained the sung parts of the divine office. MS 198 came from a Choir Psalter, which contained the 150 Psalms in the order in which they were recited for religious services. The initials painted around or beside the scenes belonged to the opening word of the responsory or Psalm for the relevant office.

The bright, colourful palette used for all three leaves includes lead white, ultramarine blue, red lead, an insect-based organic pink, malachite green and lead-tin yellow type I. Yellow areas are shaded with earths ranging in colour from dark yellow to red. Brown earth pigments are also used. A carbon-based black is probably mixed with other components in grey areas. A greater variety of colours is present in the leaf painted by Pellegrino di Mariano Rossini (MS 197). These are achieved with a wider range of pigments.

Despite general similarities, the two artists’ techniques differ in a number of ways, including the amount of underdrawing and the way each of them modelled flesh tones.  

Lightbox: 195
Detail of the cherub’s face under magnification (16x).
Lightbox: 196
Detail of the orange cherub under magnification (16x). His facial features, including the eyes and hair, are outlined in organic red and lead-tin yellow over the red lead base layer.
Lightbox: 197
Detail of the bronze-coloured head under magnification (16x). The expressive face is rendered with strokes of organic red and bright lead-tin yellow over the shiny mosaic gold base layer.
Lightbox: 198
Detail of God’s purple sleeve under magnification (50x), showing blue as well as translucent red particles. These were identified by FORS analysis (below) as azurite and an insect-based dye, respectively.

This leaf came from an Antiphoner made for the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena c. 1460-1477. The lower border preserves the overpainted arms which combine Santa Maria della Scala’s emblematic ladder with the rampant griffin (still discernable) of Niccolò Ricoveri, the hospital’s rector who commissioned the new set of Choir Books. The miniature and the initial I introduce the opening words of the Book of Genesis, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’, with which the original volume began; they were recited at the midnight service of Matins for Septuagesima Sunday. The image of the Creation is among the finest surviving works of Pellegrino di Mariano Rossini, a pupil of Giovanni di Paolo. It is based on a panel from the altarpiece Giovanni di Paolo painted c.1445-1450 for the chapel of the Guelfi family in San Domenico, Siena (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975.1.31). The depiction of the eight celestial spheres and the four elements emerging simultaneously draws on the Apostles’ Creed and on Dante’s Paradise (29:22-30) rather than on the Genesis story of sequential creation recounted beside the image. The red circle represents fire, the light blue air, and the green the waters that surround the earth in the centre – colour associations of the elements that endured from Antiquity until the Renaissance.