Leaves from the Hours of Albrecht of Brandenburg

Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg


Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg (1490-1545), Archbishop and Elector of Mainz, was an important political and ecclesiastical figure, a friend of Erasmus and an opponent of Martin Luther. He was also one of the most active art patrons of his day. Painters who completed commissions for him include Albrecht Dürer, Mattias Grünewald and Lucas Cranach the Elder who painted his portrait. The Book of Hours from which these leaves were taken, is the earliest of three manuscripts illuminated for him by Simon Bening. The main body of the book is in a private collection, but miniatures removed from it are dispersed across various institutions, including the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The other two manuscripts which Simon Bening illuminated for the Cardinal are his Prayerbook of c. 1525-1530 (Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, MS Ludwig IX 9) and another Book of Hours of c. 1530-1535 (Stockholm, Kungliga Bibliotheket, MS A.227).

Enclosed within an illusionistic picture frame, this miniature, devoted to the Virgin’s mother, Anne, functions as a small devotional panel. Anne is shown seated in a stylised garden, reading from a book, with her daughter at her feet. Bening’s skilful manipulation of linear perspective, and the juxtaposition of normal and raised points of view, renders the landscape as a deeply receding space and thrusts into the foreground the Nativity of the Virgin depicted in the lower border. The sophisticated use of colour contributes to these effects: the pale blue sky behind St Anne contrasts with the darker sky of the border, bringing the latter closer to the viewer and making it seem as if we are observing the central image through a window.

In the charming border scene, with details drawn from daily life, Anne, having just given birth, is offered a plate of food, while a midwife sits by the fireside cradling the infant Mary. Flames of shell gold, lead-tin yellow and red lead in the fireplace warm the newborn child who precociously raises her tiny palms towards the heat.