The manuscript received over 500 figural scenes and ornamentation on every page. It was illuminated by professional artists working in Angers for Yolande of Aragon, Dowager Duchess of Anjou. She probably gave the volume to her daughter, Yolande of Anjou, around the time of her marriage to the future Duke Francis I of Brittany in 1431. After her death, the volume came into the possession of Francis’ second wife, Isabella Stuart, and then passed on to their daughter, Margaret of Brittany. Breton artists working in Nantes adapted and added illuminations for Isabella and Margaret. Variations in the underdrawings help to distinguish between the original artists based in Angers. The use of different pigments confirms the modifications and additions made in Nantes.
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Three main artists – the Giac, Rohan and Madonna Masters – and their assistants completed the illumination in Angers by 1431.
Collectively known as the Rohan Masters, they represented a sophisticated artistic style dominant across Europe in the decades c. 1400 and known as International Gothic. They may have begun work on the extensive and complex illustrative programme, comprising over 500 miniatures, in the 1420s. A starting date after 1417 is suggested by depictions of a widowed woman and the inclusion of motifs from the Limbourg brothers’ works. Yolande of Aragon’s husband, Louis II of Anjou, died in 1417. The same year, she purchased one of the Limbourg brothers’ manuscripts, the Duke of Berry’s Belles Heures (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection, MS 54.1.1). In the 1440s and 1450s, artists working in Nantes amended and added images for Isabella Stuart and Margaret of Brittany.
During the first twenty-five years of its existence, the manuscript was associated with four distinguished women: Yolande of Aragon (1381-1442), Duchess of Anjou; her daughter, Yolande of Anjou (1412-1440); Isabella Stuart (1427-after 1494); and her daughter, Margaret of Brittany (1443-1469). It belonged to the Isambert Family of Paris from 1578 until 1619. Richard, VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion (1745-1816), acquired the manuscript in 1808 and bequeathed it to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1816.
This extraordinarily complex manuscript combines the standard texts and images for Books of Hours with other, less common devotional texts and four extensive pictorial cycles of marginal miniatures.
Large miniatures, mostly depicting events from the lives of Christ and the Virgin, and elaborate ornamental initials filled with foliage mark major text divisions. Smaller miniatures showing Christ and the saints illustrate prayers. Less important texts open with small gold, blue or pink initials with foliate or geometric infill. Every page has borders of delicate spraywork with gold leaves and a marginal miniature.
The marginal miniatures belong to four cycles that illustrate texts not included in the volume, but popular at the ducal court in Angers. The four texts that inspired these pictorial cycles are the Apocalypse and three allegorical poems composed in French by Guillaume de Deguileville (1295-died after 1358): Pilgrimage of Jesus Christ, Pilgrimage of the Human Life and Pilgrimage of the Soul. The marginal scenes that draw on these poems and the Apocalypse are carefully aligned with the themes of the main texts and images.
The three main artists, as well as their assistants, used the same pigments throughout the manuscript. Their palette is dominated by ultramarine, malachite, red lead, lead white, brown earth and an insect-based organic pink. It is occasionally supplemented with vermilion, azurite, organic green, yellow ochre, mosaic gold and a light purple admixture of an organic dye and ultramarine. This rich colour scheme is set against a range of metals: gold leaf, shell gold and silver.
Slight differences in the use of blue pigments help to differentiate the assistants’ work from that of their masters. The later modifications and additions on fols. 20r and 28r are also characterised by a slightly different palette.
The main artists employed similar painting materials and techniques, but differed in their use of underdrawing and in their preparation or application of the same pigments. For instance the Rohan Master’s white areas show an identical pattern of flaking and so do the Giac Master’s blue pigments, while neither seems to have caused problems in the Madonna Master’s images. The uneven behaviour of the same materials may be due to different methods of preparation or application of the paint, such as individual approaches to the priming of the parchment surface or the painting of the base colour layers, varying proportions of pigment to binder, selective use of distinct binders for specific pigments, or a combination of these factors.
Visitation (Hours of the Virgin, Lauds)
The meeting of Mary and Elizabeth is set within a steep landscape, framed by rugged outcrops, rising towards the horizon and surmounted by fairy-tale castles. These are among the Giac Master’s characteristic motifs. The marginal scene illustrates the Apocalypse cycle. The arms of Isabella Stuart have been added to the border.