The Primer of Claude of France

Master of Antoine de Roche


Mazzoni left for France in 1496 where he served as artist to Charles VIII (1470-1498) and designed the king’s bronze tomb in St Denis. Mazzoni also executed various commissions for Louis XII and Anne of Brittany, and it is conceivable that he made this Primer at the queen’s request. Ironically, for a book that was made to teach her daughter how to read, garbled captions in Old French (e.g. ADEM ET VEE) are inscribed on the gold frames of the miniatures. The captions in red and blue were painted with a fine brush and are almost certainly the work of the illuminator. Whoever supplied the captions had not mastered French, which lends support to the idea that the artist was a foreigner. No works survive from Guido Mazzoni’s time in France, so whether he did, in fact, illuminate Claude’s Primer remains subject to debate.

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Detail of the angel’s red face under magnification (10x). According to the biblical account, after God expelled Adam from Eden, he appointed two high-ranking angels, a pair of cherubim, to guard the gates of Paradise. In medieval art, cherubim, associated with divine knowledge, are generally blue, but this one, armed with a sword, is red, the colour customarily assigned to another type of angel, the seraphim whose name means ‘burning ones’.
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Detail of the serpent’s face under magnification (7.5x). In the book of Genesis, the serpent is not described as female, but in his highly influential biblical commentary, the Historia scholastica, Peter Comestor, chancellor of the cathedral school of Notre Dame, Paris (c. 1164), stated that the serpent had ‘the face of a virgin’, and that Eve was inclined to listen to it because ‘like attracts like’. By giving the serpent female characteristics, a male theologian transformed it into a creature that mirrors Eve, and by extension, all women. This misogynistic motif can be seen in images of the Temptation dating from the 12th to the 17th century.

The infrared image of this page reveals the careful way in which Adam and Eve’s bodies were drawn, especially clear in the body of Adam in the lower left scene. It also shows that the serpent tempting Eve was initially designed to have wings, one of which was sketched but never painted.