The Primer of Claude of France

France, probably Loire Valley, Romorantin
c. 1505
MS 159

The manuscript was commissioned c. 1505 by the French queen, Anne of Brittany (1477-1514), for her five-year-old daughter Claude (1499-1524). Its fourteen pages contain the alphabet and standard Christian prayers set within a rich pictorial narrative. Intended both to educate and entertain her, the slim picture book tells the story of salvation, from the Creation of the World to the Day of Judgement.

Learn more about the manuscript by exploring the sections below or selecting folios on the right. Discover further details by choosing any of the folios with the hotspot symbol .

The loose brushwork and relatively pale palette, as well as the gold architectural frames are characteristic of the Master of Antoine de Roche who takes his name from a Missal he painted for the Grand Prior of Cluny c. 1500 (Paris, BnF, MS lat. 881).

The manuscript was commissioned by Anne of Brittany (1477-1514) c. 1505 probably in Romorantin in the Loire Valley where the royal court was at that time. She had the book made for Claude (1499-1524), her eldest daughter by Louis XII. Richard, VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion (1745-1816), acquired the manuscript in 1808 and bequeathed it to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1816.

This didactic picture book opens with the alphabet, followed by the Pater Noster (Our Father), Ave Maria (Hail Mary) and the Apostle’s Creed – two universal prayers and a profession of faith that all Christians were commanded to learn by decree of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. The remaining texts consist of graces to be said at mealtimes, standard prayers and Mass devotions, central components of any highborn child’s education. The texts occupy a narrow column within the picture book, with the page layout dominated by a profusion of small scenes set within architectural frames. Intended to pique the child’s interest and hold her attention, thirty-six miniatures, three per page, tell the story of mankind’s Creation, Fall and Redemption. Some scenes were based on biblical narratives, while others were inspired by Arnoul Gréban’s Mystère de la Passion, a religious play performed in Paris in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

The palette of the Master of Antoine de Roche is characterised by an exceptionally wide range of pigments and an even more bewildering use of extremely complex mixtures to obtain numerous hues of the same colour. Lead white, vermilion red, lead-tin yellow, azurite blue as well as organic pink and purple were used extensively, as was shell gold which appears in many draperies and in the architectural frames present on each page. An incredible array of mixtures yielded a range of green hues. A very unusual pigment, called ‘artificial orpiment’, was used in some orange and dull yellow areas. Interestingly, natural orpiment, a favourite pigment of many illuminators, was used extensively by the artist in green mixtures, but not as a yellow pigment on its own.

Most images have extensive underdrawings, sometimes visible through thin or semi-transparent paint layers, but best seen in the near-infrared images. Several changes made by the artist to the original compositions (pentimenti) can also be identified.

Colours, often toned down with white, are blended to create soft effects. Pale colours used for the sky and features of the landscape (e.g. bluish-green hills) create an impression of receding space and cause the figures in the foreground to stand out. Some areas, particularly backgrounds, appear to be composed of thin washes of paint, rapidly applied.

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Detail of Anne of Brittany’s face under magnification (7.5x).
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Detail of the folds in St Claude’s mantle under magnification (7.5x), with underdrawing showing through the thin layer of shell gold and underneath the semi-transparent pink paint of the inner fold.
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Detail of St Anne’s blue-green robe under magnification (60x), painted with vergaut. The Raman spectrum (below) confirms the identification of the coarse yellow particles as orpiment (bands at 141, 159, 206, 296, 314 and 359 cm-1) and of indigo in the blue matrix surrounding them (bands at 550 and 602 cm-1).
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Detail of a green leaf in the lower border under magnification (60x), showing particles of green malachite and blue azurite, identified by FORS. These two copper carbonates are often found together in natural deposits. The peaks of lead (Pb) and tin (Sn) in the XRF spectrum (below) identify the yellow particles as lead-tin yellow.

Anne of Brittany, kneeling at a prayer desk beside a youthful Virgin Mary, is presented by St Anne to the enthroned bishop, St Claude. A book bound in red rests on the prayer desk, which is covered in a blue cloth embroidered with fleurs-de-lis and gold initials A for Anne. The carpet bears Anne’s arms (France impaling Brittany), which are also held aloft by the angel on a pillar in the left margin. The arms are depicted a third time in the lower margin encircled by the motto, PENSON EN DIEU, with sprays of blue flowers on either side. Shown in prayer, Anne serves as a pious model for her daughter, Claude, for whom she commissioned the book.

The loose, rapid brush work of the artist is clearly visible in the dark blue-green background and the light grey floor. Preparatory sketches for the drapery folds appear through the thin layers of the gold mantle of St Claude, shaded and outlined in organic pink, and of Anne of Brittany’s gold dress, which has contrasting outlines in dark indigo. The infrared image reveals the full extent of the thick lines of the underdrawing in the draperies and in the faces, particularly of St Anne.