Los Angeles, California, USA -The J. Paul Getty Museum’s Fall 2005 Premier Presentation exhibit of illuminated manuscripts opened simultaneously with an exhibit of newly discovered pages from a Book of Hours owned by Louis XII.
Borrowed from New York's Pierpont Morgan Library and titled “Painted Prayers: Books of Hours from the Morgan Library,” the main exhibit is arranged in such a way that the visitor is “taken inside” a Book of Hours. Books of Hours were devotionals produced by the leading artists of the day, and from about 1250 to 1550, more Books of Hours were produced than any other book.
“The purpose of these books,” Thomas Kren, Curator of Manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum, explains, “was to transport one from the distracting cares of this world to the divine pleasures of the next.”
'“If you were anybody,“ Mark Evans, Senior Curator of Painting at the Victoria and Albert Museum, adds, “you would own one. But if you were really 'somebody,' you'd own many.”
The books were ordered or commissioned through a bookseller, and could be customized to reflect the lives of those who owned them. Tools for spiritual life, they were also symbols of wealth and status, and were sometimes decorated with gold leaf, silver, and lapis lazuli.
“Books of Hours were a bit like automobiles,” Kren says. 'You customized them by adding extra text and pictures.”
The exquisitely decorated pages in the “Painted Prayers” collection are displayed in rooms with dramatic low lighting, and their beauty and craftsmanship shine. “They (the books) lived 99.9% of their lives closed,” Kren explains when asked about the richness of color visible even through protective glass cases. Faint strains of music of the period can be heard in the background and, by picking up one of eight handsets, one can hear the words on a page read in its original Latin. Three stained glass works from the Museum's collection are part of the exhibit area. This all lends a certain solemnity to viewing these rare items, and one can easily imagine going back in time.
The main exhibit includes work by late Gothic French painters Jean Fouquet and Barthelemy van Eyck, the French Renaissance artist Jean Bourdichon, and Italian Renaissance illuminator Attavante degli Attavanti. Inspiring and impressive due to sheer number and quality of preserved items, the exhibit is also quite instructional in that the parts of a Book of Hours are explained, and thus the visitor has a sense of how each page on display would fit into a volume. As well, there is a constantly-running video detailing the manner in which the books would have been produced.
While the main exhibit provides the basis for study of these beautiful pages, a sensational “antiquities detective story” figures prominently in another exhibit, the idea for which was masterminded by Kren, Evans and the late Janet Backhouse, distinguished scholar and Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library.
Entitled “A Masterpiece Reconstructed: The Hours of Louis XII,” the project brings together from around the world 15 of the 16 leaves discovered to date from this exquisite Book of Hours. These items have never before been on public view together. The exhibit offers a rare opportunity to see multiple parts of a single Book of Hours, and it is a shining example of the benefits of international cooperation in the restoration of antiquities.
'We are fortunate for having been able to lure great works of art out of their homes,' Kren says.
Based on the painting style and the unusual design of this particular book, Backhouse identified Jean Bourdichon of Tours as its creator. Bourdichon was court painter to four successive kings of France, including Louis XII, during the late 15th and 16th centuries. The exhibit is impressive due to the artistry of the decorated pages, but it is the detective work that dazzles.
When scholar Backhouse published her 1973 essay and presented her evidence of finding and matching plates and text pages that belonged to the original Book of Hours owned by Louis XII, it became known that she had, indeed, discovered a manuscript that had disappeared some 300 years prior.
This designation was especially exciting because the Book had formerly been known as belonging to English King Henry VII- a reasonable assumption based upon the inscription of 'H. VII. R' on the remaining spine of a later-applied binding.
It is now thought that Louis XII's third and last wife, Mary of Tudor, the daughter of Henry VII, transported the Book to England after her husband's death. The pair were only married a few months.
“She was much younger than her husband, that Mary, and she probably just wore him out,“ Evans surmises humorously. 'When he died she just beetled off to England. It's thought she took with her some jewelry and this Book.“ In fact, young Mary married another man (Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk) in secret within a month after her husband's death. This offers an interesting explanation for the Book coming into the hands of Henry VII and so far from its origin.
Scholars estimate that the Hours of Louis XII was produced in the 1498/9 timeframe and might have been in celebration of Louis‘ coronation. Unfortunately, as part of a practice that occurred frequently during the late 18th and early 19th century, leaves from the book were dispersed. While identifying the plates, Backhouse noticed similar techniques in each that are highly characteristic of this period in Bourdichon's work: presence of under-drawing with a liquid medium, painted gold highlights on draperies, varied use of details to sharpen focus or show spatial recession, half-length compositions, amazing nocturnal scenes, and exquisite techniques with gold highlighting. The highlighting is especially evocative in scenes including the Christ child and where light that could be described as emanating from a divine source is portrayed. Additionally, the painter placed his subjects as fully in the foreground of the page and closest to the borders as possible- a new presentation technique that can be appreciated when viewing the plates together and in comparison to prior work.
X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy and Raman spectroscopy were two non-invasive techniques used to identify the paint pigments. The analysis revealed that Bourdichon rarely used a single pigment. All of the plates Backhouse examined for this project, including the new discoveries “Bathsheba Bathing,“ “The Flight into Egypt,“ “Saint Luke Writing,” “The Nativity,” and “King Louis XII of France Kneeling in Prayer‘“ conformed. Thus, they are proved as parts of the Book, and add to the known plate count, identifying fifteen of the Book's likely total of sixteen.
'The Hours of Louis XII, even in its incomplete state, represents a milestone in the long career of Jean Bourdichon,“ Backhouse wrote in her essay for the Getty's publication “A Masterpiece Reconstructed: The Hours of Louis XII. (The Book) also includes some of the most beautiful and memorable miniatures in Bourdichon's remarkable oeuvre: from the exquisite 'Virgin of the Annunciation' to the bold combination of natural, artificial and spiritual light sources of the nocturnal 'Nativity;' from the seductive charms of the temptress Bathsheba to the majesty of the royal portrait.”
All of this may sound like a satisfactory hypothesis for determining that the plates were done by the same painter, but how could a scholar opine what belonged in the same volume? Excellent deductive reasoning, that's how. First consideration was the presentation method for the subjects. Second would have been to consider the requisite elements in a Book of Hours.
A little background: by the late 14th century, a Book of Hours consisted of some nine parts. These are a Calendar, Gospel Lessons, the Hours of the Virgin, Hours of the Cross and Hours of the Holy Spirit, Prayers to the Virgin ('Obsecro Te' and 'O Intemerata), Penitential Psalms and Litany, accessory texts, Suffrages, and the Office of the Dead.
All Books of Hours opened with a calendar to serve the same purpose as our calendars today- to tell what day it is, but also to cite feasts to be celebrated. Most feast days were written in black ink. However very special days would be written in red ink, thus our term today of a 'red letter' day. This part may have been decorated thematically by seasonal labors or the signs of the zodiac.
The next part of a book of hours was usually a series of Gospel Lessons (New Testament bible) by the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). These readings were customarily read aloud at Christmas and on the feasts of the Annunciation, the Epiphany, and the Ascension.
The Book of Hours takes its name from its next part, the Hours of the Virgin. Considered the heart of the book, this is a series of eight prayers that, ideally, would be prayed throughout the course of the day. The Matins and Lauds would be prayed every day at night or upon rising. An hour of prayer would begin at 6:00 a.m. ('Prime'), at 9:00 a.m. ('Terce'), at noon ('Sext', at 3:00 p.m. ('Nones'), sometime during the evening ('Vespers'), and before sleep ('Compline').
Following this, the reader's attention would be drawn to the Seven Penitential Psalms. It was believed that this section was written by the Biblical King David as penance for his sins of adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder. The psalms herein were linked to the “Seven Deadly Sins” of pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth. Praying the psalms was both a way to ask forgiveness for the dead- and, hopefully, lessen their stay in purgatory- and as a way for the living to avoid sin.
Ironically, the books of hours of the late 15th and 16th centuries contain pictures of the alleged source of King David's sin more often than the King himself. The stunningly beautiful (and most anatomically correct) depiction of Bathsheba in her bath is a keystone in the Louis XII book.
Supplemental devotions or accessory texts of many kinds were available for customizing each book, much like our modern-day personalization of day planners. One notable text includes a complete set of illustrated weekday masses. One of the rarest- and sweetest- items in the exhibition is a painting depicting a child being taught to pray.
Short prayers to individual saints or 'Suffrages' usually appeared at the end. The saints were more approachable to the Medieval people insofar as they were human, and they assumed various roles as protectors in each book. These could be elaborate or simple. The stunning plate “Saint Luke Writing” in the Louis XII Book is part of this section in the “Masterpiece Reconstructed” exhibit.
“The last section, The Office of the Dead, followed,” Roger S. Wieck, Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts for the Morgan Library writes in his explanatory brochure for the exhibit. “The Office of the Dead was in the back of every book of hours the way death itself was always at the back of the medieval mind.“ While this section was recited at funerals, believers were also highly encouraged to pray it every day, praying for others already dead who could not pray for themselves. Depicted in this section are funerary images, surprisingly peaceful representations of a dying person receiving last rites while surrounded by loved ones. This was, as Wieck terms it, the “ideal Christian death.”
Recall Backhouse had identified the plates “Bathsheba Bathing,” “Saint Luke Writing,” 'The Flight into Egypt,” “The Nativity,“ and “Louis XII of France Kneeling in Prayer, Accompanied by Sts. Michael, Charlemagne, Louis, and Denis.” These would, logically, belong in the Penitential Psalms, the Gospel Lessons, the Hours of the Virgin, and the Book's front, respectively. Following how the work came together again is an interesting exercise.
“Bathsheba Bathing” and another plate in the Book, “The Presentation in the Temple,” were subsequently sold in 1974 at auction to antiquarian book dealer Bernard H. Breslauer. About a year later, two more miniatures surfaced. By 2001, six more had been identified. A miniature of Louis XII (“Louis XII of France Kneeling in Prayer…”) appeared on the art market in 2003 and, although Backhouse had only seen a photograph of this page, she knew it belonged to the book.
During 2003-2004, the Getty acquired “Bathsheba Bathing” and “The Presentation in the Temple,“ “The Adoration of the Magi” was sold to the Musee du Louvre, 'The Flight into Egypt” became part of a British private collection, and the Victoria and Albert Museum acquired 'The Nativity.'“ This exhibit brings together from around the world 15 of the existing 16 leaves rediscovered and almost all of the manuscript's text.
Where is the rest stashed away? We don't yet know.
It's not unusual for an exhibit like this to produce another leaf,” Evans says. 'We're hoping this exhibit will flush something out. And it's fitting that this should come together now since it's been a year that Janet (Backhouse) is gone.” Exciting!
In the words of the late Janet Backhouse, 'One can only wait with keen anticipation the discovery of further miniatures from this great manuscript, which may shed further light upon (the Book) and upon this court painter's enduring creativity.' Calling all art collectors!
The exhibition runs until January 8, 2006, and will then travel to the U.K. in February, 2006.
Text Ó 2005 M. D. Caprario
Images used with permission of The J. Paul Getty Museum
All photographic images in this article were supplied by the J. Paul Getty Trust and its operating programs. No manipulations of photos were made other than sizing them for the site.
Photographic Credits: "The Coronation of the Virgin" (title photo), "The Nativity and Thistles," "Saint John on Patmos," and "Psalter-Hours of Yolande de Soisson," The Pierpont Morgan Library, purchased by J. P. Morgan, Jr., 1927, copyright The Pierpont Morgan Library, 2005 photography by David A. Loggie;
"Saint Luke Writing," The J. Paul Getty Museum, Trustees of the National Library of Scotland;
"Death of Uriah and David in Prayer," The Pierpont Morgan Library, purchased by J. P. Morgan, Jr., 1927, copyright The Pierpont Morgan Library, 2005 photography by Joseph Zahavi.
M. D. Caprario is a Los Angeles-based journalist, author and editor who writes about art, antiquities, books, film, and music. Reach her at [email protected]