The finest English illuminated manuscript known to be in private hands and one
of the most profusely illustrated English manuscripts in existence
5 Vita Christi, Life of Christ and of the Virgin, supplemented to become a Rosary and Devotional VolumeIlluminated manuscript on vellum. Northern England (York?), c. 1190-1200, and East Anglia (Norfolk?), c. 1480-90.
170 x 120 mm. 106 leaves, of which 51 are late romanesque and 55 are 15th-century.The romanesque manuscript was disassembled in the 15th century and re-used to ornament an even more extensively illustrated manuscript. Complete in its 15th-century form: 4 modern vellum leaves + I8-2, II8, III4-1, IV8+2,V8+2,VI7+2,VII8-1+4, VIII8+3, IX1+8, X8+3, XI4+5, XII8, XIII2-1, + 5 modern vellum leaves. – One leaf with early 13th-century text in 15 lines, 15th-century text with 18-21 lines, written in brown ink in several gothic liturgical hands, many rubrics in red. Small initials in blue or burnished gold with penwork in red or black, large illuminated initials in highly raised burnished gold on red and blue grounds with white tracery and marginal sprays of gold and green leaves.A cutting with the word “Alleluya” in burnished gold, perhaps from a 14th-century Psalter, was pasted to fol. 24v, all other pages and original blanks filled with texts in a variety of gothic hands, some 15th-century captions and adaptions of the romanesque pictures. 51 late romanesque full-page miniatures, all originally blank on one side, and 57 15th-century large or full-page miniatures. – Some considerable flaking and rubbing of the earlier miniatures, some scratching, occasional 15th-century retouching or repair, a few stains and signs of extensive use. Sewing holes above the romanesque miniatures show that they once had textile covers. – Blind-stamped brown morocco with clasps and catches by W. H. Smith (Douglas Cockerell, 1870-1945) for Dyson Perrins; edges gilt and gauffered, probably 16th-century.
PROVENANCE: 1. Probably the 15th-century owner assembled the manuscript in its present form (not earlier than 1479) in East Anglia. A possible candidate could be Robert Leake (d. 1517), hermit at Blythborough, Suffolk, or Robert Themilthorpe (d. 1505) of Foulsham, north Norfolk. The vellum shield with the five Wounds of Christ pasted to fol. 4v could be a souvenir from a pilgrimage to the Bridgettines of Syon, a journey made by many pious laity, including Margery Kempe from Norfolk. 2. 16th-century inscriptions on the flyleaves with names of Susanna Flint and John Pinchbeck (fol. 1), and two signatures of Robert Themilthorpe (fol. 4 and 4v, “Aetat. 42” in 1594), son of George Themilthorpe of Foulsham and Worstead, Norfolk, (cf.Alumni Cantabrigiensis, IV, p. 219; F. Bloomfield 1808,VIII, p. 278). 3. N. Roe, 1760 (signature on fol. 1). 4. Charles William Dyson Perrins (1864-1958), bought from Quaritch in 1916; sold to 5. Laurence Witten (cat. 5, New Haven, 1962, no. 11) 6. Private collection, U.S.A.
TEXT: The original cycle of romanesque illustrations had no text. A prayer was added on fol. 31. In the late 15th century further pages were added and every available space was filled to form a devotional miscellany as follows: fol. 5: A list of the eight ages of the world; verses in hexameters of St Anne’s family and a note of the exact dates in each month when Christ was conceived, born and baptized – fol. 5v-14v (versos only): biblical readings from St John, Genesis, Exodus and II Samuel – fol. 15: lives of Joachim, St Anne and the Virgin Mary – fol. 18-25: Rosary of the Virgin, preceded by a rubric telling of a Carthusian monk near Trier, endorsed here by offers of indulgence for its use dated 10 March 1476, 30 May 1478 and 8 May 1479 – fol. 26v-54: Penitential Psalms and litany, divided for use each day of the week, use of Sarum – fol. 43v: interpolated suffrage to St Robert of Bury – fol. 54: prayers on the elevation of the Host and on the Passion of Christ – fol. 59-76: Psalms of the Passion, Psalms 21-30, with further verses and prayers – fol. 76v: Passion from St John – fol. 77: hymn on the Holy Face and the testament made by Christ on the Cross – fol. 80: prayer of Bede on the Seven Words on the Cross – fol. 81v: prayer on the Trinity – fol. 83: verses of St Bernard – fol. 83v: Lamentation of the Virgin to Christ on the Cross – fol. 91v: prayers to the Virgin, including O intemerata – fol. 95: prayers for use before an Image of Pity, with a rubric in Middle English – fol. 96v: prayer to Christ – fol. 97v: fifteen signs before the day of judgement, ascribed to St Jerome, hymn to the wound of Christ.
ILLUMINATION:The romanesque miniatures: Life of Mary: fol. 18v, l9, 20, 21, 22v, 24, 25v, 26, 28, 29v – Life of Christ: fol. 30, 31v, 34, 35v, 36, 37v, 38, 39v, 40v, 43, 44v, 45, 46v, 47, 48v, 49v, 52, 53, 54v, 57, 58v, 60, 61, 62v, 63, 64v, 65v (once between fol. 58v and 61), 68, 69v, 78, 79v, 81 – Resurrection and Ascension: fol. 82v, 84, 85v, 87, 88v, 89, 90v, 91, 51 – Death of the Virgin: fol. 92v. The 51 miniatures, painted in England around 1190-1200, could either once have been prefatory to a psalter or were intended as an independent picture book. Some miniatures seem to be missing, such as Christ before Pilate. Comparable biblical picture books exist, although rather later, such as Paris, BN fr.16251 (cf. Stones 1997) or Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum MS. 370 (exh. cat. Cambridge 2005, pp. 183f, no. 75), both of the late 13th century.The six most profusely illustrated English psalters of the century between 1120 and 1220 are: 1. St Albans Psalter (Hildesheim, Dombibliothek MS St Godehard), c.1120; 2.Winchester Psalter (London, BL, Cotton ms Nero C.IV), c.1150; 3. Hunterian Psalter (Glasgow U.L., ms Hunter U.3.2), c.1180; 4. Gough Psalter (Oxford, Bodleian, ms Gough liturg. 2), c.1180; 5. Leiden Psalter (Leiden, Rijksuniversiteit, ms Lat.76A), c.1190; and, 6. richest of all, the Munich Psalter perhaps painted in Oxford (Munich, BS, Clm 835), c.1210, with 46 full-page miniatures. If the psalter which was the quarry for the present miniatures really had more than 51 full-page miniatures, then the series was longer than any other cycle known. Nigel Morgan relates the style of the early miniatures to a group of manuscripts from northern or north-eastern England, all of which evolve out of the Gough Psalter (cf. Morgan 1982 I, no.16).The present volume has almost exact iconographical parallels to the Gough Psalter: compare, e. g., Scenes from the life of Christ, pl. 6 with fol. 30, pl. 8 with 44v, pl. 9 with 53, and pl. 11 with 65v. Other manuscripts in similar painterly style in architectural settings include the life of St Cuthbert, doubtless from Durham (London, BL add. ms 39943). Another, perhaps nearer still, is a Psalter in St John’s College (Cambridge, ms k. 30) c.1190-1200. Its Calendar includes St Guthlac of Lincoln and St Paulinus and Wilfrid of York. The closest of all is the famous Leiden Psalter. It was illuminated for Geoffrey Plantagenet, son of Henry II, archbishop of York 1191-1212. The miniatures in the Leiden Psalter share close similarities with those here, including details such as the unexpected frontal Christ blessing in the scene of the Betrayal (fol. 64v). Morgan proposed that the present series are a slightly later product of the same northern English workshop. Xenia Muratova emphasises the role of Geoffrey Plantagenet (b. 1212), legitimate son of Henry II (cf. Muratova 1984). He was bishop-elect of Lincoln 1173-82 and archbishop of York from 1191 to 1207. Both York and Lincoln are possible locations for Geoffrey’s artists, and Lincoln remained in courtly favour after the appointment of Hugh of Avalon, bishop 1186-1200. The workshop, which also produced the Bestiary now in Oxford (ms Ashmole 1511), was doubtless responsible for the Vita Christi, perhaps a royal commission from Geoffrey or his immediate household. The 15th-century miniatures are: Genesis and Old Testament: fol. 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, l3, l4 – Mary in a rose: fol. 18, 25 – Life of Mary and Childhood of Christ: fol. 28v, 29, 30v – Visionary composition: fol. 40 – Veneration of St Robert of Bury: fol. 43v, 44 – Episodes from the life of Christ: fol. 55v, 57v, 58, 62 – Mary in a rose: fol. 63v – Passion of Christ: fol. 64, 66, 66v, 67, 67v, 68v, 69 – Mary in a rose: fol. 70v (as fol. 63v) – Passion of Christ continued: fol. 72, 72v, 74, 74v – Meditation images and Mary in a rose: fol. 77, 78v, 79 – Resurrection: fol. 84v. – Last Judgement: fol. 93, 93v – Mary in a rose and meditation image: fol. 94, 95v – Apocalypse: fol. 98, 98v, 99, 99v, l00, l00v, 101, 101v, 102, 102v, 103, 103v, 104, 104v, 105 – The Wound in the side of Christ: fol. 105v. When the manuscript was reassembled in the late 15th century, 57 further large miniatures were added. They follow an eschatological vision from the Creation to the end of the world. They include images of strange subjects, such as bundles of flowers with a sun and eagle on fol. 40, and the extremely important picture of St Robert of Bury. Because of the latter, it has been assumed that the whole volume was put together in Bury St Edmunds. However, the style is not obviously that of 15th-century book production in Bury, at least as associated with the dissemination of Lydgate manuscripts from the abbey (cf. Edwards 2004). There are three hands in the 15th-century illumination.They must have collaborated as their images do not appear separated from each other. Such collaboration suggests an urban workshop rather than a private domestic enterprise. The second hand is close to Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum ms 55, a book of hours which is the centre of a cluster of manuscripts perhaps made in Norwich (Scott 1996, VI, II pp. 350-52, no. 135). The border around the miniature of the Image of Pity on fol. 95v almost exactly parallels that around the Rood in the Fitzwilliam manuscript (Scott 1996, fig. 490) and may well be from the same artist. The picture of St Robert of Bury St Edmunds on fol. 43v, 44: This 15th-century miniature is the unique representation of the boy martyr Robert, supposedly crucified by the Jews in Bury St Edmunds in 1181. The death of Robert led directly to a massacre of Jews on Palm Sunday 1190 and their expulsion from Bury, and eventually from England altogether in 1290. All that is known about this notable Jewish blood libel and the cult of St Robert are a few later liturgical references, including a prayer by Lydgate, uniquely recorded in Oxford, Bodleian, ms Laud 683, and the present picture. The subject is as enigmatic as the saint’s life is elusive.The first scene shows an old woman apparently hiding the boy saint’s body in a well. At the lower left is a man, perhaps the patron with a scroll “Meritis sancti Roberti hic & in evum misereatur mei”, with his scroll reaching Robert’s soul in the hands of God. In the fourth compartment is a sealed charter, with a picture of a robin, all attached to some kind of wall hanging. ‘Robin’ is a medieval diminutive of Robert; the robin is also a symbol of murdered innocence, for its red breast resembles blood. The image will also be discussed in E. Rose, The Monk, The Knight, the Bishop and the Jew, forthcoming, 2008. Equally puzzling are the four animals on the facing page, evidently walking through a field towards St Robert. They are a stag, a bear in a collar, a striped cat of some kind, and an ox. They might be Bestiary symbols of sanctity, parenthood (the bear) and sacrifice (the ox), but cannot yet be sufficiently explained. The inclusion of St Robert in the middle of a sequence of biblical narrative is intriguing too, suggesting a high level of devotion to a local martyr. It is placed between the death of Herod and the Flight into Egypt, and Robert becomes therefore one of the Holy Innocents. It also stands between Jewish prophecy and the incarnation of the Saviour. A late 15th-century rood screen in Holy Trinity Church, Loddon, Norfolk, similarly includes the martyrdom of William of Norwich in a cycle showing the infancy of Christ, perhaps for the same reason.
LITERATURE:Warner 1920, pp.1-8, no.1; James 1930, p. 19; exh. cat. London 1930, no. 32; Coppinger Hill 1931, pp. 100-102; Swarzenski 1936, p. 65, pl. 6, fig. 33; Scenes from the life of Christ in English Manuscripts (Bodleian picture books, 5), Oxford, 1951; Lafontaine-Dosogne 1965, pp. 25, 64, 75, 82, 87, 106, 120, 161; Morgan 1982 [I], p. 63, no. 16; Rogers 1987, p. 237 and n. 38; Muratova 1988, esp. pp. 50- 55; Greenway and Sayers 1989, p. 15; De Hamel 1996, p. 7; Bale 2006, pp. 112, 118-126, pls. 2-3; Scott 1996, II pp. 350- 52, no. 135; Stones 1997; Edwards 2004; exh. cat. Cambridge 2005.