Tuesday, June 1, 2010

15th Century Woman's Heart (And Soul) Won With Extravagant Book

Books have been given as tokens of love for centuries, even before the invention of printing. Illuminated books of hours like the one pictured above were precious objects commissioned from highly skilled artists and were often given as a wedding gift. This book of hours was created in the middle of the 15th century, and the fineness of its execution indicates that it was created by a top flight atelier. It was a great treasure from the time it was created, and has survived in near-perfect condition to this day because it has always been treated with great reverence.

There are hints that this particular book of hours was created especially for a beloved woman. The sequence of prayers to individual saints, called suffrages, here is unusual in that the female saints precede the males: texts in the codex for Mary Magdalene, St. Catherine, St. Anne, St. Susanna, and St. Margaret come before those for St. Christopher, All Saints, and St. Sebastian. This sequence (and the fact that the "Obsecro te" and the suffrage to St. Christopher are in the feminine form) suggest that the first owner of the manuscript was a woman.

Most books of hours have miniatures depicting significant events in the life of the Virgin Mary: the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation in the temple, and her Coronation as Queen of Heaven. Other frequent subjects are the Crucifixion, Pentecost, some portrayal of a funeral to remind the devout of their mortality, and perhaps King David composing the Psalms. A books of hours commissioned for an individual might include a miniature of the owner's patron or name saint. This Book of Hours is unusual in that it contains the quite rare Suffrage to St. Susanna; not only is the text of this Suffrage present, but the person who commissioned the manuscript has chosen Susanna's story as the subject matter for one of the book's six large miniatures.

The scene, shown above, depicts the central moment in the Apocryphal Book of Daniel, showing the saintly woman being defended by the young Daniel against two elders who had falsely accused her of adultery after trying to seduce her. Depictions of the story of Susanna are quite rare--her story in in the Apocrypha, and she was not one of the female saints especially venerated in Medieval times, as Saints Margaret, Catherine, and Barbara were. The only likely reason for including the tale of this beautiful and virtuous wife is that the woman for whom is was intended was named Susanna or Suzanne.

The next token of love, created some 400 years later, was a 25th anniversary gift. In the mid-19th century, Parisian publishers issued a number of elaborately presented religious works with illustrations from several hands . . . Curmer's 'Les Saints Évangiles' [the Gospels] is the most attractive of the lot." (Ray) The present copy also has added lovely illuminations, a charming original watercolor, and an exquisite binding by one of the top Parisian binders, Leon Gruel.

The most unusual binding is done in a Neo-Gothic style, its dark green silk velvet covers mounted with delicately and elaborately carved boxwood frames after designs by Martin Riester. The front cover is adorned with the recipient's monogram, and the edges of the leaves are elaborately gauffered in a red and gold design.

According to the handsomely designed presentation page at the front, this beautiful object was assembled at the order of C. J. T. Tiby, and given to his "dear wife," Anaïs Duret Tiby on 2 June 1855, as a "Souvenir of 25 years of Happiness." In the accompanying watercolor of the wedding ceremony (shown below), which took place at midnight a quarter century earlier, we see a shy bride in white and a tall officer in uniform standing before a candlelit altar, surrounded by their families.

Mme. Tiby must have been a shining example of the perfect wife, as described in the Book of Proverbs and recalled in the presentation, for her husband certainly would have committed to a liberal expenditure in commissioning this painstakingly crafted edition of the Gospels.

Like the thoughtful wife described in last week's post, M. Tiby and the husband of the Medieval Suzanne chose not a piece of jewelry, which can be worn and displayed, to honor their beloved, but a book, which in addition to being an object of great beauty to be enjoyed (and yes, displayed) is also something with which one engages intellectually and emotionally--a feast for the mind and the heart, as well as for the eyes.


1 comment:

  1. I love this site! I am writing a new curriculum for high school History of Art and each time I read what is written I am inspired with new information. Thanks so much!! Marquerite P.


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