Friday, November 19, 2010

A Medieval Masterpiece To Call Your Own

By Nancy Mattoon

Sir Gawain In Battle,
An Image From The Rochefoucauld Grail.

(All Images Courtesy of Sotheby's.)

Medieval romances of chivalry have inspired everyone from Tennyson to Twain, from T.H. White to T.S. Eliot, from Walt Disney to Monty Python, and from Richard Wagner to Lerner & Lowe. But there was a time when the many tales of King Arthur and the Knights of The Round Table had just begun to be united into a single volume. Of the early collections telling the entire story of Camelot, one stood out in its size, scale and magnificence. It was known as The Rochefoucauld Grail, after the French nobleman for whom it was created, Guy VII, Baron de Rochefoucauld, sometime between 1315 and 1323.

Sir Lancelot And Sir Gawain In A Cart, Being Pelted With Filth.

The artists and scribes who produced this four-volume illuminated masterpiece for Baron de Rochefoucauld are known to have created only three copies. Two complete four-volume sets belong to the British Library. The fourth volume of what once was the Baron's set is now in two parts, with half of it owned by the Bodleian in Oxford and half by the John Rylands University Library in Manchester. And what of Rochefoucauld's other three volumes? Well, if you have about $3 million burning a hole in your pocket, they can be all yours on December 7, 2010.

Sir Lancelot About To Behead Melyagans.

Sotheby's of London will be auctioning off three volumes of what is believed to be one of the finest medieval manuscripts still in private hands. Created in Flanders or Artois, the volumes are presumed to have belonged to the Rochefoucauld family for nearly 500 years, until they were were dispersed in the 1720's. Three of the volumes were reunited in the early 1800's by Sir Thomas Phillipps (d.1872), possibly the greatest modern collector of medieval manuscripts. It is these three that will go under the hammer at the request of their current owner, Joost Ritman, for the benefit of his private library, the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam.

Sir Lancelot Attempts To Take His Own Life.

Dr. Timothy Bolton, medieval manuscripts expert and head of this sale at Sotheby’s, emphasized the opulence of the Rochefoucauld Grail, "It is the most extraordinary thing, a manuscript of royal quality, on a stupendous scale – I put my back out twice carrying the three volumes. It would have taken 200 cows to get the vellum, and the illuminations are in rare and costly minerals, against a background of thick gold made from coins beaten flat. Are we selling it cheap compared to its 14th-century cost? Of course we are." (Something to bear in mind as you mortgage the house, empty the kid's college fund, and cash in your 401K to scrape up the money for that winning bid.)

Queen Guinevere Leading A Wounded Sir Lancelot.

Having been sold very few times over the past 700 years, and only twice in the 20th century, the Rochfoucauld Grail is in amazingly good condition. Most manuscripts of the same era have literally been read to shreds. As Dr. Bolton points out,
"It is a grand book, in a monumental format, with 107 miniatures, each a dazzling jewel of early Gothic illumination. The subjects are almost entirely secular – a breathtakingly unusual thing at the time – with scenes of jousts, tournaments and battles, noble adventures and daring tests of strength and courage. The scenes often have a riotous energy, and often stretch beyond the boundaries of the picture frames, with lofty towers poking through the borders at the top, and figures tumbling out of the miniatures onto the blank page as they fall or scramble to escape their enemies."

King Arthur Battles The Saxons.

And Bolton has one more thing to add to those naysayers who don't think spending you last dime on this baby is a swell idea, "Who would buy such a thing? Who in their senses if they had the money would not?" Information on bidding is available on Sotheby's website.


  1. I wonder if that metallic trompe l'oeil 3D effect is made more apparent by being on the web? I don't know that I can recall seeing that style of effect before using the gilt background -vs- silver/grey dominating paint. It's quite amazing.

  2. peacay, I've only seen it in much, much smaller miniatures from Books of Hours. I wonder how large the "miniatures" are, given that the manuscript is 405 x 295 mm. (17 3/4 x 11 1/4")! Whoever took the pictures did an outstanding job--illumination is not easy to photograph well. What an amazing treasure!!

  3. Thanks for the insightful comment,peacay. I wish I knew whether the effect is accentuated online, or if the illuminations really have that much dimensionality. If the latter, 3D movies have nothing on these medieval artists.



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