A Quire of “Better” Angels (No Pun Intended)

Fifty-two discoveries from the BiblioPhilly project, No. 32/52

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Book of Hours, Use of Bourges, Philadelphia, Free Library of Philadelphia, Lewis E 87, fol. 9r (detail)

A few weeks ago, we looked at a Book of Hours at the Free Library of Philadelphia (Lewis E 87) that bears an ownership inscription by Jean Lallemant dated to 1544, but which is fact a noticeably older book, produced around the turn of the sixteenth century. Today, we will inspect the book’s unusual border decoration more closely in an attempt to determine the identity of its illuminator. While the book is missing its eight large miniatures, the cherubs and seraphs in the margins contain just enough stylistic information to allow for an attribution. Or at least, a partial one.

  
Lewis E 87, fols. 6v–7r (end of Calendar and beginning of Gospel Lessons)

A quick glance at the book, and particularly at the page opening above which marks the transition between the end of the calendar and the beginning of the Gospel Lesson from John, shows that not all the six-winged creatures are of equal quality. Compare the larger, more carefully shaded, and therefore more three-dimensional angels on folios 7r to 13v with those that come before and after. For the most part, the other angels are repetitive and rote, a halfhearted attempt to emulate the vivacity of their more corpulent cousins. Note as well that this seven-folio section was originally a quire of eight folios. The missing leaf between 7 and 8, which likely had a blank recto and a full-page miniature of the Annunciation facing the beginning of the Hours of the Virgin, is signaled by the presence of a stub in the digital image and recorded by the handy collation diagrams available through the BiblioPhilly browsing interface (hats off to my colleague Dot Porter and the VisColl project).


Lewis E 87, fol. 8r (with stub of missing leaf showing in margin)

This quire, which encompassed the Gospel excerpt from John and the beginning of the Hours of the Virgin, is in some ways the most prominent in any Book of Hours. It is therefore to be expected that its marginal decoration would be assigned to the most capable artist available. The quality of the figures declines even more in the calendar and in the later portions of the book, suggesting that there might even be a third artist involved.

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Lewis E 87, “Good” seraph (fol. 13v) vs. “Bad” seraph (fol. 14v)

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Lewis E 87, “Good” cherub (fol. 12r) vs. “Bad” cherub (fol. 14r) vs. “Very Bad” cherub (fol. 23r)

The best angels show all the hallmarks of a distinctive artist who dominated manuscript illumination in Bourges, the city where the Lallemant family was based, around the year 1500: the so-called Master of Spencer 6. We don’t know the illuminator’s name with absolute certainty, but this notnamen or name of convenience is based on one of his most splendid manuscripts, now housed in the Spencer Collection at the New York Public Library. The artist was first named as such by François Avril, who grouped a number of manuscripts together stylistically. Drawing on extensive archival research, Jean-Yves Ribault suggested that the artist may be identifiable with a certain Laurent Boiron, documented in Bourges between 1480 and 1510. A recent PhD thesis by Katja Airaksinen-Monier examined the illuminator’s œuvre in depth, and largely endorsed Ribault’s hypothesis.[efn_note]Katja Airaksinen-Monier, “Vision and Devotion in Bourges around 1500: An Illuminator and His World” (Ph.D. Thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2015).[/efn_note]

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Book of Hours, Use of Rome; New York, New York Public Library, Spencer MS 6 (miniature of the Annunciation by the Master of Spencer 6)

Why were the other angels farmed out to one or more less talented artists? Probably to save time and money. Manuscript production in Bourges in this period was very workshop-centered. The Master of Spencer 6, in fact, collaborated frequently with the other major dynasty of illuminators in the city, the Colombe, which consisted of a father, son, and grandson team: Jean, Philibert, and François (incidentally, I’ve studied the internal dynamics of this atelier in a recent article, while Marie Jacob has examined the workshop’s approach to antiquity more broadly[efn_note]Nicholas Herman, “Colour versus Gold: Disgruntled Digressions in a Late Medieval Workshop,” in Manuscripts in the Making: Art and Science, ed. Stella Panayotova and Paola Ricciardi (London: Harvey Miller, 2017), 126–36; Marie Jacob, Dans l’atelier des Colombe (Bourges 1470-1500): La représentation de l’Antiquité en France à la fin du XVe siècle (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2012).[/efn_note]). The fact that the most capable artist kept to the most important portions of the book confirms what we know to be the case from many other examples: that patrons and artists had great acuity when it came to judgments of artistic skill, even though there are virtually no contemporary documents that state this explicitly.

But can we really assign the “better” angels to the Master of Spencer 6? When settling on an attribution, one can often feel an almost subconscious connection to the artist in mind, without immediately thinking of close parallels. And yet, finding close parallels within an artist’s existing œuvre is the key to clinching an attribution unequivocally. However, I can think of no other Books of Hours with such a systematic programme of marginal cherubs and seraphs, let alone one by the Master of Spencer 6.

One very different work by the Master of Spencer 6 eventually came to mind as a potential comparison: a copy of Jean de Meung’s Sept articles de la foy lavishly illustrated with eight huge, classically-framed miniatures (London, British Library, Egerton MS 940). Though the British Library has only made two of these available online, in relatively low-quality scans, the similarities with our very much more modest marginal frolickers is apparent if we look closely at some of the details. The fantastic miniature of the Trinity has frolicking golden putti on the volutes that form the top of its frame (and an upright swaddled infant reminiscent of those on the facade of the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence, squeezed uncomfortably into keystone position!). However, these share only a passing resemblance to our marginal figures. The closest comparisons are, unsurprisingly, in the choirs of cherubs and seraphs that crowd behind the Trinity’s throne. Though they are highlighted in gold, they share the plump, beatific features, interlocking wings, and solid mops of hair that characterize the marginal figures in the second quire of Lewis E 87.

The Trinity
Jean de Meung, Sept articles de la foy, ca. 1500; London, British Library, Egerton MS 940, fol. 2v (miniature of The Trinity by the Master of Spencer 6)

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Egerton MS 940, fol. 2v (detail).

I have examined the Egerton manuscript in person and can vouch for its quality, but the digital image (which is most likely a scanned ektachrome slide) simply doesn’t do justice to the the artist’s talent, nor to its closeness with our cherubs and seraphs. Searching for a better comparison online, I was happy to find a recent partial digitization of the master’s eponymous manuscript, the aforementioned Spencer MS 6 of the New York Public Library. While the lovely double-page Annunciation is strangely missing from the digitized surrogate (I have used an older digital image above), its antitype, the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, is included in the new digitization. Now, this is a much grander composition upon which the master lavished a huge amount of attention, so the comparison is a little bit asymmetrical. Still, might this glorious red angel, menacingly showing the First Couple out of paradise with an unsheathed flaming sword, be the grown-up brother of our little seraphs? I leave it up to the reader to decide.

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Spencer MS 6, fols. 1v–2r (Double-page miniature of The angel expelling Adam and Eve from Paradise, fol. 1v-2 by the Master of Spencer 6)

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Spencer MS 6, fol. 1v (detail) Lewis E 87,  fol. 7v (detail)


 

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