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254 posts categorized "Featured manuscripts"

01 March 2015

A Calendar Page for March 2015

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To find out more about the London Rothschild Hours, take a look at our post A Calendar Page for January 2015

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Calendar page for March, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, architectural column and suspended roundel, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 2v 

In this month’s border decoration, a roundel for the Feast of the Annunciation is suspended from a perpendicular gothic column. This elaborate architectural design itself encloses a scene showing the Mass of St Gregory, who died on 12th March 604. According to Paul the Deacon’s 8th-century biography of Gregory, the Man of Sorrows appeared as Gregory celebrated mass as Pope, in response to his prayers to convince someone of the doctrine of transubstantiation – that is, Christ’s physical presence in the consecrated host. 

At the top of the page, there is the Zodiac sign for March: Aries the Ram. At the bottom, there is another scene of agricultural industriousness. Three peasants labour in a fenced-off garden: the men digging and planting fruit trees, the woman pulling up weeds. They are overseen by a gentlewoman, who is holding a small lapdog in her arms, and her female attendant. A large and imposing building, presumably the woman’s residence, stands in the background. 

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of peasants labouring in a garden,
Add MS 35313, f. 2v 

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Detail of an architectural column enclosing the scene of the Mass of St Gregory,
Add MS 35313, f. 2v 

- James Freeman

19 February 2015

Written on the Edge

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When you think of a bookshelf, an image comes immediately to mind: books in an orderly row, arranged alphabetically, thematically, or perhaps by height or colour, but (usually!) standing upright, with spines facing outward. But it does not necessarily follow that books were always kept in this way. In fact, our earliest visual evidence for bookshelves, or book storage, suggests that books were laid flat, sometimes on individual shelves, and often with fore-edge or lower edge facing outwards, rather than the spine. Some evidence that this continued to be the case, both in the Latin west and in the Byzantine world, is given by the existence of decorations, titles, or other writing, on the edges of manuscripts.

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Egerton MS  2610. Cretan-style decorated fore-edge. Similar decoration can be seen on the edges of Royal MS 1 A XV.

Writing on edges could potentially be of great use to scholars in reconstructing Byzantine libraries, or in assigning provenance. But the barriers to such research are daunting, not least since the details of such writing are not always recorded in catalogue entries.Moreover, the text is often extremely difficult to read, because of the dirt that has accrued on the edges that have faced outwards in a library or study for centuries. And it is a challenge to photograph edges clearly, especially in manuscripts that have been rebound, such that the binding extends beyond the text-block and casts a shadow over the edges. But it would be very interesting to know whether, for instance, the relative brevity or length of titles could give clues as to whether the manuscript was owned by a private individual (who may only have needed one copy of a Nomocanon) or by a monastic or imperial library. In the hopes of making such a study easier, we provide here a brief list of Greek manuscripts in the British Library with writing on the fore-edge or lower edge. Unfortunately, not all of these edges can be seen online at present, but those not online have been transcribed where possible.

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Add MS 39609, containing Isaiah of Scetis, Asceticon. Writing on the upper edge: + ΑΒΒΑ(?) ΗΣΑΙΟΥ. Manuscript of the Asceticon of Isaiah of Scetis. From the Karakalou Monastery, Mount Athos.

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Add MS 39610, containing John Climacus, Scala Paradisi and Liber ad Pastorem. Writing on the upper edge: […K] ΚΛΗΜΑΚΑΣ. From the Monastery of Simonopetra, Mount Athos.

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Burney MS 55, containing Manuel Malaxos, Nomocanon. Writing on the upper edge: ΝΟΜΟΣ. Owned by Parthenius, Metropolites of Silistria.

Burney MS 94, containing grammatical and medical texts. Writing on the lower edge: XVIII.(This manuscript was written at Venice, but appears to have been in the possession of a succession of Greek monks, see the catalogue entry).

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Burney MS 110, containing Zenobius, Epitome collectionum Luculli Tarrhaei et Didymi. Writing on the fore-edge: ΑΙΣΩΠΟΣ ΚΑΙ ΖΗΝΟΒΙΟΣ. Written in central or northern Italy.

Harley MS 5571, a psalter. Writing on the fore-edge: ΨΑΛΤΗΡΙΟΝ. Owned by Santa Maria in Organo at Verona (Greek and Latin ex-libris).

Harley MS 5582, a psalter. Writing on the fore-edge: + ΨΑΛΤΗ[ΡΙΟΝ] (last few letters barely legible). Written by the monk Sophonias for the hieromonk Ioseph of Syria.

Harley MS 5625, Galen, De Pulsibus. Writing on the fore-edge. ΓΑΛΗ-ΝΟΥ ΜΕΓΑΛΗ ΣΦΥ-ΓΜΙΚΗ.

Harley MS 5630, works of Symeon, Archbishop of Thessalonica 1416/7-1429. Writing on the lower edge: + ΣΥΜΕΩΝ ΤΟΥ ΜΕΓ , ΘΕΟΛΟΓΟΥ ΘΕΣΣΑΛΟΝΙΚΗΣ

Harley MS 5693, Homer’s Iliad. Writing on the fore-edge: HOMERUS, and lower edge inscribed '6[6?]’.

-          Cillian O’Hogan

01 February 2015

A Calendar Page for February 2015

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To find out more about the London Rothschild Hours, take a look at our post A Calendar Page for January 2015

Add_ms_35313_f002r
Calendar page for February, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, four roundels and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 2r 

For this month, the bas-de-page scene is an appropriately wintry and barren one. In the foreground, two ruddy-faced labourers prune back vines, while another carries off the trimmings for firewood in a bundle on his back (note how he is wearing medieval mittens against the cold!). A female figure is following in his footsteps in the background, and to the right a team of oxen draw a plough through a frosty field. The Zodiac sign for this month is Pisces, shown at the top of the page. The border contains four roundels for the key religious festivals of the month, which are picked out in red in the calendar.  These are the feast days of the Purification of the Virgin Mary (also known as the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, or Candlemas), Saints Vedastus and Amandus (two bishops from northern France/Belgium, close to where the manuscript originated), the Chair of St Peter, and St Matthias. 

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of men pruning vines and gathering firewood,
Add MS 35313, f. 2r 

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Detail of a roundel illustrating the Purification of the Virgin Mary,
Add MS 35313, f. 2r 

- James Freeman

21 January 2015

Das Ende der Welt: An Overlooked German Apocalypse

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‘Bad work’: that is how M.R. James described an unusual German Apocalypse at the British Library, in his 1927 Schweich Lectures on The Apocalypse in Art. The full-page illustrations in Add MS 15243 – which was published on Digitised Manuscripts at the end of 2014 – may lack some of the finesse of those found in English or French Apocalypses, but a closer look reveals plenty of interest in this manuscript. 

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Detail of large pen flourished initial with zoomorphic grotesques at the beginning of the Book of Revelation, Germany (?Erfurt), c. 1350-c. 1370, 
Add MS 15243, f. 3r 

As followers of this blog will know already, the particular fashion for Apocalypse manuscripts in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century France and England is illustrated by the numerous copies that survive from those countries. Many in the British Library’s collections have been digitised and have featured in such blog posts as Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Then, Fire and Brimstone, and Visions of the Apocalypse. 

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Full-page illuminated miniature depicting an angel casting a millstone into the sea,
Add MS 15243, f. 31r 

How common were German Apocalypse manuscripts? James’s survey – acknowledged at the time as being incomplete – gives a slightly misleading impression of the manuscript’s rarity. Of the 92 Apocalypses he listed, a mere six were from Germany, and only Add MS 15243 among them contained the text in German. Further surveys in the journal Traditio in 1984-86 and the Katalog der deutschprachigen illustrierten Handschriften des Mittelalters have increased the numbers, and Carola Redzich’s 2010 study of the language, transmission and reception of German Apocalypses has revealed a lively tradition in that country as well. (All bibliographical references may be found in full in the catalogue entry). 

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Full-page illuminated miniature depicting the beginning of John’s visions,
Add MS 15243, f. 4r 

The manuscript dates to around 1350-1370 and is possibly from Erfurt in Thuringia, Germany: blind-stamped motifs on the pig-skin binding match those used by a workshop there around 1490-1520. It contains a series of fourteen full-page, unbordered, illuminated miniatures. How closely these illustrations relate to the text varies from image to image. Some are very close to what John described, while others are not, owing to idiosyncratic inclusions or omissions by the artist. The book opens with a miniature of John in a cave on the island of Patmos (which featured in our most recent hyperlinks announcement). This is followed by another that depicts the beginning of his visions (shown above). Here, the artist has compressed two narrative stages together into a single scene: the appearance of Christ with various accoutrements (Rev. 1:12-16), and John’s falling ‘at his feet as dead’ and Christ laying his right hand upon him and saying ‘“Fear not”’ (Rev. 1:17). 

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Full-page illuminated miniature depicting the appearance of the four horsemen,
Add MS 15243, f. 12r 

The miniature illustrating the appearance of the Four Riders diverges from the text (Rev. 6:1-8). The first two Riders are as described in the Book of Revelation: the first on a white horse, wearing a crown and carrying a bow; the second on a red horse and wielding a large sword. Differences emerge thereafter. The third Rider is on a white, rather than a black, horse. Most strikingly, the fourth Rider – an emaciated figure with a skull-head, representing Death – is mounted on a winged lion. According to the text, Death is mounted on a ‘pale horse’. Why does the decorative scheme deviate here, and how common was this in Apocalypse manuscripts? Lion-hybrids are described elsewhere in the Apocalypse text, the closest but by no means exact match being the first of the ‘four living creatures’ described in Rev. 4:7-8. This lion was accompanied by a calf, a man and an eagle, each furnished with six wings and ‘full of eyes’, which are immediately recognisable as the symbols of the Evangelists. A winged lion is also mentioned in the Old Testament, in the first of Daniel’s apocalyptic visions (Daniel 7:4). Their relevance to this particular part of the Book of Revelation, and the reasons for the artist’s choice, are unclear, however, as are the reasons for the artist’s deviation from the text. 

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Full-page illuminated miniature depicting the Woman and the Beast,
Add MS 15243, f. 19r 

The complexity of John’s visions, and the obscurity of the language in which they are expressed, presented obvious challenges to the manuscript illuminator. Here, the artist has included certain elements from the text: the moon being under the Woman’s feet, her bringing forth a child that is delivered up to God, and the Beast with seven heads and crowns that drew stars from the heavens and cast them down to earth. Others he has abandoned: the ten horns on the Beast (Rev. 12:3) and the Woman being ‘clothed with the sun’ (Rev. 12:1). According to the text, the Woman is also ‘crowned with twelve stars’ (Rev. 12:1), which the artist has interpreted as ‘crowned, with twelve stars’, placing the twelve stars around her head like a nimbus or halo. That three are meant to be hidden behind the child is cleverly indicated by the twelfth star emerging from behind his back as the Woman lifts him up to God.

Download Add MS 15243 collation

The collation of this manuscript is highly irregular. Each of these illustrations, as well as two leaves of text, are on single leaves of parchment that have then been inserted into the manuscript. The order in which they have been stitched in is unusual in places, and to add to the complexity in a few instances parchment strips have been added to reinforce the leaves against the sewing. We have provided a detailed description of the collation in the record, but this seems an instance where a visual aid might be helpful!  

- James Freeman

03 January 2015

Cicero's Map to the Stars

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Marcus Tullius Cicero, born on 3 January 106 BC, bestrides Latin literature like a colossus. The combination of an immense output of writings and a strong afterlife in the schools of late antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, means that more manuscripts of Cicero’s work survive than of any other classical Latin author. Only Augustine of Hippo can claim a more fertile manuscript tradition.

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Harley MS 4329, f 130r. Miniature of Cicero debating the nature of friendship. From a manuscript containing translations of the De Senectute and De Amicitia into French by Laurent de Premierfait. France, Central (Tours), 1460.

Cicero’s popularity should come as no surprise. His speeches and rhetorical treatises (together with the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium, erroneously attributed to Cicero) were the cornerstone of Latin education for generations. Ciceronian style became the benchmark against which other Latin prose was measured. During the Renaissance, the extent to which Cicero should be followed as a model was a matter of fierce debate.

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Harley MS 4796, f 66r, detail. Historiated initial of Cicero and his son in discussion. From a Spanish translation of the De Officiis, De Senectute, and Pro Marcello. Spain, N., 1st half of the 15th century.

In addition to his rhetorical works, Cicero’s letters give a great insight into the world of the late Roman Republic – both the public world, in which he was of course actively involved, and everyday private life. Finally, there is Cicero’s great output of philosophical literature. Not only did this have the virtue of contributing greatly to the development of a Latin vocabulary for philosophical terms, it also constitutes a serious advancement in philosophical learning in itself. Indeed, Cicero’s philosophical works were probably the most popular of his works during the Middle Ages, and provided important points of entry into Greek philosophy for medieval scholars without any knowledge of Greek.

One part of Cicero’s output that has traditionally been less highly valued has been his poetry. Partly because of one notorious verse, o fortunam natam me consule Romam (“Happy Rome, born when I was consul”), and partly because he was eclipsed by the astonishing virtuosity achieved by the poets of the next generation (especially Catullus and Lucretius), it is only recently that scholars have begun to turn a more sympathetic eye to Cicero’s verse.

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Harley MS 647, f 10v, detail. Eridanus.

The situation was different in the Middle Ages, however, and one of Cicero’s most popular works was a translation of the Phaenomena of the Hellenistic poet Aratus. This poem, which describes the constellations, was hugely popular in antiquity, and was repeatedly translated into Latin - by Cicero, Germanicus (grand-nephew of Augustus and father of Caligula), and Varro of Atax in the first century BC alone. Cicero prepared his version of the poem in the 80s BC, when he was in his late teens or early 20s.

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Harley MS 647, f 19r. Solar System.

Astronomical treatises continued to be hugely popular in the Middle Ages, and are frequently to be found in miscellaneous manuscripts. We are fortunate at the British Library to have two particularly fine decorated manuscripts of Cicero’s Aratea: Harley MS 647, and Harley MS 2506.

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Harley MS 647, f 3v. Pisces.

The Ciceronian section of Harley 647 was created in Northern France, around 820. The manuscript is a marvel: Cicero’s text is presented at the bottom of each page, accompanied by a drawing of the relevant constellation. Yet these drawings are formed out of words, taken from the relevant passages of the Astronomica of Hyginus. (You can read more about such text-pictures in a recent blog post by Erik Kwakkel). The manuscript later travelled to the Abbey of Saint Augustine at Canterbury. Three descendants of this manuscript are also now in the British Library: Cotton MS Tiberius C I, Cotton MS Tiberius B V, and Harley 2506.

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Harley MS 2506, f 36v. Pisces.

Harley 2506 is laid out a little differently, however. Here, the drawings are rather more traditional, and the text of Hyginus is kept separate (at the beginning of the volume). Attributed to one of the artists of the Ramsey Psalter, it was created at Fleury probably in around the 990s, before being brought to England. It would be interesting to know what Cicero would have made of the fact that, of all of his works, it was the Aratea that inspired the greatest creativity in medieval scribes and illuminators.

 

Cillian O’Hogan

01 January 2015

A Calendar Page for January 2015

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Regular readers will know that one of our blog traditions is to highlight a calendar from a particular medieval manuscript throughout the course of the year.  Past manuscripts have included the Isabella Breviary, the Hours of Joanna the Mad, the Golf Book, and the Huth Hours.  In 2015 we are pleased to present a manuscript that has featured on our blog before, the London Rothschild Hours.  Confusingly, this manuscript is often also called the Hours of Joanna the Mad (or the Hours of Joanna I of Castile), as it has been suggested that the manuscript belonged to that famous lady.

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Miniature of John the Evangelist on Patmos with his symbol the eagle, being tormented by a demon and visions above, at the beginning of his suffrage, from the London Rothschild Hours (The Hours of Joanna I of Castile), Netherlands (Ghent?), c. 1500, Add MS 35313, f. 10v-11r

Evidence that the book was Joanna’s is tantalising, but inconclusive.  The repeated presence of Joanna’s name saint, John the Evangelist, is a potential clue, and the presence of a number of Spanish saints in the calendar suggests that it was probably produced for a member of the Spanish aristocracy.

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Miniature of the Pentecost, with the Virgin Mary at the centre seated at a lectern, Add MS 35313, f. 33v

In any case, this manuscript is certainly a lavish production, and the prominent places given to women and books in the miniatures indicate that it was prepared for a noble lady who was highly literate.  Every miniature in the manuscript – and there are many – is surrounded by a detailed and extravagant border, often containing animals, flowers, or jewels. 

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Miniature of St George and the dragon, surrounded by a jewelled border, Add MS 35313, f. 223v

The structure of the calendar echoes the beauty of the rest of the manuscript.  Each folio contains a single month, beginning with a small painting of the sign of the zodiac at the top.  Below this is the listing of the saints’ days for the month, and, unusually, every slot is filled with an observance or feast.  Even more unusual are the roundels on the outer edge of the folio that contain illustrations of the most important saints’ days, those days marked in red on the calendar (which is where we get our contemporary phrase ‘red letter days’).  At the bottom of each calendar page is a miniature of the labour for that month, painted by one of the most accomplished Flemish illuminators of the day.

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Calendar page for January, Add MS 35313, f. 1v

Our calendar for January begins with a particularly charming scene.  The traditional labour for this wintery month is to feast before a fire, and at the bottom of the folio we can see a couple preparing to do just that in their bedchamber, watched by an attentive cat.  Outside, a bundled man appears to be making his own way home.   

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Detail of a bas-de-page miniature of a couple feasting indoors, and a man standing outside, from a calendar page for January, Add MS 35313, f. 1v

Four saints’ days have been given red letter status in this manuscript, and one notable one is the conversion of St Paul (see below); the constraints of monochrome still allow for some sense of drama for the scene on the road to Damascus.

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Detail of a roundel miniature of St Paul on the Road to Damascus, from a calendar page for January, Add MS 35313, f. 1v

- Sarah J Biggs

27 December 2014

Saved for the Nation: New Acquisitions in 2014

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During 2014, the British Library has made several new acquisitions. Thanks to such schemes as Acceptance in Lieu, as well as generous funding provided by the Arts Council, the Friends of the British Library and a range of private benefactors, we have been able to save these books for the nation. Each has been conserved and fully digitised, the images being published on Digitised Manuscripts, and so are now available for all to enjoy and study. Just in case you missed them the first time round, let’s take a closer look at each of them:

Catholicon Anglicum 

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Opening page, beginning with the exclamation ‘Aaa’, from the Catholicon Anglicum, England (Yorkshire), 1483,
Add MS 89074, f. 2r 

This is the only complete copy of one of the earliest English-Latin dictionaries ever made, and the first such dictionary in which all the words were placed in alphabetical order. From the dialect of some of the words, it appears to have been written in Yorkshire. Last seen in the late nineteenth century when the text was edited, and thought lost to scholarship forever, it had lain hidden in a private collection in Lincolnshire. The Catholicon Anglicum is of outstanding importance for our study both of the English language and English lexicography (which goes back much further than Dr Johnson!). It has been exhibited in the Treasures Gallery since June, as part of a small display about ‘Languages in Medieval Britain’

Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Iesu Crist 

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Detail of a miniature of the murder of Emperor Galba by Otho and his rebels, from the Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Iesu Crist, southern Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1465,
Add MS 89066/2, f. 79r 

Probably the finest illuminated drama manuscript to survive from the medieval period, this manuscript in two volumes (Add MS 89066/1 and Add MS 89066/2) was acquired from the collection of the Dukes of Devonshire at Chatsworth. It is the most complete copy of the mystery play, Le Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Iesu Crist, which was written by a Benedictine monk, Eustache Marcadé, in the early fifteenth century. This manuscript ticks all the boxes: it is beautifully decorated and handsomely written; there are surviving records of exactly how much it cost and who made it; and there is an almost unbroken chain of provenance evidence, from its original owner Philip the Good of Burgundy to the present day. It too is on display in the Treasures Gallery; don’t miss your chance to see it! 

John Ponet’s copy of a treatise against clerical marriage 

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Frontispiece to John Ponet’s copy of Thomas Martin’s ‘Traictise’, containing Ponet’s annotations and an old library stamp from the Law Society’s Mendham Collection, printed in London, 1554,
Add MS 89067, f. 1r 

This book is a fascinating witness to one of the major doctrinal disputes of the Reformation, and to the personal rivalry between the Catholics Stephen Gardiner and his acolyte Thomas Martin on one hand, and the Protestant John Ponet on the other. Upon Mary I’s accession, Ponet went into exile, settling in Strasbourg. He acquired this book while on the continent, had it interleaved with blank sheets, and then began a point-by-point (and often ad hominem) refutation of Gardner/Martin’s argument. Many of these densely written notes were later printed – but crucially not all of them – affording us an insight into how contemporaries engaged with one another’s arguments and composed their responses during a febrile period in English religious history. 

And finally, our most recent acquisition, which arrived earlier this month: 

Rental of the lands of Worcester Cathedral Priory

The British Library possesses the largest collection of medieval cartularies in Britain. The newest addition to our holdings is a rental that was made for Worcester Cathedral Priory. Dating to 1240 (with some later additions), it contains records of the possessions of this major monastic foundation and the revenues to which it was entitled. It formed the exemplar for the ‘Registrum Prioratus’, dating to the early 14th century, which remains at Worcester Cathedral, as Muniments, A.2. More details of this exciting new acquisition will be coming in the New Year...

 

- James Freeman

25 December 2014

Merry Christmas Everyone!

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Everyone at the British Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section would like to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! 

Or perhaps that should be ‘¡Feliz Navidad y próspero Año Nuevo!’, since our Guess the Manuscript Christmas Special was taken from a Spanish manuscript: Add MS 28962, the Prayerbook of Alphonso V of Aragon. 

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Miniature of the Nativity, from the Prayerbook of Alphonso V of Aragon, Spain (Valencia), 1436-1443,
Add MS 28962, f. 337v 

This miniature marks the beginning of the Second Joy of the Virgin Mary. In this Book of Hours, there are seven such joys – beginning with the Annunciation (f. 336v), and continuing after the Nativity with the Adoration of the Magi (f. 338v), the Resurrection (f. 339v), Christ’s Ascension (f. 340v), and the Pentecost (f. 341v), and ending with the Dormition and Mary’s Coronation in Heaven (f. 342v). 

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Miniature of the Adoration of the Magi,
Add MS 28962, f. 338v 

The Joys of the Virgin Mary – often paralleled, as here, by a series of Sorrows of the Virgin Mary – was the most popular of the various ‘secondary’ texts that could comprise part of a Book of Hours. The number of Joys is known to have varied between five and fifteen, with such events as the Visitation of Our Lady, the Conception of Christ, the Presentation and Purification in the Temple, Christ among the Doctors and others included in the series. Popularized in thirteenth century Italy and later adopted especially by the Franciscans, the Joys of the Virgin Mary were depicted very widely in manuscripts and other forms of medieval art, such as wall and panel paintings. Mary’s Five Joys are also cited in Gawain and the Green Knight (Cotton MS Nero A X, art. 3) as the source from which the eponymous hero derives his fortitude (‘forsnes’). They were even used by Robert Fabyan (d. 1513) to divide his chronicle into seven parts (the manuscript copy of which survives in two volumes: the first is Holkham Hall, MS 671, the second Cotton MS Nero C XI). 

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Miniature of Alphonso V of Aragon at prayer, with his arms contained within a coloured initial below,
Add MS 28962, f. 312r 

The present Book of Hours was originally commissioned in 1436 by Juan de Casanova (b. 1387, d. 1436), a Dominican monk, for Alphonso V of Aragon, whom he served as confessor. It was taken on by the workshop of Domingo Crespí and his son in Valencia, but repeated delays meant that the book was not finished until 1443. Its intended destination is obvious, however: the manuscript contains a miniature of Alphonso V on horseback and several of him at prayer, in addition to his coat of arms in numerous places.

 - James Freeman