Medieval manuscripts blog

364 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

29 November 2012

Shot through the Heart and You're to Blame

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Miniature, above, of Arthur and Guinevere presiding at a feast and, to the left, Arthur in conversation with his barons while, behind him, Guinevere and Lancelot share a private word; in the margin below, two knights are locked in a duel and a group of monkeys attends school; from the Prose Lancelot, France, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 20 D. iv, f. 1r; the large miniature was added in England (Pleshey castle), c. 1360-c. 1380.

'Chivalry', derived from the French cheval ('horse') and chevalier ('horseman' or 'knight'), means literally 'knightliness', a quality that, in the Middle Ages, could be variously defined in different regions and at different times: nobility of soul, adherence to a certain code of conduct, or even straightforward military strength.  Nowadays, 'chivalry' is usually used to describe a specific kind of interaction between the sexes, a transferral from a particular type of medieval knightliness, the stylized code we now refer to as 'courtly love'.  The medieval term was fin' amors, 'refined love', and it was primarily a literary construct, dictating the interactions between men and women in one of the Middle Ages' most enduring genres, the romance.


Detail of a miniature of King Uther Pendragon (left) conversing with Merlin, while, in the background, Igraine looks on from her castle; from Peter Langtoft, Chronicle of England, England, c. 1307-c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A. ii, f. 3v.

Medieval romance is most familiar from stories of King Arthur and the Round Table, where questing knights rescued damsels from towers, competing for their favour.  In the earliest Arthurian tales, however, the tone is more history than high romance, and the relationship between men and women far from 'refined'.  Arthur himself was conceived when King Uther Pendragon fell in love with the beautiful – and married – Duchess Igraine at a party.  Far from doing her courtly service and winning her love, however, Uther besieged her husband's castle and killed him in battle, then seduced the unwitting widow (as yet unaware of her husband's death) by having Merlin cast a spell disguising Uther as the late duke.  A rough and ready strategy – no word on whether, after they were married, Uther held open any doors for her.


Detail of a miniature of lovers, including a friar and a monk as well as laymen, pierced through the heart by the arrows of love; from Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), c. 1320-c. 1340, Royal MS 19. B. xiii, f. 4r.

Later, the tone of the Arthurian subject-matter was transformed by the introduction and development of a set of literary conventions, the classic fin' amors.  Troubadours did poetic service to their beloveds, dedicating love songs to aristocratic patronesses, just as a knight offered homage and military service to his feudal lord.  Beauty of face and form was, at the time, considered a reflection of inner beauty, and nobility of soul was thought the natural birthright of those of noble rank.  The beauty of a woman struck the lover like an arrow, sometimes described as piercing the heart by way of the eyes: love at first sight.  Once wounded, the heart of the lover would burn with desire, longing to be quenched by the mercy of the beloved's reciprocal regard.


Miniatures of (in the initial) a poet-lover presenting verses to his lady and (in the right margin) a lover's heart, burning on a fire and being quenched with rain; from a collection of 49 love sonnets, Italy (probably Milan), 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, King's MS 322, f. 1r.

Love could also be elevating, inspiring a lover to the achievement of great feats of martial strength and skill.  When a knight excelled in a tournament, it was evident that the worth – and thus beauty – of his inspiration must be great indeed, and the beauty of a lady could be judged by her champion's success.  Guinevere must have been very beautiful indeed – in one gently parodic story, Lancelot fought an opponent while facing backward, the better to keep in view Guinevere, who watched the battle from a tower behind him.  In the end he won by manoeuvring his enemy between himself and the queen so he could see both of them at once – his own strength a testament to the strength of his love.


A tournament between knights (including Tristan, labelled with a 'Ti'), watched from a gallery by an audience of interested ladies; from the Prose Roman de Tristan, Italy (Genoa), last quarter of the 13th century or 1st quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4389, f. 29r.

Nicole Eddy

23 November 2012

Exploring Our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

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Detail of a miniature of, on the left, Alexander the Great on the Wheel of Fortune, rising to prosperity and falling to ruin, and, on the right, his grandmother Queen Euridyce looking down at her murdered son, Alexander II; from Jean de Courcy, Chronique de la Bouquechardière, France (Normandy, Rouen), 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 4376, f. 271r.

The Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is an important online resource for exploring the British Library's manuscript collections.  Begun in 1997, the catalogue focuses primarily on illumination, providing both descriptions of manuscripts' content and a searchable database of images, of everything from text pages to decorated initials to full-page miniatures.


Detail of a miniature of the important 15th-century poet John Lydgate, the 'monk of Bury', riding to Canterbury as one of Chaucer's pilgrims; from John Lydgate, The Siege of Thebes, England, 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Arundel MS 119, f. 1r.

While it was first developed more than a decade ago, the catalogue is far from being a closed document, but continues to grow and expand with the addition of even more images.  The most recent update took place earlier this month, and the catalogue now includes 35,661 images from 4,231 different manuscripts.  Part of this expansion has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which last February awarded a grant to the library to support the digitisation of a selection of manuscripts from the recent Royal exhibition.  This has enabled the addition of more than 75 new manuscripts to Digitised Manuscripts, as well as nearly 300 new images to CIM, just from Royal manuscripts alone.


Detail of a miniature of angelic Powers tearing at the heads of demons; from Convenavole da Prato, Regia Carmina (Address to Robert of Anjou), Italy (Tuscany), c. 1335-c. 1340, Royal MS 6 E. ix, f. 6v.  A full digital version of this manuscript is also available on Digitised Manuscripts.

The catalogue is designed to increase public access to the British Library's rich collections, and we want to encourage even greater use and enjoyment of these collections.  Technically these works are still in copyright in the UK until 2040, but given that they are anonymous and many centuries old, the Library has decided to provide the images on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts under a Public Domain Mark and treat them as public domain works, as would be the case in many other countries.  For more information, please see the library's use and reuse policy for CIM.  We ask that you maintain the library's Public Domain tag, and provide a link or other credit back to the image's source on the British Library's site – help us share these riches even more widely with the world.


Miniature of Mary Magdalene; from a book of hours, use of Sarum, the Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1500, King's MS 9, ff. 55v-56r.

There are many different ways to enjoy the British Library's collections through the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.  If you're interested in a particular manuscript, you can search for it directlyKeyword or advanced searches using specific characteristics of the manuscript or its illumination can also be used to directly locate medieval images from a given region or time period, or even of a particular subject matter.  Or, if you are just interested in exploring, why not take a tour of some collection highlights?  Our curatorial staff have teamed up with other experts to put together a series of virtual exhibitions, exploring topics that range from manuscripts of the Bible to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, to medieval bestiaries.  The most recent tour, written by Joanna Frońska, takes a closer look at some of the gems of illumination in the Royal collection.

Hopefully this post – as well as its accompanying images – gives a taste of the treasures the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts has to offer.



Calendar page from the month of May, with miniatures of a couple taking a bath and a bird holding a fish; from a book of hours (the 'Maastricht Hours'), the Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 7r.

21 November 2012

Pop Goes the Weasel

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If you have been reading this blog on a regular basis, you may have discovered that beavers used to gnaw off their testicles to evade hunters, that owls were associated with sickness, that monkeys could play bagpipes, and that people used to eat unicorns in the Middle Ages. But none of those marvellous beasts can quite match the magnificent weasel, which at various times was said to conceive young through their mouths, to give birth through their ears, and to be able to cure other animals.

Detail of a miniature of a fox, afflicted with dropsy, being cured by a weasel, in Ulrich von Pottenstein, Spiegel der Weisheit: Salzburg, c. 1430 (London, British Library, MS Egerton 1121, f. 109v).

What lent the weasel these supernatural qualities is unknown, but it is curious to note that different cultures have attached different significance to this animal. For example, in ancient Greece a weasel around the house was a sign of bad luck, and even more so if a girl was about to be married -- the animal was believed to be an unhappy bride who was transformed into a weasel, and delighted in destroying wedding dresses. Native Americans likewise regarded weasels as a bad omen, since crossing their path led to a speedy death; but elsewhere, including Macedonia and in the territory of the Wends (the western Slavs), weasels brought good fortune.

A bas-de-page scene of weasels, who are said to conceive young through their mouths, and to give birth through their ears, in the Queen Mary Psalter: England (London/Westminster or East Anglia?), between 1310 and 1320 (London, British Library, MS Royal 2 B VII, f. 112v).

The medieval tale Eliduc, by Marie de France, contains another story of the weasel's miraculous powers. A female weasel stumbled across the body of her male companion, and ran to the neighbouring wood where she fetched a certain red flower. She then placed the flower in the mouth of her partner, who was instantly revived, and the happy weasels ran away together. Observing this amazing recovery, the flower was used in turn to revive a damsel who had collapsed in a swoon, and who so happened to be Eliduc's long-lost love. 

Miniatures of a weasel and other animals, including a cat and a hedgehog: England, middle of the 13th century (London, British Library, MS. Harley 3244, f. 49v).

Those of you familiar with English nursery rhymes may also recall that the weasel turns up in "Half a pound of tuppeny rice" ... though in that case perhaps simply to find a word that rhymes with "treacle"! We're sure you would agree that there must be more to the weasel than meets the eye ...

Marginal drawings of a weasel and other animals, in Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hibernica: England (Lincoln?), late 12th or early 13th century (London, British Library, MS Royal 13 B. VIII, f. 11r).

19 November 2012

New Additions to Digitised Manuscripts

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Detail of a miniature of the animals leaving Noah's Ark; from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add. MS 18850, f. 16v.

The project of digitising manuscripts from the recent Royal Manuscripts exhibition continues apace! We are pleased to report that the project is nearly complete: of the manuscripts scheduled to be digitized, only the Alphonso Psalter (Add. MS 24686) remains unfinished. It has also become possible to add one more manuscript from the exhibition to the list, a manuscript that has yet to be chosen. We would love suggestions as to which it should be. Do you have a favourite manuscript from the Royal exhibition that did not make our original cut? Please send us your nominations for a final addition to our project, and we hope to be able to announce its completion soon. All suggestions can be posted here as comments, or submitted via email to Royal-Manuscripts-Digitization[at]


Miniature of musicians performing before Alexander the Great; from Secretum Secretorum, translated by Philip of Tripoli, England (London), 1326-1327, Add. MS 47680, f. 18v.

Once all the manuscripts from the Royal exhibition digitisation project are published online, we will post a comprehensive list on this blog. In the meantime, the latest batch to be made newly available is listed below.


Detail of a miniature of David killing a lion, having already dispatched a bear and a unicorn; from the Bedford Psalter and Hours, England (London), 1414-1422, Add. MS 42131, f. 95r.

Additional MS 18850: the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430.

Additional MS 42131: the Bedford Psalter and Hours, England (London), 1414-1422.

Additional MS 47680: Secretum Secretorum, translated into Latin by Philip of Tripoli, England (London), 1326-1327.

Cotton MS Tiberius A. II: the Coronation Gospels of King Aethelstan (r. 924-939), Lobbes (?) (in what is now Belgium), 4th quarter of the 9th century, with some later additions (previously featured on this blog).


Miniature of God creating the world; from Guyart des Moulins, Bible historiale, France (Paris and Clairefontaine), 1411, Royal MS 19 D. iii, vols 1 and 2, f. 3r.

Royal MS 2 A. xxii: the Westminster Psalter, England (Westminster), c. 1200-c. 1250 (previously featured on this blog).

Royal MS 6 E. ix: the Address of Prato, Italy (Tuscany), c. 1335 (previously featured on this blog, and part of a new exhibition at the Getty in Los Angeles).

Royal MS 14 E. i, vols 1 and 2: Le miroir historial by Vincent of Beauvais, the Netherlands (Bruges), 1479-1480 (previously featured on this blog).

Royal MS 16 F. ii: poetry by Charles of Orleans, epistles of Pseudo-Heloise, 'Les demandes d'amour' and 'Le livre dit grace entiere', Bruges and London, 1483 and 1492-1500 (previously featured on this blog).

Royal MS 19 D. iii, vols 1 and 2: Bible historiale by Guyart des Moulins, France (Paris and Clairefontaine), 1411.

Royal MS 20 E. ix: the Rotz Atlas (the Boke of Idrography by Jean Rotz), France and England (London), c. 1535-1542.


Map of the West Indies, including the coastlines of Peru, Cuba and Florida; from the Rotz Atlas, France and England (London), c. 1535-1542, Royal MS 20 E. ix, f. 24r.

16 November 2012

British Library Manuscripts Featured in New Getty Exhibition

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K90049-88 Royal 6 E. ix ff. 4v-5 

Miniature of Christ in glory holding a globe and blessing the Virgin (on the following page); miniature of the Virgin kneeling (towards Christ on the previous page), from the Address in verse to Robert of Anjou, King of Naples, from the town of Prato in Tuscany (the Carmina regia), illuminated by Pacino di Buonaguida, central Italy (Tuscany), c. 1335 - c. 1340, Royal MS 6 E. ix, ff. 4v-5r.

An exciting new exhibition has just opened at the Getty Center in Los Angeles: Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination, 1300-1350.  Please see here for a fabulous review of the Getty exhibition.

An important British Library manuscript, the Carmina regia, an address by the city of Prato to Robert of Anjou (Royal MS 6 E. ix) is featured in the exhibition (see here for an earlier blog post abot the Carmina).  This manuscript was also showcased in the Library’s recent Royal Manuscripts exhibition, but visitors to the Los Angeles exhibition will be able to see a different image, that of Christ Enthroned (f. 4v, see above, and at the bottom for a version of the image used to promote the exhibition).

The Carmina regia is now also available to be viewed in full on the Digitised Manuscripts website (see here).


K047548 Add 18196, f. 1

Miniature of Agnes enthroned flanked by two musician angels, with scenes from her life below. Beneath the miniature is a single four-line red stave, musical notation and a single line of text in gold capitals 'Sancta Agnese da dio'.  Illuminated by Pacino di Buonaguida, Italy (Florence), c. 1340, Additional 18196, f. 1


The Library has also lent two leaves to the exhibition, which were both originally part of a single manuscript: Additional 18196, f. 1, with scenes from the life of St Agnes (see above), and Additional 35254B, with part of a hymn to St Michael. These leaves have been reunited in the exhibition with others from the same book of songs (or laudario) made for the Compagnia di Sant'Agnese, which was based at the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence.  28 leaves or fragments of this book survive, and 25 of them are featured in the exhibition.


C00800-06 Add 35254B

Miniature of the Apparition of Michael.  Beneath the miniature is a single four-line red stave, musical notation and a single line of text in gold capitals 'Exultando in Gesu'. Illuminated by Pacino di Buonaguida, Italy (Florence), c. 1340, Additional 35254B


The curator of the exhibition, Christine Sciacca, explains that this book was originally 'the most spectacular Florentine manuscript commission' from the first half of the 14th century.  (Christine Sciacca, 'Reconstructing the Laudario of Sant-Agnese', in Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance, ed by Christine Sciacca (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2012), pp. 219-35 (p. 219)).

All three loaned works were painted by Pacino di Buonaguida, who was active in Florence in the first half of the 14th century.

- Kathleen Doyle



07 November 2012

Beavers On The Run

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Miniature of a beaver in the act of biting off his testicles; from a bestiary, (?)England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century, Sloane MS 3544, f. 6r

Beavers are immediately recognisable in medieval bestiaries because they are always depicted the same way: on the run, pursued by a hunter, who is frequently blowing a horn and accompanied by hunting dogs. The story of beavers as related in the bestiaries is extremely colourful. The beaver was highly sought after for his testicles, which had many medicinal uses. The clever beaver was aware of the desirability of these organs, and had a strategy to ensure his escape. If he found himself pursued by hunters and was unable to get away, the beaver would bite off his own testicles and throw them into the hunter's path. With no further motivation for pursuit, the hunter would give up and the beaver live to see another day.


Detail of a miniature of a beaver set upon by hunting dogs; from Tractatus de herbis (an herbal), Italy (Salerno), between c. 1280 and c. 1310, Egerton MS 747, f. 22r.

This ploy could only work once. What if the beaver found himself pursued a second time? On that occasion, he would stop and roll over, showing his pursuer that he no longer had the prize so ardently sought. The disappointed hunter would abandon the chase, again allowing the beaver to live.


Detail of a miniature of a beaver in the act of biting off his testicles; from the Rochester Bestiary, England (probably Rochester), c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, f. 14r.

This story may seem fanciful, but it actually holds a grain of truth. Beaver testicles have no special value, but the animal does have a gland under its tail that secretes a chemical called castoreum, a term taken from castor, the Latin word for 'beaver'. Castoreum is used by the animals for scent-marking and waterproofing, and it was this chemical, not the genitalia, that was valued for its medicinal properties. Indeed, the familiar, plant-derived 'castor oil' may get its name from its use as a more easily cultivated substitute for the scarce castoreum.


Detail of a miniature of a beaver, throwing his testicles to a hunter; from a bestiary, England, first half of the 12th century, Stowe MS 1067, f. 2v.

While the real-life beaver did not practise the strategy which the bestiaries describe, the threat posed by hunters was emphatically not a fiction. By the end of the Middle Ages, the beaver had been hunted to extinction in Britain, a practice driven by desire not only for its castoreum, but for its meat and fur. Overhunting continued into modern times, so that the Eurasian beaver is now an endangered species. Recent reintroduction efforts have enjoyed some success, and in 2009 a handful of beavers were released into the wild in Scotland – the first British beavers since before 1600! In light of this history, it is perhaps unsurprising that medieval illustrators would so consistently depict beavers as prey.


Miniature of a beaver who has been down this road before, showing his pursuer that the hunt is fruitless without a prize; from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 102r. This manuscript has been fully digitised, and is profiled in greater depth in a recent post.

Nicole Eddy

05 November 2012

Beautiful Contraband: The Queen Mary Psalter

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We are thrilled to announce the long-awaited upload of the Queen Mary Psalter to our Digitised Manuscripts site (click here for the full manuscript).  We discussed the Psalter last year in our post Rival Queens, Precious Books, but here is a bit of a recap...


Miniature of the Crucifixion, with eight niches occupied by male figures, with an historiated initial 'A'(d), with a pope, king, bishop and two others kneeling before an altar, with a bas-de-page scene of Christina cast into the sea and rescued by angels, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 256v


The Psalter is named, as you might imagine, for Queen Mary Tudor (1516 - 1558), daughter of King Henry VIII, but the manuscript was not made for her - in fact, it was produced nearly 200 years before Mary's birth.  The Psalter was created in England, probably in London or East Anglia, between 1310 and 1320.  Some scholars argue that it was made for Isabella of France (1295 - 1358), Queen of England and consort of Edward II, but unfortunately there is no certainty about this point.  The Psalter was certainly created for an aristocratic patron, and possibly a royal one, but the lack of any colophon or coats of arms in the manuscript means that it has been impossible to conclusively link it to any original owner. 



Miniature of the Tree of Jesse, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 67v


More is known about the manuscript itself, which was put together with an enormous amount of care.  The Psalter opens with a unique cycle of Old Testament miniatures, which details events from the Fall of Lucifer to the death of Solomon and is accompanied by an Anglo-Norman commentary found nowhere else; it was probably commissioned particularly for this manuscript. This is followed by a calendar, the Psalter (Book of Psalms) proper, Canticles, and Litany, and virtually all of the manuscript is in the hand of one scribe.



Miniature of Christ in the Temple speaking to the doctors, with the Virgin and Joseph behind, and six niches with prophets, accompanying the text of Psalm 52, with a bas-de-page scene of a mounted man and two mounted women hawking, with a man on foot holding a lure, and a hawk attacking a duck, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 151r


The layout of the text was meticulously planned to fit almost seamlessly with the nearly unparalleled program of decoration in the Psalter.  The sheer number of images throughout are staggering; there are 223 Old Testament images, 24 calendar scenes, 104 half- or full-page miniatures, 23 historiated initials, and 464 marginal or bas-de-page drawings.  Most remarkably, every image in the manuscript was produced by a single highly-skilled artist, now known as the Queen Mary Master.

We know very little about where the Queen Mary Psalter was during the first two centuries of its existence.  By the early 1550s it had come into the hands of Henry Manners, the 2nd earl of Rutland (1526 - 1563), who as a devout Protestant was arrested by Mary in May of 1553, shortly after she took the throne.  A much-erased note on f. 84r reads:  'This boke was sume tyme [under erasure: the Erle of Rutelands], and it was his wil / that it shulde by successioun all way / go to the [under erasure: lande of Ruteland] or to / [partially erased: him that linyally succedis by reson / of inheritaunce in the seide lande'].




It is uncertain what happened to the Psalter after Rutland's arrest, but in October of 1553 it was seized by an eagle-eyed and opportunistic customs officer named Baldwin Smith; there presumably had been an attempt to remove the manuscript from England.  Smith inscribed his name and the circumstances of this seizure at the end of the manuscript (see f. 319v) and then presented it as a gift to Queen Mary.  Mary clearly valued the Psalter very highly; she had it rebound to include the pomegranate device that she had inherited from her mother (see above, now much worn), and there is some evidence to suggest that she used it in her personal devotions. 

If you would like more information about the Queen Mary Psalter, it is among those manuscripts featured in the Royal app, which is still available for download.  We hope that you enjoy paging through this treasure on Digitised Manuscripts (online here); a few of our favourite images are below.



Miniature of God the Creator holding a compass with angels and cherubins, and Lucifer with fallen angels and devils, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 1v



Detail of a miniature of two centaurs with bows, aiming their arrows at nearby birds (for the zodiac sign Sagittarius), from a calendar page for November, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 82r



Detail of a miniature of the three Magi before Herod, with a bas-de-page scene of a bear on a chain springing at a woman, while a man is whipping him, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 131r



Detail of a bas-de-page scene of two hybrid grotesques (each half-fish), with shields and lances, jousting with one another in the ocean, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 143v

01 November 2012

A Calendar Page for November 2012

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For more details on calendar pages of the Hours of Joanna of Castile, please see the entry for January 2012.

Add 18852 ff. 11v-12

Calendar pages for November, from the Hours of Joanna of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), between 1496 and 1506, Additional 18852, ff. 11v-12

A common scene for November calendars is the fattening of pigs for the winter.  The page on the left shows a typical example, with a peasant knocking acorns down from trees to feed a group of hungry animals, while a man on the right seems to be trying to coax a less-eager pig to eat.  On the right is a market square, bordered by tall buildings (including perhaps a church) and watched over by a centaur-archer, the traditional depiction for Sagittarius.  In the square a group of men (and a single nun, strangely enough) are engaged in the sale of cattle and pigs.