Book of Hours of Louis of Orleans

Book of Hours of Louis of Orleans f. 25r, Prime: Nativity scene

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f. 25r, Prime: Nativity scene

This illustration, like most of those that mark the beginning of one of the hours, covers the entire page. The decorative border consists of a dark, imitation marble ground featuring busts of angel musicians emerging from the clouds. One angel plays what could be a European viol, another, a portable organ and another, a flageolet. The fourth uses a plectrum to play a lute with double, chords; whilst the fifth plays a trombone. The frame consists of two columns with capitals upon which stand two shepherds, one playing bagpipes – an instrument which was associated more with the lower classes than the aristocracy in the 15th century. The shepherd on the right-hand side stretches his hands out in a vague gesture. The appearance of these figures is related to the adoration of the shepherds which would not have fitted in the miniature due to the lack of space. Each column stands upon three lions and there is a lion’s head at the bottom integrated into the bases of the columns supported by plant forms. In this context, the lion could possibly refer to Christ, the lion of Judah.
The miniature inside the frame shows Christ being worshipped by the Virgin Mary, St Joseph and the angels, all beneath a building virtually in ruins with a wooden, gabled roof. An elderly St Joseph, as suggested by his grey hair and beard, kneels on one knee – as the male figures in this codex are often shown. He smiles and opens his arms with his palms turned upwards to convey surprise, just as Jean Colombe had depicted him three decades earlier in the Pontifical of Jean Cœur (f. 61r). The Virgin Mary then appears as in previous illustrations with her hair loose, a grey tunic and a wide, blue cloak trimmed with gold. She looks at her son and adores him on her knees with her hands joined. The next figure is that of Christ naked upon a cloth on the hay in the manger. To his right are two angels kneeling in adoration. Golden rays shine down upon Christ from heaven to indicate the divine presence. The ox and ass behind them feature a certain naturalism – unlike Jean Colombe’s usual manner – and are accurately foreshortened, thereby giving an impression of depth: an indication of a later period in the art of Jean Colombe’s atelier. The landscape is snow-covered and is similar, in this respect and as regards the representation of certain peasants at work, to the illustration of the month of February in Les très riches heures du duc de Berry (f. 2v), which dates this manuscript, as we saw earlier, after the commissions made by the dukes of Savoy.
Beneath the Nativity scene is a rectangular cartouche. The bottom scene features a pair of basket-handle arches, each over a prophet rolling up a long, uncoiled scroll, which should bear the text of their prophecies, to make space. The prophet on the left-hand side, points to the scene taking place above. He could be Isaiah, in which case his scroll should bear his prophecy about the advent of Christ (Is. 9: 6). The other is probably Micheas, whose prophecy, which should appear on the scroll held by the prophet, is about the birth of Christ in Bethlehem (Mic. 5: 1). Despite the feeble attempt to create a trompe-l’oeil effect, the system of representation adopted is that of Paris – as was to be usual in these scenes throughout the book, whose most distant sources date back, as we saw earlier, to certain works by the Master of Bedford.
The Nativity was interpreted in very different ways, many of which were not mutually exclusive. Hence, as Saint Augustine pointed out, the Nativity was a reflection of the Resurrection of Christ, whilst for St Gregory, it also represented the sacrament of the altar that serves as food for the faithful. According to Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine, the ox and the ass, portrayed since their first appearance on Early Christian sarcophagi, represent the Jews (the ox) and (the Gentiles) the ass. These animals are known to have been depicted since the 4th century but it was not until the 6th century that they appeared in the apocryphal Gospel of pseudo-Matthew (c. 14), according to which, Mary “laid the Child in a manger and the ox and the ass adored him, thereby fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah: and the ox knew its master and the ass the manger of its lord”.

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