Book of Hours of Louis of Orleans

Book of Hours of Louis of Orleans f. 84v, The crucifixion


f. 84v, The crucifixion

This miniature is the frontispiece marking the beginning of the new office. It is placed over the invitatory that reads “Domine Labia mea aperies. Et os meum anuntiabit Lau[dem]”. Christ appears dead on the cross, his head is slightly bent and blood flows from his side hence this image refers to the None hymn, which says, on folio 85v: “Hora nona dominus Ihesus expirauit”. His head, with the preceptive cross-shaped halo, his body, with many wounds inflicted, and the abundant flow of blood running down the cross to the ground are all typical of the images of that period but it lacks the tremendous pathos that characterises some crucifixions, and there is in fact a certain classicism about his robust body. On his right are the holy women, and behind them, other female heads with veils and haloes. Our Lady, in profile with her hands joined, is held by St John the Evangelist although she does not need his support as she is standing up straight and looks at Our Lord. From this illustration onwards, the appearance of the Virgin Mary changes once again: she is no longer the delicate-featured, always rather alert maiden with a slightly oversized head, nor the woman with childlike features in the Presentation in the Temple; now she always appears with her head covered and wrapped in a blue cloak. Her features lack the refinement of earlier representations and she is portrayed with a low forehead, heavy-lidded eyes and a rather broad nose. At the foot of the cross, lies Mary Magdalene in a very dramatic posture, almost prostrate and embracing the cross. Behind, to the left of Christ, three men in fifteenth-century garb long tunics and caps gesticulate in surprise or join their hands whilst looking at Christ and recognising his divinity. Finally, a group of men including one on horseback, move along a path towards the background, where we can see a lake influenced perhaps by those Jean Colombe painted in the Très riches heures du duc de Berry plus a city on the right and a high promontory crowned by a fortress on the left of the composition. The winding path in the background is reminiscent of Jean Fouquet, an innovation used by the Master of Tours in the miniature of Job in the Heures de Étienne Chevalier (Chantilly, Musée Condé) and in the death of King Louis VIII in Les Grandes Chroniques de France (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms. fr. 6465, f. 251v). The composition is also similar to the one in the Heures de Louis de Laval (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms. lat. 920, f. 197v). In the lower margin of the border stands a peacock with its tail fanned out flanked by two monstrous, golden animals with scrolls in their mouths: the one on the left says “tut se cha[n]ge” and the one on the right “laudet deu[m]”, which A. Sterligov interprets as an abbreviation of the motto of Jean Colombe’s atelier “Omnis spiritus laudet Deum”. As we can see, this crucifixion seems to follow a simpler model than the usual one of that period with many figures. Consequently, the crucifixion in the Book of Hours of Louis of Orléans is amongst the great narrative representations and those to be produced, particularly from the beginning of the 16th century, with fewer figures, although not so few as in the early Middle Ages. An antecedent of all this can be found in a little panel painted over by Robert Campin around 1440 (Berlin, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Staaliche Museen). As in the Book of Hours of Louis of Orléans, the action concentrates, with a more or less dramatic nature, on the main characters as though it were a devotional image. The St Petersburg manuscript depicts Christ, St John, Our Lady who, as in the 14th century, despite being held by St John, stands upright looking at her Son as in the text of Stabat mater, attributed to Iacopone da Todi and Mary Magdalene who, as was usually the case in the late Middle Ages, is at the foot of the cross. The other characters in the background – men and holy women – are merely extras whose gestures and glances help focus attention on the image of Christ on the cross. There are two symbolic elements worth mentioning: one inside the illustration itself and the other in the border. The first consists of Adam’s skull and bones at the foot of the cross, practically sprinkled with the blood of the Saviour. The Evangelists point out that the hill where Christ was crucified was called Golgotha, which means skull. This is why, during the Middle Ages, a skeleton head was represented at the foot of the cross which must have been, in principle, a toponymic reference. Later, it was seen as a symbol of death upon which stands the cross, a symbol of life. Nevertheless, legend identifies it with Adam’s skull, said to have been buried on Golgotha, on the same spot where the cross was erected. Sometimes the rib from which Eve was created lies next to Adam’s skull. The second element, situated in the border of the folio, is the large peacock fanning out its tail right in the centre of the bottom margin. The same bird appears on the left side but with its tail closed. It features in another two previous illustrations: on folio 71r, also in the centre of the bottom margin, which depicts Dives’s banquet, and on folio 77v which portrays a requiem mass. In other words, it appears in both these cases within the Officium defunctorum. As we know, the peacock is a creature with an ambiguous significance, since it can express vanity, as St Isidore of Seville suggests in his Aviarium, or, considering the context in which these birds appear in the Book of Hours of Louis of Orléans, the beatitude of the chosen and the immortality that they have been promised. In the City of God, St Augustine mentions the flesh of this bird, which supposedly never rots, as an allegory of the immortality of the soul. In catacombs, peacocks are represented among vegetation with paradisiacal connotations, and are also found on sarcophagi, where the eschatological significance is self-evident. It is however necessary to proceed with great caution when determining whether a picture in a border corresponds to the illustration or whether, on the contrary, it has an entirely independent meaning. What is more, it has even been queried whether in fact these images have anything more than a merely ornamental meaning. In the case of the Book of Hours of Louis of Orléans, we must take into account, in the first place, that the peacock is the only more or less naturalist animal appearing in the borders of the three illustrations and, above all, their context. The versicle of the first lesson, in which the story of Lazarus and the evil rich man appears, mentions the trial by fire, and prays specifically for repose and the indulgence of the Lord for the dead. Furthermore, in a passage in the sixth lesson, where the requiem mass is included, we read: “Do you think that the man who has died will not live again?” Besides, it begs God for the forgiveness of sins in order to reach salvation. Finally, we know Christ resuscitated on the third day. For all these reasons, and in these three cases, an ornamental element in the border adds to the meaning of the illustration.

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