The Hours of Joanna I of Castile, Joanna the Mad (The London Rothschild Prayerbook)

The Hours of Joanna I of Castile, Joanna the Mad (The London Rothschild Prayerbook) f. 10v, St. John on Pathmos


f. 10v, St. John on Pathmos

Although the two folios have different decorative borders, one element does unite them to create a double-page illustration: the inscription around the frame is a transcription of the first vesicle of the prologue to the Gospel according to St John which subsequently appears almost in full in the text on f. 11r. The text reads in a circular fashion. It begins at the bottom of the recto side of the folio, goes around it and continues on the opposite verso before ending, likewise on the lowermost part: “IN • PRI[N]CIPIO/• ERAT •VERBVM •/ • ET • VERBVM • ERAT AP[UD]//” (f. 11 r), “• DEVM • ET DEVS • ERAT VERBVM” (f. 10v). The ornamental strip around f. 10v combines the textile type border with another featuring letters with decorative motifs that enlarge the iconography and highlight the trompe-l’oeil effect. The jewels are a quatrefoil, gold brooch with an emerald; a Greek cross made of rubies or red enamel and pearls; an elliptic pendant, held in place by a pin, with four fleur de lys at the ends and four pearls around an emerald or green enamel (f. 10v); a gold fleur de lys with petals consisting of a pearl, an emerald and a ruby; an enamel pansy with an emerald set in gold; and a pendant hanging from the letter e with a golden frame and red enamel in the background around the image of the bust in imitation, white enamel, of a lady, possibly the Virgin Mary, with three pearls hanging from it. The final item is another round, pearl brooch set amongst fleur de lys shapes with a square ruby inside the quatrefoil shape typical of Parisian precious metal working from the late fourteenth-century onwards (f. 11r). The border featuring fabric motifs is a type of decoration which imitates lavish cloths such as brocade or other less sumptuous fabrics. In this instance, the fabric motifs are small crosses set inside rhombuses which combine with one of the jewels shaped like a Greek cross to enhance the iconography of the page. The lettered border on the other hand consists of a coloured substratum with letters painted on it. They are endowed with a three-dimensional appearance by shaping them from brown, cut acanthus branches with gold highlights. The main purpose of this type of border is not decoration: they form a clearly legible text acting as a commentary about the painting; the painting, on the other hand, is a pictorial translation of the script, causing the border and miniature to fuse together to form a single whole. The frame on f. 11r belongs to the bejewelled type of border consisting of a coloured trim scattered with jewels and strings of pearls –the maximum expression of wealth– in an elliptical shape, containing three pearls joined together. This fondness for luxury led to the creation of margins featuring eye-catching letters, gems, jewels, corals and pearls with craftsmanship reaching its peak with the trompe-l’oeil technique being used to transform flowers into jewels. One must not rule out the knowledge of late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century jewellery in the creation of such flowers transformed into jewels. The narrowest margins are usually filled with beads or strings of pearls whereas the wider ones feature delicately crafted jewels. These jewels, given as gifts on certain occasions and particularly during the “estrennes” of January 1st, are known of, above all, thanks to accounts and inventories, and also miniatures and tapestries. A variety of techniques are employed to achieve the trompe-l’oeil effect, including particularly the impression that the jewel is attached to or hanging from the page. In this instance, as we shall see, not only ornamental richness but also iconographic meaning is conveyed.

The bejewelled border and the fabric border, but not the lettered border, were created by the Master of Vienna of Mary of Burgundy, who may perhaps be identified with Joos van Wassenhove, known in Castile as Justus of Ghent (c. 1435/1440-after 1475). O. Pächt attributed to him the change in the style of decorative borders, which marked the start of the Ghent and Bruges school as it was known. Although this theory is not mistaken, it is only partly correct since it is possible that another painter, Sanders Bening –identified with the Master of the Prayerbook of Maximilian I and the Master of Berlin of Mary of Burgundy– was responsible, also only partly, for this transformation by introducing many types and subtypes of borders which he adopted in his workshop. These types and subtypes were also used and altered by other painters close to the circle of the Masters of Vienna and Berlin of Mary of Burgundy, such as the Master of the Prayer Book of around 1500 and the Master of the Dresden Prayer Book.

The painting shows St John the Evangelist according to his usual iconography, as a beardless, young man with long hair (to indicate his youthfulness and virginity), wearing a golden tunic and large, red cloak. He is shown genuflecting with a book upon his knee in which he is writing not the Gospel but the Revelation attributed to him, as revealed by his upward-looking gaze. In heaven, two angels hand the woman’s son over to God, depicted by the bust of an old man with pontifical attributes. The woman is shown winged and on her knees with her hands joined about to flee into the desert –the brightness emanating from her body recalls that, according to the text of the Revelation, she is clothed with the sun– and the great battle in heaven is waged by the archangel Gabriel against the great winged serpent with seven heads and seven crowns upon them (Rev. 12: 5-7). According to Honorius Augustodunensis, the dragon is red because of the men it has slain and its seven heads are the capital sins. Furthermore, the new-born babe is shown being threatened with death because the devil’s task is to ruin the good work of the Church. Three of the four riders described in the opening of the fourth seal are depicted on earth (Rev. 6: 1-8). The earliest source of this type of apocalyptic representation is to be found in a sixth-century Italian Apocalypse, now missing. Gérard Horenbout’s source of inspiration must have been based on Apocalypse manuscripts made in England and northern France, as revealed by the fact that the dragon is on the Woman’s left. This source combines a variety of elements from narratives in the Revelation into a single unit. Hence, the Woman garbed in the sun and kneeling with her hands joined in prayer is found in another context, in the Flemish Apocalypse, c. 1400-1410 (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms. néerl. 3, f. 13r). Furthermore, although according to the same work the Son is handed over by the woman, it is St Michael who fights the dragon. Throughout the 15th century, the Revelation enjoyed a second golden age with the image of the Woman garbed in the sun and St John sitting on the rock at Patmos writing his visions appearing in many places.

The apostle contemplates a part land, part sky landscape lit not by the sun but by a theophany. Set alongside the evangelist, sitting on the shore of the isle of Patmos –said, according to tradition, to be where he was exiled by Domitian’s government shortly before the year 96 and also, mistakenly, to be where he wrote the Revelation– is his theriomorphic creature, the eagle, with outspread wings. In front of him, an amphibious looking creature –with a long tail, four horns and an open mouth (in reference to physical and moral deviance, applicable only to degenerate, immoral beings) showing its enormous fangs (conveying its fierceness and cruelty) and expelling fire– uses a rod with two hooks at the end (an instrument employed throughout the Middle Ages to seize men’s souls) to steal the inkwell and plume case to prevent him, according to the legend, from writing the Revelation. Visible in the background, in a rocky area of the island are two lions alluding to the wilderness of the setting. Finally, in another reference to the Revelation, on the opposite bank are three of the four riders described in Rev. 6: 1-8. One of the three riders can be identified with the crowned archer, even though he lacks this royal attribute in the illustration and his horse is not white. The second rider, identified with war, bears what seems to be a sword. The final horseman is the most difficult to identify since he should carry a weighing scale in his hands but the instrument he holds aloft cannot be seen clearly in the miniature. However, he cannot be identified with the fourth rider since the last one, in all European cycles, would have an open leviathan mouth or devil behind him. Consequently, it must be the rider that symbolises hunger. In this respect, the composition of the figure of St John on the isle and the riders is similar to the right-hand table in the triptych entitled The mystical marriage of St Catherine painted by Hans Memling (c. 1440-1494) in c. 1475-1479 (Bruges, Hôpital de Saint-Jean). This topic was often used in books of hours to decorate the beginning of St John’s gospel. The image was disseminated widely, appearing particularly at the beginning of the Anglo-normand Apocalypses, and probably spread from this type of manuscript to books of hours.

Behind the evangelist are two types of tree: a bare one and two leafy ones. They may refer to good and evil, particularly bearing in mind that the devil trying to steal the apostle’s inkwell in the image of St John the evangelist in the Spinola Hours (f. 83v) is shown emerging from a bare tree. One of the essential features of the symbolism of the tree is its ability to convey opposite ideas: blossoming, it is the image of life and bare, it is the image of death. When covered in leaves and fruit it may refer, depending on the context, to the good man’s virtues, and when bare, to the evil man’s vices. Consequently, the contrast between good and evil conjured up in the texts by comparing sweetness and bitterness, can be translated into images by means of one flourishing and one dead tree. This iconographic concept was employed, above all, in the 15th and 16th centuries, with a general meaning related to life and death, the Redemption and the Fall. As a result, the contrast between one dead and two leafy trees in the Hours of Joanna of Castile would refer to the world of good and evil, a concept enhanced by the appearance – usual in this period when representing St John the Evangelist, as seen earlier – of scenes from the Revelation such as the Woman clothed with the sun, the battle waged in heaven against the dragon, and the four riders. A debate rages as to whether the objects appearing in the borders mean anything or not. In many cases, they have no meaning whatsoever beyond the purely ornamental. It must, however, be remembered that, depending on the context, they may enhance the meaning of either the main image or the text they surround. Hence, the border on f. 10v features, among others, three quadrangular jewels. It is likely that this refers to the human nature of Christ since four is the number associated with this subject according to Neo-Pythagoric mysticism. On the other hand, three of the four jewels on f. 11r feature shapes or motifs that refer to the number three. Similarly, both the border around the page and the one around the text are surrounded by kidney-shaped clusters of pearls finished off inside by a three formation. This folio, which refers to Christ as the Word, as can be seen in the Latin Physiologus , clearly refers to the Holy Trinity. Similarly, the purple ground is yet another reference to Jesus Christ, but to his sovereign nature on this occasion.

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