The Isabella Breviary

The Isabella Breviary f. 8v, The Twelve Sybils

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f. 8v, The Twelve Sybils

A full-page miniature, of thirty-four line text line height, of twelve seated Sibyls holding inscribed scrolls foretelling the coming of the incarnate Christ, and of his mission of salvation; in the back row the Libyan, Delphic (holding an inkpot?), Cimarian, Erythrean (holding a sword), Samian and Agrippan Sibyls, with in the foreground the Persian, Cumaean (reading a book), Hellespontic, Phrygian, Tiburtine (holding scrolls) and European (holding a scroll) Sibyls. The inscriptions on the scrolls and on the figures are: Sibilla Libica, Erit Statera Cunctorum; Sibilla Delphica, Absque Matris Coitu Ex Vergine Eius; Sibilla Cimara, Et Lac de Celo Missum; Sibilla Erithrea, Iacebit in Feno Agnus; Sibilla Samia, Laudate Eum In Atriis Celorum; Sibilla Agrippa, Invisibile Verbum Palpabitur; Sibilla Persica, Erit Salus Gentium; Sibilla Cumana, Surgit Mons Aurea Mundo; Sibilla Helespontina, Prospexit Deus Humiles Suos; Sibilla Phrigia, Ex Olimpo Excelsus Veniet; Sibilla Tiburtina, Nascetur Christus in Bethlehem; Sibilla Europa, Regnabit in Paupertate (Libyan Sibyl, He will be the balance [of the judgement] of all people; Delphic Sibyl, Without sexual union of his mother [he is to be born] of a virgin; Cimarian Sibyl, And milk sent from heaven; Erythrean Sibyl, The Lamb shall lie in the hay; Samian Sibyl, Praise him in the courts of heaven; Agrippan Sibyl, The Word shall be touched; Persian Sibyl, He shall be the salvation of the Gentiles; Cumaean Sibyl, The golden race shall rise up in the world; Hellespontic Sibyl, God has provided for his humble people; Phrygian Sibyl, The Most High shall come from Olympus; Tiburtine Sibyl, The Christ is to be born in Bethlehem; European Sibyl, He shall reign in humble circumstances). There is a full border of the first category on a grey ground strewn with flowers, golden acanthus leaves, a butterfly and two birds.
The source for the texts of the prophecies of the Sibyls is by the Dominican Philippus de Barberis, Discordantiae sanctorum doctorum Hieronymi et Augustini adiunctis aliis opusculis, which was compiled c. 1479 and appeared in several printed versions contemporary with the making of the Breviary. The second treatise in this volume is entitled Duodecim Sibillarum vaticinia que de Christo ediderunt, in which he assembles the texts in the prophecies of the sibyls which refer to Christ. Many of the printed editions are accompanied by woodcuts with their prophetic texts on scrolls, as in the version printed in Rome c. 1482. Although the texts from this book in abbreviated form seem to have been used by the scholar who instructed artists of the Isabella Breviary, the iconography seems not to have been followed. A noticeable difference is that in the woodcuts the Sibyls are standing, whereas they are seated in the Breviary. In the last quarter of the fifteenth century and in the early sixteenth century the Sibyls are very frequently represented in art in both Northern Europe and Italy. They appear in wall paintings, woodcuts and illuminated manuscripts, and more rarely in wood and stone sculpture, usually holding scrolls whose texts differ between the various works of art. Their prophecies were even set to music by Lassus for Albrecht V of Bavaria in the early years of the sixteenth century. Two of them had appeared on occasions in painting and sculpture from the late twelfth century onwards, the Erythraean who prophesied the Last Judgement, and the Tiburtine who showed the Emperor Augustus a vision of the coming of the Christ Child as the coming saviour and ruler of the world. The vision of Augustus is represented in several fifteenth-century Flemish works, notably on one of the wings of Roger van der Weyden’s Bladelin altarpiece of c. 1445-48. In illuminated manuscripts contemporary with the Isabella Breviary it is found in the BerlinHours of Mary of Burgundy to illustrate the Advent Office of the Virgin, the Fitzwilliam Hours at Prime, and the Grimani Breviary for Christmas Day. These two Sibyls were special cases, and it is not until the fifteenth century that all twelve are represented with their prophetic scrolls. In 1438 in Cardinal Orsini’s palace in Rome a series of twelve, accompanied by twelve prophets, were painted, but it is not until the 1480s, after Philippus de Barberis’ book was published that representations of the twelve Sibyls multiply. In some of these images they hold attributes, but this is only definitely the case for the Erythraean Sibyl in the Isabella Breviary who holds a sword of judgement because of her prophecy of the Last Judgement. The others just hold books or scrolls and possibly an inkpot for writing in the case of one, all pertaining to the writing of their prophecies. The reason for their placement before Advent Sunday is because they prophesy concerning the coming of Christ, and the Advent season is about his coming as man, to be born in Bethlehem, and also his Second Coming as judge. There is one parallel in placing the Sibyls in this position at the beginning of Advent, in the Diurnal of René II of Lorraine in which they are set beside the prophets. The more usual subject for the beginning of Advent in Flemish breviaries is the people of Israel or the prophets as a group looking up to heaven awaiting the Messiah, as in the Carondelet Breviary (Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, theol. lat. fol. 385) and the Grimani Breviary, and in the Hours of Joanna of Castile for the Office of the Virgin in the Advent season. This subject had been used in French breviaries of the earlier part of the century, and also in the c. 1485 Delft Breviary of Beatrix van Assendelft (Utrecht, Museum Het Catharijneconvent, ms. OKM 3).


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