The Isabella Breviary

The Isabella Breviary f. 37r, Circumcision of Christ


f. 37r, Circumcision of Christ

A twenty-four line framed miniature over both columns of text of the Circumcision of Christ based on Lk 2 v 21, which is the Gospel for the day in the Dominican Missal. The Virgin Mary and Joseph kneel looking toward an altar on which the Child lays with the priest accompanied by the Mochel holding the knife above him, about to perform the operation. Other figures sit or stand around, seemingly not particularly interested in the ceremony about to take place. The subject is seldom represented in contemporary Flemish panel painting or in books of hours, although in some other breviaries such as those of Antwerp, Eleanor of Portugal and Grimani there are also full-page pictures, but with completely different iconography. In the Carondelet Breviary there is a smaller framed miniature of the scene. The unusual feature in the Isabella Breviary is that Joseph and Mary are kneeling. Scenes of the Circumcision often derive their composition from Presentation in the Temple iconography, and a rare example of Mary kneeling, but not Joseph, is in that scene illuminated by Simon Marmion in the Salting Hours (London, Victoria and Albert Museum, L. 2384-1910) made in Bruges and Valenciennes c. 1475. The circular form of the altar is also in the second representation in the Calendar of the Antwerp Breviary. The Circumcision occurs in the Hours of Engelbert of Nassau (Oxford, Bodleian MS. Douce, 219-20) and the Vienna Mary of Burgundy Hours at Terce in place of the more usual scene of the Annunciation to the Shepherds, in the Madrid Hastings Hours (London, British Library, Add. 54782) and Hours of James IV of Scotland (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, 1897) at Sext, and in the Soane Hours (London, Sir John Soane’s Museum, Ms. 4) for None. In panel painting the scene occurred on the right hand wing of Hugo van der Goes Monforte altarpiece of c. 1473-75, but this panel has been lost and is only known from a copy of this altarpiece by the Master of Frankfurt. It seems that the version in the Grimani Breviary derives from that of Hugo van der Goes. In conclusion, the imagery in the Isabella Breviary seems original and cannot be exactly paralleled in other Flemish works of the time. There is a full border of the first category containing intertwined branches with gold and silver-grey acanthus, birds, and a man holding up one of the branches, all on a gold-yellow ground.

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