The Isabella Breviary

The Isabella Breviary f. 173r, Apology of the conquest of Granada in 1492 - Abraham rescues Lot and is rewarded by Melchisedech


f. 173r, Apology of the conquest of Granada in 1492 - Abraham rescues Lot and is rewarded by Melchisedech

This painting by the Master of the Dresden Prayer Book is in the psalter section and illustrates psalm 109. It depicts some of the aspects usual in portrayals of this psalm, which can be understood to be the protection of God and a prefiguration of the Messiah as a king and priest. Consequently, at the top in the middle is a torn gloria where, seated on the same throne as per the Roman imperial iconography used for portraits of emperors and consuls, are David and the Father. David is dressed as a horseman with a pluvial and imperial crown. His left hand holds another symbol of power, the sphere of the universe, although only the cross can be seen because it is covered by the book he is holding with his Father dressed in papal vestments with a three-diadem crown. Depicted underneath is the battle scene described in Genesis 14: 14-16 with Abraham in the centre wearing a golden helmet and breastplates. He strikes down one of the kings, the followers of Chodorlahomor, who captured his nephew Lot, shown on the right of the composition as a bearded man with his head and eyes downcast and his hands tied. On his helmet lod can be read. Abraham’s followers fight the other three kings and their armies. Depicted in the background is the continuation of the previous tale narrated in Genesis 14: 18-20, i.e. the blessing of Abraham – shown as the first horseman in the battle with a golden legend reading abraha[m] above him – by Melchisedech, the priest and king of Salem, shown tonsured and carrying a loaf in his right hand and a container of wine in his left, with his name melchisedech in gold letters overhead. His is flanked by his servants. Four figures on horseback – probably the four kings who captured Lot as he left Sodom – stand out from the army seen in the distance leaving a fortified city.


The reference to the need to resort to military force to safeguard the purity and solidity of the Christian faith is probably most noteworthy aspect of this miniature, undoubtedly intended to irrefutably justify the conquest of Granada in 1492. The historical significance of this is enormous, not only because of what it represented after eight centuries of Islamic occupation of the Iberian Peninsula but also in a Christian Europe afraid of the proximity of the powerful Islam.


The border around the painting and text is the usual Ghent and Bruges school frame of trompe-l’oeil flowers against a red ground. Most of them are purple and there is a variety of species, particularly columbine and lily whose meaning, according to the context, is related to Christ’s Passion, in which case it possibly underlines the aspects of the painting concerning the Eucharist and the release of sinners.


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