Scot McKendrick (The British Library)
Yet, the Breviary is much more. It is also one of the most outstanding works of art associated with the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, and Queen Isabella of Castile in particular. It certainly offers a most vivid manifestation of the confidence, power, opulence and fervent Christian faith of the queen who, with her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon, single-mindedly sought religious and nation unity in Spain, laid the foundations of Spain’s enrichment from the New World and established by inter-marriage with the Hapsburgs a dynasty whose power and wealth was second to none within Western Europe. Much later, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Breviary became one of the outstanding treasures of the British national collection of books and manuscripts. Within the British Library it bears testimony to the significance of its vast collections for the preservation and understanding of the world’s cultural heritage.
The Painted Decoration
Like many extensively illustrated manuscripts made before and after it, the Isabella Breviary required more than one campaign to complete it. In the face of the vagaries of life the high ambitions of those who originally planned the volume proved too demanding for such a simple model of production.
The Master of the Dresden Prayer Book
His artistic invention repeatedly responded to the demands of both the common and uncommon subjects that are described or alluded to in the texts of the Breviary. His depiction of the Trinity (f. 241r), for example, is particularly unusual in its depiction of the Son on the Cross, the crossbar of which interlocks with the base of the throne of God the Father and the surmounting titulus of which acts as a perch for the dove of the Holy Spirit. The iconographic complexity of this miniature is compounded by the Trinity being depicted within the context of Augustine’s legendary rebuke for seeking to explain the Trinity which, as the child explains to him, is as futile as trying to ladle the sea into a hole in the ground. The beautiful deep landscape adds a serene atmosphere to this mystical encounter.
The Calendar Master
May (folio 3v)
Adoration of the Magi (folio 41r)
The Master of James IV of Scotland
Apology of the coronation of Queen Isabella - The Crowning of Our Lady (folio 437r)
The Spanish contribution
Second, there are three large and two one-column miniatures that were painted on separate sheets of vellum and pasted into the volume (ff. 372r, 374r, 386r, 390r, 392r, 399r). These miniatures are restricted to three of the final gatherings of the first part of the Breviary and within these they are the only illustrations. Although little attention has been given to their artistic character, recent critics have come to regard these miniatures as the work of a Spanish painter c. 1500 and as thus the final stage in the production of the Breviary within its early history.
Third, there are one large and four one-column miniatures that occur in two other gatherings in this same part of the Breviary, each of which is painted directly onto the original vellum of the book rather than a separate piece. Given their distinctively modern painterly style that draws on the techniques of oil painting more than on those of medieval illumination, as well as the observation by Dibdin that as late as his day one of these illustrations, the St Catherine, remained unexecuted, these five illustrations have now been recognized as the work of an English artist of the early nineteenth century.
By 1815 the Breviary was owned by John Dent, of Hertford Street in Mayfair, London. Banker and Member of Parliament, Dent was also a Fellow of the Royal Society, founding member of the Roxburghe Club and prominent bibliophile. Besides the Breviary he owned a splendid Greek Gospel lectionary now in the Morgan Library (M. 639) which, like the Breviary, was reputed to have come from the Escorial. Other manuscripts belonging to him were of either French or English origin. Although Dent acquired a large part of his collection en bloc around 1808, the Breviary does not appear ever to have belonged to library of Robert Heathcote that he bought on this occasion.
In March 1827 the Breviary was sold together with the rest of Dent’s library at a spectacular auction held by Robert Harding Evans at his London rooms in Pall Mall. [...] Despite the fact that the sale overall exhibited what Dibdin noted in his Bibliomania of 1842 as the “first grand melancholy symptoms of the decay of the Bibliomania”, the Breviary fetched the substantial price of £378.
At this point the Isabella Breviary became the property of the wealthy attorney-at-law Philip Hurd (d. 1831), of the Inner Temple and Kentish Town. Owner since 1819 of the impressive mansion at the foot of Highgate Hill named Bateman’s folly, Hurd had accumulated a choice library of books and manuscripts. [...] Hurd had less time that Dent to enjoy his treasure. On 28 June 1831 he died, and in March of the following year, only five years since it had first appeared at auction, the Breviary was once again put up for sale by Evans. [...] Despite it being described in exactly the same way as in 1827, the Breviary gained considerably in price, being sold for £520.
Third in the line of British private owners of the Isabella Breviary was Sir John Tobin (1763-1851), merchant, shipowner and once Lord Mayor of Liverpool. Different in his social origins, place of residence and profession from both Dent and Hurd, Tobin exemplified the new mercantile collector of the North of England. [...]
During the volume’s time in the possession of Sir John Tobian the Isabella Breviary gained wider recognition among art connoisseurs and manuscript specialists. In 1835, during their separate visits, Sir Frederic Madden, future Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum and the German art historian Gustav Friedrich Waagen (1794-1868) viewed Sir John’s collection at Oak Hill outside Liverpool. Both noted the Breviary. For Waagen the main interest lay in the work of the “accomplished artist, whose pictures are executed in a very refined taste of the later followers of Van Eyck, in an extremely delicate soft tone, in the flesh rather inclining to purple”. [...]For Madden, who had already seen the volume before Hurd’s sale in 1832, the Breviary was without doubt a great treasure.
Upon Sir John’s death in February 1851 the second part of the history of the Isabella Breviary begins. The culmination of this part was to be its purchase for the British nation on 2 Feb. 1852, and its progression from private to institutional ownership – from the status of personal to national treasure. Yet, the course of history was far from straightforward. Early in 1852 the London book dealer, William Boone, had persuaded Sir John’s son the Rev. John Tobin, of Liscard, Cheshire, to sell to him for £1900 all eight of his father’s manuscripts, including the Breviary. He had also made Tobin believe that despite his “cherished intention” of doing so there was no realistic prospect of a direct sale to the British Museum. Having then offered the manuscripts to the avid collector, Bertram, 4th Earl of Ashburnham, without success, Boone himself approached the British Museum. As with most dealers, the price demanded by Boone was considerably higher than that which he had himself paid: what he now wanted for the Tobin manuscripts was £3000. Uncharacteristically the Trustees of the British Museum were unanimous in their determination to secure them “at all events”. Thus, when Boone refused to reduce his price and threatened to reopen negotiations with Lord Ashburnham, the reluctant Keeper of Manuscripts conceded him the full sum, its payment split over two years. In doing so he made for the British nation its single most important purchase of illuminated manuscripts.
In 1973, together with the rest of the collections of the Department of Manuscripts of the British Museum, the Isabella Breviary became part of the newly created British Library.
This was an excerpt from The Isabella Breviary commentary volume by Scot McKendrick (Head of History and Classics at the British Library).