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The Master of Jacques de Besançon (active c.1485-1498)
The Master of Jacques de Besançon (active c.1485-1498) Book of Hours, use of Paris, in Latin and French, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Paris, c.1485-1490] A splendid, large-format Book of Hours, previously in the library of William Randolph Hearst, with a notably full programme of illumination completed by the Master of Jacques de Besançon... moreThe Master of Jacques de Besançon (active c.1485-1498)
Book of Hours, use of Paris, in Latin and French, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Paris, c.1485-1490]
A splendid, large-format Book of Hours, previously in the library of William Randolph Hearst, with a notably full programme of illumination completed by the Master of Jacques de Besançon, one of the most sought-after Parisian illuminators of the late 15th century.
213 x 150mm. i + 150 + i, complete, collation: 13, 212, 310, 4-118, 127 (of 8, ii a cancelled blank), 138, 1410, 15-188, 194, modern pencil foliation followed here, 16 lines, ruled space: 115 x 76mm, every text page with three-sided borders of acanthus sprays, flowers and strawberries with ivy-leaf infill on hairline stems, 24 panel miniatures set within thin gold frames in the borders of the Calendar depicting the occupations of the month and the signs of the Zodiac, three historiated initials and 14 large arch-topped miniatures set within thin gold frames above four-line illuminated or historiated initials of birds with 31 accompanying medallion scenes in the full borders framed by acanthus cordelières of blue and gold. Seventeenth-century brown calf, covers with single gilt-ruled border enclosing a large gilt panel with oval central medallion and large corner ornaments with gilt panel and oval centrepiece of strapwork and floral design (rebacked using original spine). Morocco box, gilt title on spine.
Ruled blanks ff.ii-iv; Calendar, in French ff.1-12; Gospel Extracts ff.13-22; Hours of the Virgin, unidentified use ff.23-79v: matins f.23, lauds f.42v, prime f.52, terce f.57v, sext f.62, none f.65v, vespers f.69v, compline f.75v; Penitential Psalms ff.80-94; Hours of the Cross ff.94v-100; Hours of the Holy Spirit ff.100v-105; Office of the Dead, use of Paris ff.105v-137v; Fifteen Joys of the Virgin, in French ff.138-142; Seven Requests to our Lord, in French ff.142-143v; ruled blanks ff.144-147.
The Parisian artist known as the Master of Jacques de Besançon was responsible for illuminating this splendid Book of Hours, whose large format allowed him to indulge his taste for iconographical innovation and a more developed visual narrative through the 14 large miniatures with 31 accompanying scenes in the borders. Along with the Master of Jean Rolin and Maître François, the Master of Jacques de Besançon was one of three successive illuminators through whose work – highly admired and widely emulated – we can trace the prevalent style of illumination in Paris in the second half of the 15th century: most of the prestigious commissions from the court and leading ecclesiastics were fulfilled by this trio, who painted luxurious manuscripts for Charles VIII, Anne of Brittany, Louis XII and Henry VII of England (see Avril & Reynaud, Les manuscrits à peintures en France, 1993, pp.38-52 and 256-262).
The Master of Jacques de Besançon was the youngest of the three, active from c.1485 until 1498; on the basis of the close correspondence of archival evidence with the attributed oeuvres of Maître François and the Master of Jacques de Besançon their identification as the father and son illuminators, both named François le Berbier, has been generally accepted (see M. Deldicque, ‘L’enluminure à Paris à la fin du XVe siècle: Maître François, le Maître de Jacques de Besançon et Jacques de Besançon identifiés’, Revue de l’Art, 2014, pp.9-18). The Master of Jacques de Besançon – or François le Berbier fils – was first identified from an inscription added to an office book given to the Saint-Jean-l’Évangéliste book producers’ guild in Paris in 1485 recording its donation by a member of the guild: it appears likely that the Master was also responsible for illuminating the manuscript that he donated (see Avril and Reynaud, p.256).
The Master produced a considerable number of Books of Hours for the commercial market; as a result, many are of somewhat summary execution. But this is not the case with our manuscript, in which the work is more closely comparable to the opulent, developed programmes of illumination which graced his high-status commissions. Certainly, our Hours are just as refined as the Psalter-Hours of Louis de Busco, painted by the Master of Jacques de Besançon in 1489 (Baltimore, Walters Art Museum W.286, see L. Randall, Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Walters Art Gallery, II, 1992, no 171) or the Book of Hours sold from the collection of Maurice Burrus in 2016 (Christie’s, 25 May 2016, lot 22). The compositions are full of visual detail to inspire the imagination of the viewer – in the Master’s landscape settings, distant cities are comprehensively rendered against the skyline, while, elsewhere, architectural details appearing in the foreground are carefully incorporated with a close eye to proportion, such as the church door of the Burial Service (f.105v), complemented by delicately leaded windows and elegant tracery in the case of the David miniature (f.80). Comparison of the miniatures in the Rosenberg and Burrus Hours with a Book of Hours in New York (Morgan Library M. 231) – all of which evidently share the same models for the miniatures in the Hours of the Virgin – show how, in the case of the latter, these compositions could be simplified.
More than representing one of the most refined Books of Hours painted by the Master of Jacques de Besançon, the particular appeal of our manuscript lies in its iconographical richness, created through the deployment of medallion miniatures, which allow the narrative to extend beyond the central miniature into the borders, with the principal scenes complemented by related episodes from the Bible or an expanded cast of characters. Thus, King David in Prayer on f.80 is accompanied by border scenes taken from the Book of Samuel, one showing the young David fighting Goliath and another with David presenting the head of Goliath to Saul, while the Annunciation to the Shepherds has one more adoring shepherd in the border, above another medallion featuring an amorous shepherd and shepherdess. The use of this illustrative device is unusual for the Master, whose taste for an expanded narrative was more often expressed in works from the 1490s through the complete removal of the border surrounding large miniatures in favour of a cycle of smaller miniatures in compartments, as seen on four occasions in the Morgan Hours (ff.103, 122v, 130v, 137). Another idiosyncrasy of our manuscript is the miniature that opens the Gospel Extracts, which depicts St John on Patmos with a Creation cycle in embedded compartments: this choice of subject matter is highly individual and may reflect a request of the original commissioner, or simply be another example of the Master’s flair for iconographic innovation.
A date between c.1485 and c.1490 is suggested for these Hours on the basis of the rather old-fashioned borders, which feature ivy leaves on hairline stems as infill between the acanthus sprays instead of the solid grounds more typical of the Master of Jacques de Besançon's manuscripts. This would place it among the earlier works of the Master's oeuvre; a Book of Hours held at Columbia University (BP096 F) painted c.1485 has borders of the same type.
The subjects of the large miniatures and their accompanying border roundels are as follows: St John on Patmos with compartments containing scenes of the Creation, with (a) St Matthew writing, (b) St Mark writing and (c) St Luke writing f.13; Annunciation, with (a) Meeting at the Golden Gate (b) Birth of the Virgin (c) Virgin on the steps of the Temple and (d) Marriage of the Virgin f.23; Visitation, with (a) Birth of St John the Baptist and (b) Circumcision of St John the Baptist f.42v; Nativity, with (a) Angels adoring and (b) Shepherds adoring f.52; Annunciation to the Shepherds with (a) Annunciation to a Shepherd and (b) Shepherd and Shepherdess embracing f.57v; Adoration of the Magi, with (a) Magi with their gifts and (b) Journeying Magi f.62; Presentation in the Temple, with (a) Joseph and (b) Mary and Elizabeth? f.65v; Flight into Egypt, with (a) and (b) Massacre of the Innocents f.69v; Coronation of the Virgin, with (a) and (b) Music-making angels f.75v; David in Prayer, with (a) David and Goliath and (b) David presenting the head of Goliath to Saul f.80; Crucifixion, with (a) the Betrayal and (b) Christ before Pilate f.94v; Pentecost, with (a) Baptism of Christ and (b) Departure of the Apostles f.100v; Burial Service, with (a) Man carrying a coffin and (b) Man carrying tapers f.105v; Virgin and Child with angels, with (a) and (b) Music-making angels f.138.
The historiated initials are: Virgin and Child f.18; Pietà f.20v; Trinity f.142.
(1) The style of the illumination and the text indicate that this manuscript was produced in Paris. In addition to the Parisian use of the Office of the Dead, the Calendar highlights the feasts of saints venerated in Paris including Sts Genevieve (3 January) and Denis (October) in gold and St Germain (28 May) in red. The Hours of the Virgin are not for the standard Paris use, but have Parisian features. The opening miniature, which depicts St John on Patmos with a Creation cycle in the surrounding compartments is unusual: it might have been the request of the original commissioner.
(2) Josef August Graf von Toerring Gutenzell (1753-1826), Bavarian politician and playwright: his armorial stamp and ownership inscription recording the purchase of ‘ce supérbe manuscrit’ in 1809 on f.iv verso.
(3) William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951): his sale, part V, Parke-Bernet, 11 January 1939, lot 137.
(4) John A Saks (1913-1983), collector of modern printing and fine binding, Fellow of the Pierpont Morgan Library and member of the Grolier Club: his sale, Christie's New York, 20 May 1983, lot 46.
(5) Rosenberg Ms 15.
22 Apr 2021