A 15th-Century French Missal

The digitisation project at the Wren Library, Trinity College has given access to scholars from around the world to its fabulous collection of over 1000 medieval manuscripts. François Avril of Bibliothèque nationale de France is one such scholar and he has used the online facility to write a detailed appraisal of the significance of the French missal Ms R.17.22. His study is published as a special issue of the French magazine Art de l’enluminure and with his permission we summarise his observations in this blog.

The manuscript had escaped public attention until the advent of the Wren Digital Library because it was not included in the catalogue of M.R. James published in 1901-2. It came to Trinity a few years later in 1909 as part of a bequest from a former alumnus Edmund Dickie Kershaw and was subsequently included in a published catalogue by Neil Ker in 1977.

Of an imposing size (340 x 480mm), the missal is a luxurious manuscript which is rich in painted decoration. Its well-preserved condition suggested to Avril that it had not been in regular use by a community, but had instead belonged to a high-ranking ecclesiastic whose coat of arms appears several times in the manuscript.

The composition of the missal indicates that it was intended for a male monastic community. The importance accorded to St Benedict in the calendar (where his feast day and translation are recorded) indicates a Benedictine affiliation as does the inclusion of the mass for this saint which begins on ff.181v.

R.17.22, f.181v

Of greater significance though are other saints listed in the calendar which locate the missal within the Lyon region and the prominence accorded to St Martin, archbishop of Tours suggests a link with the abbey of Savigny just a few kilometres from Lyon. The coat of arms which features several times in the manuscript identifies the family of Albon, one of the most powerful in the area and a family with a close association with Savigny. The style of the missal cannot be earlier than the late-15th century which led Avril to identify François I of Albon, who governed the abbey for almost 30 years from 1492 to 1530, as the person who commissioned the missal.

It is likely that the missal was created in the early years of Albon’s time as abbot and it is possible that his likeness was also included in the missal. St Benedict (pictured above) is represented kneeling, wearing a mitre and holding an abbot’s cross. This is possibly a portrait of François as the artist’s patron. A prelate in the procession pictured on f.115 has an almost identical physiognomy.

R.17.22, f.115r

The Abbey was plundered in the mid-16th century and the missal was possibly shielded in a female monastic community for a time after that (a prayer added on f.237 is for a nun), but it returned eventually to the family of Albon. There is good reason to identify it as the missal which figured amongst the books of Count Claude-Camille-François d’Albon, a little-known bibliophile whose collection at the castle of Franconville included over 10,000 volumes. What happened to this collection is unknown, but another manuscript from the Albon family was sold at auction in 1790 and found its way to England. This was the second part of Augustine’s ‘City of God’ (now MS R.17.23) which was bequeathed by Dickie Kershaw together with the missal under consideration to Trinity College in 1909.

While Books of Hours have tended to attract more attention, there was a flourishing of commissioned missals during the second half of the 15th century of which many contain first-class illumination. The missal at Trinity conforms to established form in terms of the list of festivals and the two central full-page paintings – the crucifixion on f.148v and the god of majesty on f.149r – around the canon of the mass. Though the imagery conforms to iconographic norms, there are features which reveal that a very singular illuminator was at work. A prime example is found on f. 8r.

R.17.22, f.8r

This illuminated page precedes the mass for the first Sunday of Advent. Instead of the usual depiction of David raising his soul to God, this picture shows the prophets of the Old Testament (identified in white lettering) grouped together on two levels. Each holds a banderol inscribed with a passage from his prophecy. This is very unusual and cannot be found in any other French missal of the period. It relates to a concept which originated in 13th-century Italian graduals which spread later to Bohemia and Provence. The rolled scrolls also call to mind the retables of the Rhone region.

While the cycle is traditional, the illuminator has his own very distinct style. He is not always concerned with correct proportions and portrays people with slightly elongated faces, surly expressions with thicker lips, bulging eyes and long pointed noses. One example is the full-page painting of the crucifixion.

R.17.22, f.148v

In this illumination Avril describes a scene of melancholy meditation combined with frenetic agitation. Mary Magdalene, for example, lifts her hands to the sky and the soldiers on the bottom right fight with drawn swords over the vestments. The thief crucified with Jesus has his hair hanging down over his face, which is a common motif of several Parisian manuscripts of the period. The impish cherubs – ‘putti’ – in the borders disturb the solemnity of the representation: two hold up the shield of Albon, others the upper lintel of the portico.

R.17.22, f.22r (detail)

The artist’s decorative prowess is also demonstrated by the borders and secondary miniatures all of which he appears to have executed without the use of assistants. Folio 8r is a good example. The borders include carpets of delicate flowers and stripped tree trunks. These stripped trunks are characteristic of the illuminator and can also been seen holding up the awning sheltering the holy family at the nativity and at the adoration of the magi (ff. 17v and 22r).

The repertoire of monsters, grotesques and hybrids may give us some clue to the urban centre where the illuminator received his training. A hypothetical sketch of the artist’s career suggests that he may have begun work in Paris and later in south Burgundy. His most productive period, though, was in the Lyonnaise region. He illuminated two manuscripts in the city of Macon north of Lyon. The first was a Book of Hours used by the diocese (now BL MS Add.20694) and the second was a missal used by Bishop Etienne of Longwy which is currently in a private collection but which was photographed when it was sold at Sotheby’s in 2002. The artist may have obtained the prestigious commission in Lyon following a recommendation from clerics in Macon. The known output of this artist to date is, then, entirely religious and his best work was destined for the higher clergy.

Avril concludes that the missal at Cambridge was probably executed at the end of the artist’s career and is his most fully evolved work demonstrating a more ambitious conceptual framework and a greater mastery along with a distinctive, original style.

Further Reading:

Avril, F., ‘Un missel de luxe pour un grand prélat lyonnais. Le missel de François d’Albon, abbé de Savigny’, Dijon (2019)


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