At the stately Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan, a 15th-century illuminated manuscript lies unfinished nearly 600 years after it was started. Some of the book’s pages only feature text and splotches of gold leaf; others showcase roughly painted vines and flowers. A few are finalized except for sketches in the margins, and a handful of folios are fully done. The book’s varied stages of completion make it a rare example of this type of manuscript, but also the perfect tool to understand how Medieval artisans crafted their exquisitely detailed works.
Roger Wieck, the Morgan’s curator and department head of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, sat down with Hyperallergic to leaf through the book — and explain what makes it so unique.
This particular illuminated manuscript is what’s known as a book of hours, an exceedingly popular prayer object and calendar secular people would commission and then pass down as a family heirloom. “Unfinished Hours,” as the book is referred to in the Morgan’s collection, is from Provence, France, and was created between 1440 and 1450. Although books of hours were most popular in Northern Europe between the 14th and 16th centuries, Wieck said the Medieval manuscript-making process was the same across different centuries and geographies.
A wealthy person — such as a doctor, Wieck said, turning to a page featuring dogs on crutches and a rabbit wearing glasses and holding a glass of urine — would commission a bookseller to make them a manuscript. (He also explained that these books were peppered with Medieval humor.) This book would have cost a pretty penny — the curator compared the price to that of a luxury item such as a Ferrari, which sell for around $250,000 at the low end.
“You paid for absolutely everything,” Wieck said. Every illumination, every fleck of gold, and every elaborately drawn capital letter was billed. The book in front of us is rife with these expensive details. Making this manuscript even more costly, the bookseller employed two well-regarded artists — a painter from southern France named Enguerrand Quarton and a Netherlandish painter named Barthélemy d’Eyck. The latter is likely a family member of the more famous Jan van Eyck, who created Northern Renaissance masterpieces including the “Ghent Altarpiece” (1432) and the “Arnolfini Portrait” (1434).
The two artists mostly worked separately on this book. D’Eyck’s pages bear a marked resemblance to the work of his better-known relative: trippy single-point perspective, intricate tiling, and clothes that drape in sculptural folds onto the floor. D’Eyck also infused his illustrations with the somber shades of Northern European painting in the 1400s. Quarton’s illustrations, on the other hand, are bright and cheery.
“He’s got a South of France palette,” Wieck said as he turned to one of the French artist’s illuminations. The colors are brighter, the sky is bluer, and the tiny illustrations look more like Italian frescos than the creepy cartoons frequently associated with Medieval manuscripts. Wieck points to a painting that the two artists are believed to have worked on together: Behind Quarton’s painting of the Virgin and Child, d’Eyck has crafted one of the intricate tiled backgrounds that appear throughout the book.
Wieck says the commissioner must have died, skipped town, or stopped paying, because the bookseller told d’Eyck and Quarton to pause their work before they got a chance to complete it.
After the book’s vellum sheets were prepared, a scribe would write the text (here in Latin) and a rubricator would draw red letters for emphasis. Then, an artist would lightly sketch a design with silver point, pencil, or ink and mark where the gold was to be placed. In this book of hours, the shiny dots often stud the center of flowers or shape tiny leaves.
The markings were touched with glue to make the gold stick before a craftsman applied the gold leaf. Wieck gestured to the air as he explained that the material was almost light and thin enough to float.
After the leaf was applied, the gold was polished with stone and outlined with ink. “You have to be careful not to mess up the words,” Wieck said of the first process. The curator then pointed to a few flecks that hadn’t been outlined yet; they look like spills next to the crisply defined dots. Once the gold was set, the artists and their workshops would step in.
“They wouldn’t necessarily work in any particular order — they’d just work away,” said Wieck. This is evident in this manuscript, which has unfinished pages scattered throughout.
Sometimes an iconographer working for the bookseller might tell the artists to incorporate a specific piece of imagery, but overall, the illuminators wielded vast control over their work.
“They might tell them to paint the Adoration of the Magi, but they’re not going to tell them how to do it,” said Wieck. They also wouldn’t tell the artists what to create in the outlying illustrations. Wieck explained that artists usually delegated the exterior drawings to members of the atelier, but d’Eyck actually created many of these adorning figures himself. A boar in a bishop’s hat riding a camel stands out.
The individual sheets would eventually be placed in bundles of four. A book binder would attach them together with guidance from a scribe, who would have written the first word of the next bundle on the bottom of the last page.
In the 17th century, another artist added their own imagery to the book, but apparently couldn’t quite hack it; the clumsy drawings of figures with morphed faces contrast sharply with the obsessive precision of the original. Around 1700, the book was bound in France. Then it entered the hands of Joseph Barrios, who owned a number of Medieval manuscripts now in museum collections. Barrios sold it in 1849 and it passed through one more collection until J. Pierpont Morgan purchased it in 1909.
While similar works have been taken for parts throughout the centuries, this one remained remarkably intact. Last year, an interdisciplinary team of scientists and historians estimated that around 90% of Medieval narrative manuscripts have been lost.
“This book was just lucky,” said Wieck.