This illumination captures Queen Dido, the legendary founder of the city-state of Carthage in the 9th century BC. Her lover, Aeneas, has abandoned her and she holds a cloth to her eyes, which are red-rimmed from weeping, while his ship sails away in the background. Her rage and despair lead her to throw herself on her former lover’s sword. What the viewer may not notice at first is the sheet on which she writes. According to the text, Dido wrote a letter to Aeneas about how he had treated her, before she took her life.
A golden quill pen is visible in her fingers, while an inkpot can be seen to the right. The sword of Aeneas is prominently featured in front of her, an ominous foreshadowing of the event below. These details emphasize both the harsh elements of her story, as well as her efforts to record the story from her vantage point.
Dido’s story is one of dozens of stories about women in this new Getty Museum acquisition. The manuscript features tales that focus on the treacherousness of men and the broken female lives they leave behind. Yet, the illuminations also give agency to the women by making them the authors of their own experiences.
The manuscript contains the translation into French by 15th-century poet Octovien de Saint-Gelais of five of twenty-one epistles originally written by the ancient Roman poet Ovid. It also includes three additional texts by Saint-Gelais that debate the qualities of an ideal woman, mainly beauty and virtue.
The manuscript was made around 1493 for Anne of Brittany, Queen of France, shortly after her marriage to King Charles VIII in 1491 when she was just fourteen years old. Tales of mourning women who met tragic ends through the betrayal of their partners might not seem like an appropriate wedding gift for a teenage bride, but the images do provide examples of female empowerment through taking control of their own narratives. Writing is a form of authority that was not often associated with women in the ancient or medieval worlds. Here, the foregrounding of female self-expression might be interpreted as a model for the young queen.
The manuscript culminates with a distinctive image of the young Queen Anne seated under a cloth of honor, accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting. Resplendently dressed in a rich red gown highlighted with gold, she wears a crown atop a black headdress. Like all the illuminations in the manuscript, it was painted by an anonymous artist who is called the Master of the Chronique scandaleuse (active from around 1490 to 1510). Hallmarks of the master’s style that can be seen here include figures that are characterized by prominent foreheads, downcast hooded eyes, rosebud lips, and pale skin tones, as well as the use of bold colors and liquid gold in the draperies and architectural details.
The portrait of Anne of Brittany serves as the finale in a series of images concerning a debate about the nature of the ideal woman. Here, an ideal woman, called the Peerless Lady in the text, stands before a scribe who records the judgment of the three male gods pictured at the left in gold. Below, two men bring the verdict to a figure dressed in black identified as the King of France.
In the detail from the image of Anne of Brittany below, the young queen and her ladies-in-waiting not only challenge that proclamation but also cast doubt on the right of men to make such a declaration as well as the general ability of male authors to tell the truth. It is implied, instead, that high-ranking women such as themselves were much better qualified to judge their own sex, and that the queen herself would be a much better candidate to exemplify female perfection.
Although a number of other portraits of the queen survive, this is one of the earliest depictions of her, and is likely the earliest image of her as Queen of France. Given her appearance in this gallery of notable women, and the care the artist has taken in the depiction of the other illustrious women as writers, this book may have helped the young bride think about the nature of female power at court as she stepped into the role of queen.
The manuscript is the first in Getty’s collection to have been made for a female member of royalty. Especially in the later Middle Ages, female patronage of book illumination often drove innovation in terms of style and subject matter. Anne of Brittany was among an elite group of women (including Margaret of Austria, Anne of France, and Louise of Savoy) who exercised significant political and cultural influence at major courts in Europe. This manuscript is a fascinating testament to the ways in which that power was wielded.