Numerous illuminated manuscripts in the Getty collection feature coats of arms, signs of prestigious ownership from the distant past. These heraldic devices feature on books made for guilds, knights, cardinals, bishops, dukes, families united by marriage, humanists, royal advisors, and young women.
This post is the first in an occasional series that shares insights into the lives of some of the illustrious patrons from medieval and Renaissance Europe, and also explores mysteries that still remain about some of the more enigmatic emblems and devices.
A Mystery Resolved
For our first mystery, let’s look at a tiny (4 1/2 by 3 1/4-inch) 15th-century French book of hours, or personal prayer book, in the Getty collection. This is the final section of a magnificent manuscript that was divided at some point into three separately bound books. Scholars identified the Getty manuscript as a long-lost volume from this work through the text and the outstanding quality of the illuminations by Jean Fouquet, who worked for Kings Charles VII and Louis XI of France. The other two volumes are now in the National Library of the Netherlands in The Hague.
While this identification alone is worthy of celebration, manuscript specialists were also able to identify the original patron of the book by decoding the coats of arms included in numerous illuminations throughout the three volumes.
The coats of arms are badly damaged in the volumes at The Hague, and those in the Getty volume were overpainted in the 1600s with the arms of the Bourbon-Condé royal family, obscuring the original details. With the help of a microscope, ultraviolet light, and infrared reflectography—the Getty never performs invasive or damaging tests on manuscripts—art historian James H. Marrow was able to determine the content of the original coat of arms: three silver helmets on a red shield, with a gold star in the center. In heraldic terms, this is described as gules, three helmets argent, at the fess point an estoile; or to use the original French heraldic terms, de gueules à trois heaumes d’argent accompagnés d’une étoile d’or en abîme.
Despite this breakthrough, another mystery emerged: the specific coat of arms had yet to be identified with a particular family. That is, until François Avril, the preeminent former curator of manuscripts at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, located the crest in the vaulting of the chapel of the Hôtel Jacques Coeur in Bourges. Along with examples from document seals, Avril connected the crest in the manuscript with the Varie (or Varye) family.
Given that the gold star is a heraldic device to denote younger members of a family, Avril was even able to pinpoint Simon de Varie, younger brother of Guillaume de Varie—whose arms appear in the chapel of the Hôtel Jacques Coeur—as the patron. Avril confirmed the theory by noting that the motto used in the manuscript VIE A MON DESIR (life according to my desire) is an anagram of SIMON DE VARIE.
All of these combined efforts truly represent an art historical success story.
…And A Mystery to Conquer
Let’s turn our attention to another manuscript mystery—one that has yet to be solved.
On this manuscript page, a handsome knight with long hair and shiny armor kneels in perpetual prayer and veneration before Saint Anthony Abbot of Egypt, whose life and posthumous miracles are recounted and wondrously visualized in the manuscript.
The patron’s enigmatic coat of arms features on several decorated pages of the rather short book, either emblazoned on a shield topped by a helmet and held by an angel (whose wings mirror the fleurdelisé pattern on the escutcheon) or held by a lion as a banner or standard. In heraldic language, the arms can be described as follows: Sable Quarterly I and IV fleur-de-lis Or, II and III fretty Argent. These devices declare the early owner’s identity and yet have simultaneously resisted decipherment, befuddling scholars.
The knight’s motto, however, can be easily read: Du bien d’elle, a French phrase that may be translated as “Of her goodness,” perhaps referring to a bond or vow taken for a lady by a knight devoted to a chivalric order dedicated to Saint Anthony. Additionally, a puzzling phrase was penned, presumably in a 15th-century script, on the last page (folio 56v) of the manuscript: Vinc (Vive) le curé de Vincent à sont desir // P Martin [monogram] GMartin. The same hand likely also wrote Girin Martin Prothon(otaire) (?) seen at the end of the post.
What are we to make of these marks and beguiling inscriptions? We welcome your insights and suggestions!
The Hours of Simon de Varie, James H. Marrow, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1994. Pages 3–11 cover the rediscovery of the volume now in the Getty collection and the identification of its original patron.
Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe, Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003. Pages 213–215 discuss the manuscript and provide additional bibliography.