It was a single leaf from an unknown manuscript, by an unknown artist, and depicting an unknown subject. It wasn’t even finished—large parts of the illumination existed only as an underdrawing that would have eventually been painted over. And I was seeing it for the first time in person in a sale that would start in three hours. It was the summer of 2014 in Paris, and among almost three hundred objects ranging from spoon sets to miniature animal sculptures, there was this one lot that was quite different. But despite all unknowns, the leaf was clearly a masterpiece of early fifteenth-century French illumination.
Although I had studied the piece online before the sale and in the brochure sent by the auction house, seeing the leaf firsthand made immediately clear to me that the photographs didn’t do it justice. The colors were more vibrant, the drawn lines more vigorous, the piece more imposing than I had been prepared for. I knew I was on a tight deadline for making a final decision about whether the Getty should bid, but it probably only took me about a minute to confirm my previous conclusion that the leaf’s acquisition would be important for our collection. Luckily, after we anxiously waited through the sale of 231 other lots, the leaf was ours.
In the year since the acquisition, we have discovered much about the leaf, although part of its intrigue continues to rest in the large number of unanswered questions that still shroud it in mystery. It is evident that it is from an otherwise lost manuscript that may have never been completed. It was intended to form part of a book of hours, a type of private devotional book that was the most popular kind of illuminated manuscript produced in fifteenth-century France. The dynamic impact of the piece is heightened by the fact that it remains unfinished. Its drawing technique varies across the page, with forceful heavy lines defining the figures in the main space and indicating the active work of the artist in determining his final composition.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the leaf is the artist’s activation of almost every corner of the page to tell the story. My colleague Roger Wieck at the Morgan Library in New York convincingly suggested that the leaf depicts a somewhat unusual subject. According to Christian legend, Joachim and Anna had approached the Temple with an animal sacrifice on one of the Jewish high holy days, but had been turned away based on their childless, and therefore unfavored, state in the eyes of God. Later they were chosen by God to become the parents of the Virgin Mary. No less than 19 individuals can be found along the bottom and sides of the page as well as in the main space above. A constant sense of movement and disruption are the scene’s guiding principles. Adding to the sense of confusion are the more than a dozen animals, including numerous lambs and goats, dogs, a collared deer, and even a large bird (for those of you who love Where’s Waldo, this leaf is perfect for you). The animals literally litter the image with their presence.
The verso of the leaf features pen drawings in delicate, sure strokes of a light brownish/yellow ink quite at odds with the powerful drawings in a dark ink on the recto, which show evidence of the artist reworking and refining the composition. It is difficult to tell whether the different medium and delicate beauty that characterizes the drawings on the verso indicate the contribution of a different artist or simply the same artist working in a different way.
It is clear that the leaf was part of an important commission, and elements of the composition, the format of the leaf, as well as specific aspects of its decoration, all indicate that it was closely related in style and conception to the Rohan Hours, one of the most ambitious and famed books of hours ever created. (Basic information can be found on Wikipedia; for scholarly discussion of the artists in this group, see this article.)
In addition to admiring the quality of its execution, the leaf can also tell viewers much about the process of making a manuscript. The text of any manuscript was usually written out first, with the scribe leaving spaces for the illuminations in a pre-decided plan. Also, gold leaf was always the first part of the illumination to be completed, which explains why all the framing elements and gold decorations are finished. Then, the illuminator would begin to apply the lighter colors first, which can be seen in the whites and delicate pinks visible in the illumination. Eventually, the artist would have layered in the darker colors and completed the finishing details.
Previously unknown and unpublished, the Getty leaf represents an important discovery in French early-fifteenth-century illumination. It provides a glimpse of the artist at work, making initial decisions about placement, movement, and expression that would have been concealed in the finished miniature. The leaf presents innumerable exciting avenues for future research: the identity of the book, its patron, and its artist; and the role of underdrawing and the application of paint layers in the period.
If you want to delve into some of these mysteries yourself, you can study images of the leaf in great detail on the Getty’s website. Let me know what you find!