fig. 1 
Aspremont Hours

The illuminated manuscript known as the Aspremont Hours which was purchased at Christie’s in 1922 for the National Gallery of Victoria warrants attention on several counts.1MS. Felton 2 vellum, 215 x 150 mm, ff. 139. For bibliography see K. V. Sinclair, Descriptive Catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance Western Manuscripts in Australia, Sydney, 1969, 315-16; E. G. Millar, ‘Livre d’heures executé pour Joffroy d’Aspremont et pour sa femme Isabelle de Kievraing’, Bulletin de la Société francaise de reproductions de manuscrits à peintures IX (1925), 20–32, pis 1– VII. Probably written and illustrated in north-east France in the last decade of the 13th century, it is not strictly speaking a book of hours. Its 139 folios contain the Offices for five feasts in honour of the Virgin, namely Christmas, the Purification, the Annunciation, the Assumption and the Nativity of the Virgin, while the pages of the psalter which originally prefaced this selection from the breviary are now separately bound as MS Douce 118 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.2See O. Pächt and J. J. G. Alexander, Illuminated Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library Oxford, I, German, Dutch, Flemish, French and Spanish Schools, 43, pl. XLII. 

Thus the text is unusual, betraying the specialised interests of a patron and region at a time when the psalter had not yet been replaced by the book of hours as the regular prayer book of the laity.3Leroquais lists very few examples of such combined texts in the public libraries of France. See Abbé V. Leroquais, Les breviaires manuscrits des bibliothèques publiques de France, Paris, 1939, vol. V. I, CXXVII; Les psautiers manuscrits latins des bibliothèques publiques de France. Macon-Protat, 1940–1, vol. V. I, LXII. Indeed the individual character of the book and the presence of its owner or owners is marked throughout. In both portions two coats-of-arms appear repeatedly – in portraits of a knight and lady, on decorative shields, in line-endings, and as part of the lively marginalia. These arms belong to the families of Aspremont and Kievraing, and there is little doubt that the knight and lady referred to are Joffroy d’Aspremont and his wife Isabelle de Kievraing.4These were identified by E. Millar (typescript description of the Melbourne manuscript. National Gallery of Victoria). The knight’s arms are gu. a cross arg. and the lady’s or a chief bendy of six arg. and gu. A later owner has painted over most of the arms in this section, but they can still be discerned through the added red pigment and gold arabesques. Joffroy is recorded as taking part in the Tournoi de Chauvency in 1285. In his account of the tournament held between the nobles of neighbouring French and Flemish duchies, the contemporary poet Jacques Bretel describes in some detail the vigorous part played by Joffroy in the jousts which preceded the tournament and in the engagement itself. We learn that his young wife Isabelle was also present together with his sister Mahaut and her sister-in-law Agnes.5See J. Bretel, Le Tournoi de Chauvency, ed. M. Delbouille, Liége, 1932. Joffroy succeeded to the title of Aspremont sometime between 1278 and 1282, and is said to have met his death at the battle of Courtrai in 1302.6C. Butkens, Annales généalogiques de la Maison de Lynden, 1626, 27. These facts together with the stylistic evidence indicate a date for the Aspremont Psalter-Hours in the last decade of the 13th century. 

Both portions of the book are copiously illustrated, historiated initials and finely wrought ivy tendril borders being interspersed with an abundance of marginal grotesques, drolleries and genre scenes. The illuminated initials, especially those which introduce sections of the Offices or the psalter are often executed with great skill (fig. 1). Rich blues and pinkish-reds are offset with gold and white. Elaborately diapered backgrounds, ornate and sometimes quite realistically detailed architecture and furniture provide a sumptuous setting for figures graced in elegant curving drapery, who harmonise with the lines of encircling initials and border sprigs. Gestures and expressions are lively and alert clearly indicating the narrative substance; features are delineated in clear black outlines against the rather flatly modelled white of neck and face; the figures are elongated and gestures accentuated by long pointing fingers. There is little difficulty in locating this style generally within the manuscript illumination of northern Gothic France and Flanders in the late 13th century; but the quality of many of the miniatures, together with the particularly rich programme of marginal illustration, tempt one to pursue further this precise combination of delicacy and expressiveness. To date, the Oxford and Melbourne books have not been identified with any known atelier or corpus of manuscripts, yet the artist who proudly proclaims his identity on fol. 142 of the psalter in an inscription attached to one of the marginal figures, ‘Nicolaus me fecit qui illuminat librum’ reveals a degree of sophistication and experience which suggests that he must have already had several commissions to his credit. 

The calendar and litany of the saints from the psalter section indicate that the manuscript was probably designed for use in the diocese of Metz, where it may also have been produced, or else slightly further north. This would accord with the residence of the Aspremont-Kievraing families in Namur and the Lorraine. In these few pages I wish to discuss some features of the Melbourne portion of this manuscript which characterise the work of Nicolaus, in particular his interpretation of the role of the patrons in relation to the book, and the nature of the interaction between the text and its decorative elements. 

Basically the programme for the historiated initials of the Melbourne book is extremely simple. It consists principally of scenes from the Infancy of Christ or the life of the Virgin, some of which are repeated several times. Both text and illumination are unevenly executed, in that some sections show the effects of haste but not necessarily a different hand. While the Office for the feast of the Purification, for example, is written carefully and in full, quite drastic abbreviations are made in those which follow, and the script varies considerably in size and regularity. There are also some errors which have been corrected, one of several indications that the book was seriously used. 

Comparison of some of the historiated initials of the same subject reveals a similar unevenness of execution. Compare, for example, the Nativity scenes from ff. 11 and 64 (figs 2 and 3). The same model is clearly shared by both, yet in fig. 3 it has been simplified and there is a coarseness in the line, sharper contrasts in light and dark, accentuations of curves and a reduction of ornamental detail, all of which attest to a certain haste and lack of precision not present in fig. 2.7For other comparisons see the Annunciation ff. 5v and 57; the Annunciation to the Shepherds ff. 29 and 65; the Adoration of the Magi ff. 31 and 68; the Presentation in the Temple ff. 32v and 41v. Yet it is not clear that two different hands are involved. This is even more the case when one compares the illustration in the borders with that of the historiated initials. Although there is far less decorative elaboration in the margins, where skilful, often ingenious linking of the small figures with the border tendrils replaces the architectural settings and diapered backdrops of the miniatures, nevertheless stylistic details of drapery, features, gestures, etc. are common throughout. 

 

Side by side with illustrations from the Infancy Cycle and the life of the Virgin a large number of the historiated initials are devoted to representations of a praying knight or lady, or to the Virgin and Christ-Child as objects of the patrons’ devotions. The coats-of-arms clearly point up the Aspremont-Kievraing connection. Joffroy appears nearly always attired as a knight, sometimes astride his caparisoned horse but still in supplication. The portraits of a lady at her devotions vary. Occasionally two women appear as in the small square panel to the right of the Marriage of the Virgin in fig. 10.8A lady with the Aspremont arms appears eight times throughout the Melbourne manuscript. Perhaps she is the sister-in-law mentioned as being present at the tournament. There are also three representations of a knight with the Kievraing arms. See Millar, typescript, 3. It is these depictions of the patrons at their prayer which provide the unifying element to the copiously illustrated pages. 

In the borders of the manuscript the wealth of a culture confronts us. Scarcely a page does not contain a rich array of marginalia whose subjects include popular proverbs, fables, satirical comments, fantastic grotesques and hybrids, while interspersed with all this drollery we meet at almost every turn Joffroy and the ladies of his household. Frequently, as in the larger illustrations, they are depicted at prayer – attendant on the scene being enacted in the historiated initial or busy reading the Office (fig. 1). Sometimes Joffroy is engaged in jousting with a rival. Indeed, the prayer book recaptures very much the same spirit as Jacques Bretel’s account of the Tournoi de Chauvency. In the poem the knights are shown delighting in the jousting and in the fray of the tournament. Each is described meticulously with his respective coat-of-arms, while the ladles fulfil the important functions of lauding their knight’s bravery in song, of providing an appreciative audience and of communicating to the reader their reactions to feats of valour. A background to the chivalrous rivalry is provided by the feasting and light-hearted games in the evening and the celebration of Mass each morning before the day’s events. 

A like mixture of interests appears in the Aspremont prayer book with a different emphasis. Here the women’s presence is slightly more to the fore, perhaps because they may have been responsible for organising the communal prayer of the household, prayer in which vocal recitation of psalms, hymns, etc. was combined with the contemplation of a mystery or event from Christ’s life such as we see depicted in the illuminated initials. Into this context the patrons themselves are unblushingly insinuated. It can be argued, though St Bernard may not have agreed, that it was no distraction to the Aspremont-Kievraing household to see representations of themselves at regular intervals in their prayer book. In a sense it reinforced their comprehensive world view in which prayer, jousting, and the rich exuberant discursiveness of the marginalia were all related.

Recent studies have helped to identity and systematise the wide range of subject matter in Gothic marginalia of the 13th and 14th centuries;9See especially, H. W. Janson, Apes and Ape Lore in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, London, 1932; D. W. Robertson, Jr., A Preface to Chaucer, Studies in Medieval Perspectives, Princeton, 1963; L. M. C. Randall, Images In the Margins of Gothic Manuscripts, Berkeley, 1966. but this decoration needs to be seen also within the context of a particular commission to appreciate its basic vitality. Even a brief look at the Melbourne portion of the Aspremont manuscript makes the enlivening nature of the marginal commentary abundantly clear.

Praying or jousting patrons apart, Nicolaus alludes to the text or its function in a variety of ways. The bearded Simeon appears under the Nunc Dimittis with the inscription ‘Ecce video Deum meum’ (fig. 4) and a prophet below the extract from Isaiah on fol. 65v echoes the words of the text ‘Ecce Virgo concipiet’. Under the homily on St Luke’s Gospel (fig. 5) the evangelist sits writing his Gospel. He is accompanied both by his symbol, the ox, and by a lady wearing the Aspremont arms. Again, beneath the psalm De Profundis, traditionally associated with supplication for the dead (fig. 7), two shrouded figures rise from their tombs with hands outstretched towards the representation of the Lord in the heavens. Under the exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity on fol. 103 a bishop displays the phrase ‘Ecce psalmum Trinitatis’.

On ff. 23v and 24 (fig. 12) the marginal figures, which at first sight seem discrete and unconnected, pick up the textual allusion and relate to one another in dynamic fashion across the double page. The image of the enthroned Christ, being hailed as Lord by a monk from a nearby niche, expresses the messianic theme of psalm 97, ‘Let the rivers clap their hands and the mountain exult in the sight of the Lord because he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the earth with justice and the peoples with equity’. In the upper left-hand margin a musician perched in the fork of the ivy leaf border catches the spirit of the earlier verses ‘Rejoice in the Lord all the earth, sing and exult and make music. Make music on the lyre …’ while below, the knight setting out for the hunt accompanied by his falcon, and the birds singing in the trees close by, comment on the extent of God’s saving power, ‘All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God’. This hunting scene with all the flavour of the here and now is nicely juxtaposed against the image of Christ as Judge, and even the way in which the letter’s throne is balanced on an ivy branch which is also a prolongation of the hybrid dragon being subdued on the left, sets up echoes with the depiction of the victorious Messiah who tramples on the ‘lion and the adder, on savage lions and dragons’. 

The mood of such associations varies from sobriety to outright parody. Thus the patrons who appear so frequently in the company of the blessed are also contrasted with wilful hybrid dragons or tame, attentive rabbits. The knightly exploits of Sir Joffroy are counterbalanced on fol. 1v (fig. 6) by a chivalrous figure mounted on a dog and curled up in a snail’s shell, the symbol of cowardice.10See L. M. C. Randall, ‘The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare’, Speculum, 1962, 358–67. Perhaps there is also some link with the theme of psalm 112 in which the Lord ‘raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the dung hill’. Again, on fol. 12 (fig. 11) the knight is replaced by an ape astride a dog who tilts with a spindle at a snail. Here, too, echoes are set up with the accompanying text, a reading from Isaiah ch. 40 where the prophet laments the futility of human endeavour. ‘All flesh is grass and its beauty like the wild flowers. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows on them. [The grass is without doubt the people.] The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God remains for ever.’ This reading is prefaced on the same page by the Gloria, and the figure that shoots up from the top of the left hand border captures the exultant spirit of the hymn. He holds a bell in his right hand – traditionally associated with the joyful notes of the Gloria – in the other he grasps a rod with which he has successfully hooked one of the three fish in the adjacent stream, the fish in its turn being a symbol of Christ whose incarnation the hymn celebrates within the Office for Christmas. 

The ape, so popular in Gothic marginalia, is often used to mimic or parody the pursuits of the learned professions or the upper social classes.11See Janson, op. cit., 165–71. In this guise he appears on fol. 12v (fig. 9) as a schoolmaster teaching a young woman to read. The comment on the text is tenuous enough consisting in the allusion to the breviary lesson above. It is matched by a more specific but equally humorous reference to Isaiah, from whom the reading is taken, in the grotesque of a bearded prophet with peaked hat who grasps the neck of a stork at the top of the page (fig. 8). 

The chained ape usually appears in this period with his trainer, ready to perform some trick,12ibid., 145–9. but on fol. 7 (fig. 10) he crouches before a lion. Whereas the fettered ape signified debased man in need of redemption, the lion was recognised by the compilers of mediaeval Bestiaries as a symbol of Christ, the lion of the tribe of Judah. One of the animal’s fabled characteristics was that he magnanimously spared the prostrate, so that the confrontation here plays on the theme of salvation, appropriate to the text of Matins for Christmas below.13See T. H. White, The Bestiary, A Book of Beasts, New York 1960, 8–9.

The little drama enacted on fol. 123 (fig. 13) has more genre interest. The sketch-book of the itinerant artist and architect Villard de Honnecourt (c.1225–50) contains the following entry: ‘I want to describe how a lion is trained. The lion’s trainer has two dogs. Whenever he wishes the lion to obey his command and the lion growls, he beats his dogs. This puzzles the lion so much that, when he sees the dogs beaten, his own spirits are dampened, and he does what is ordered.’14The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, ed. T. Bowie, London, 1959, 72, pl. 31. Nicolaus shares only the literary source with Villard. The latter’s sketch depicts the owner with two dogs and is quite distinct from the Melbourne version. Another rendering appears in Queen Mary’s Psalter where the trainer holds a small pup before the cowed lion.15Queen Mary’s Psalter, introd. G. F. Warner, London, 1912, pl. 206.

Perhaps the taming of the lion had some moral significance now lost. Its sturdy peasant quality is most striking in contrast to the emblazoned knights and ladies of many another page. To the same category belongs the proverb depicted on fol. 7v (fig. 14) where a man attended by a rabbit shoes a goose in a ‘travail’ or cage. ‘To shoe a goose’ was to meddle in another’s affairs or in matters beyond one’s ken.16See F. Bond, Wood Carvings in English Churches, I Misericords, Oxford, 1910, 185–6. The illustration appropriately accompanies the verses of psalm 2, ‘Why do the nations rage and the people meditate vain projects?’

The two wrestlers on fol. 47v (fig. 15) have little to do with the literal words of the text, but they may be contrasted with the censer-swinging angel on the opposite page. The wrestling image, drawn from popular pastimes, was sometimes used to express conflict in contrast to peace and harmony symbolised by music-making.17See Robertson, op cit., 129. Here earthly struggle is matched against heavenly glory.

On fol. 11 (fig. 18) a figure with a bird’s head kneels before a physician who holds up his trade emblem, a urinal. There seems to be some playful association with the text, since in the accompanying responsory angels rejoice that eternal salvation has appeared for mankind at the birth of Christ. The phrase ‘salus eterna’ carries both the connotation of salvation and well-being. Moreover, the parrot-like creature which kneels before the physician may not be pure parody. The Caladrius, often described as a type of parrot, was credited in the Bestiaries with diagnostic and healing properties. Christ too, is likened to the Caladrius, because he bears man’s infirmities and takes away their sins.18See White, op cit., 115–16.

The clergy and the religious are by no means exempt from humorous criticism, yet the spirit of the text is not derided. At the base of one of the readings for Matins (fol. 17v) a cleric quite properly vested, stands before a lectern flanked by candles. By contrast, his counterpart – who rings the bells adroitly handing from the ‘alleluias’ which terminate the antiphon on fol. 29 (fig. 20) – is accompanied by two hares, one solemnly carrying a processional cross, the other robed in religious garb and singing from the book before him. On fol. 118v (fig. 19) a bishop exhorts a snail, the latter here probably standing for sluggishness rather than cowardice as in the knightly parodies. Again, on fol. 57v (fig. 16) a nun kneels demurely at her predieu after the manner of the portraits of the ladies of Sir Joffroy’s household. Very different in mood is the delightful bird-play on fol. 13v (fig. 17). The grotesque prolongations of the borders sometimes are hybrids with clerical or religious characteristics. Here, too, the relevance to the text varies. On fol. 9 a heavily wimpled lady is armed with asperges and book.

She links quite nicely with the words of psalm 18 below ‘From my hidden sins cleanse me O Lord’. The group at the bottom of fol. 2 (fig. 21) is difficult to distinguish, but a devil seems to be presenting a garbed goat to a hooded figure playing a horn and attended by a rabbit. The illustration accompanies psalm 145. One must force neither the image nor the text, but there may well be some relationship between the scene of the lowly hornblower confronted by the wily couple on the right and the admonition of the psalm: ‘Do not put your trust in princes, in the sons of men in whom there is no salvation. He yields his breath and goes back to the earth he came from, and on that day all his schemes perish’. Later verses extol the Lord who is faithful to the poor and oppressed and who frustrates the schemes of the wicked. 

A large portion of the marginalia in the Melbourne manuscript is devoted to the popular imagery of the Bestiaries. The well-known Christian interpretation of some subjects makes them fit the tenor of almost any page of text. To this category belongs the pelican in her piety of which there are numerous instances in manuscripts of this period.19ff. 55 and 102v. See L. M. C. Randall, Images, 16. Another frequently recurring image is that of the goat reaching up on its hind legs towards the foliage of a tree (fig. 22). This accords with the Bestiary description of the wild goat remarkable for the fact ‘that he moves high and higher as he pastures; that he chooses good herbs from bad ones by the sharpness of his eyes; that he ruminates these herbs, and that, if wounded he runs to the plant Dittany, after reaching which he is cured’.20White, op cit., 42. The mediaeval moralisers likened this behaviour to good preachers who ‘feeding on the Law of God and on good works, as if delighting in this sort of pasture, rise up and up from one virtue to another’.21ibid., 43. Dittany, the herb-o’-grace, becomes a symbol for Christ who heals the wound of sin in the sacrament of Confession. A less frequent image, but also borrowed straight from the Bestiary repertoire is that of the beaver, a gentle animal whose testicles were believed to contain a valuable medicine. When pursued he castrated himself and flung the coveted testicles before the hunter, thus escaping with his life. His action was likened to that of the man striving to live chastely and who must therefore ‘cut off from himself all vices, all motions of lewdness, and must cast them from him in the devil’s face’.22ibid., 28–9. A representation of the beaver biting his testicles occurs on fol. 63v (fig. 3). It is counterbalanced by a hunting scene on the opposite page, although not directly part of it, and its symbolism is appropriate to the concluding section of Lauds for the Office of the Annunciation where the versicles commemorate the virginal conception of Christ. 

More familiar is the image of the hungry fox who simulates death by lying on his back with his tongue hanging out in order to attract birds of prey who are then devoured by him, an obvious allusion to the devil’s wiles and to hypocrisy which was used often in contemporary sermons.23See L. M. C. Randall, ‘Exempla as a Source of Gothic Marginal Illumination’, Art Bulletin, 1957, 103. The illustration in the Melbourne book, fol. 69v, is coupled with that of a warrior ape, perhaps another expression of the evil to be avoided by prayer. 

Side by side with such specific Bestiary representations scenes of the hunt occur repeatedly (fig. 3). Often these clearly express with joyful exuberance the glad tidings of the text and many of them appear on the more elaborately decorated pages which introduce a new hour of the Office. Men, animals or hybrids blowing horns perform a similar function of joyful proclamation, and the family of music-makers, both animal and human, characterise the text as a prayer primarily of praise and song. Into this framework fit the grotesques and hybrids who still defy more precise categorisation. Indeed, it is important after the detailed analysis of a few individual images and textual passages to review the book as a whole. The mediaeval readers were, no doubt, as exercised as we are, from time to time, with the vagaries of particular pages; but the prayers swept along, the historiated initials provided a visual sequence, and a few simple themes underpinned the whole work, namely praise and petition, devotion to the Infancy of Christ and to the Virgin. 

At a later period the subjects contained in the margins were to be developed more and more for their own sake; but in the Aspremont Psalter-Hours a balance is maintained between text and commentary, and it may well be that the hooded figure on fol. 111 (fig. 23) from whose lips issue the only French words in the marginal decoration ‘ie pri deu que merci mefasse’ is Nicolaus the chief illuminator, who is proud to announce himself as author of the work and who reads himself into the spirit of the text with which he must have lived for so long. 

Margaret Manion, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Fine Arts, University of Melbourne (in 1977).

Notes

1              MS. Felton 2 vellum, 215 x 150 mm, ff. 139. For bibliography see K. V. Sinclair, Descriptive Catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance Western Manuscripts in Australia, Sydney, 1969, 315-16; E. G. Millar, ‘Livre d’heures executé pour Joffroy d’Aspremont et pour sa femme Isabelle de Kievraing’, Bulletin de la Société francaise de reproductions de manuscrits à peintures IX (1925), 20–32, pis 1– VII. 

2              See O. Pächt and J. J. G. Alexander, Illuminated Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library Oxford, I, German, Dutch, Flemish, French and Spanish Schools, 43, pl. XLII. 

3              Leroquais lists very few examples of such combined texts in the public libraries of France. See Abbé V. Leroquais, Les breviaires manuscrits des bibliothèques publiques de France, Paris, 1939, vol. V. I, CXXVII; Les psautiers manuscrits latins des bibliothèques publiques de France. Macon-Protat, 1940–1, vol. V. I, LXII. 

4              These were identified by E. Millar (typescript description of the Melbourne manuscript. National Gallery of Victoria). The knight’s arms are gu. a cross arg. and the lady’s or a chief bendy of six arg. and gu. A later owner has painted over most of the arms in this section, but they can still be discerned through the added red pigment and gold arabesques. 

5              See J. Bretel, Le Tournoi de Chauvency, ed. M. Delbouille, Liége, 1932. 

6              C. Butkens, Annales généalogiques de la Maison de Lynden, 1626, 27. 

7              For other comparisons see the Annunciation ff. 5v and 57; the Annunciation to the Shepherds ff. 29 and 65; the Adoration of the Magi ff. 31 and 68; the Presentation in the Temple ff. 32v and 41v. 

8              A lady with the Aspremont arms appears eight times throughout the Melbourne manuscript. Perhaps she is the sister-in-law mentioned as being present at the tournament. There are also three representations of a knight with the Kievraing arms. See Millar, typescript, 3. 

9              See especially, H. W. Janson, Apes and Ape Lore in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, London, 1932; D. W. Robertson, Jr., A Preface to Chaucer, Studies in Medieval Perspectives, Princeton, 1963; L. M. C. Randall, Images In the Margins of Gothic Manuscripts, Berkeley, 1966.

10           See L. M. C. Randall, ‘The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare’, Speculum, 1962, 358–67.

11           See Janson, op. cit., 165–71. 

12           ibid., 145–9. 

13           See T. H. White, The Bestiary, A Book of Beasts, New York 1960, 8–9. 

14           The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, ed. T. Bowie, London, 1959, 72, pl. 31. 

15           Queen Mary’s Psalter, introd. G. F. Warner, London, 1912, pl. 206. 

16           See F. Bond, Wood Carvings in English Churches, I Misericords, Oxford, 1910, 185–6. 

17           See Robertson, op cit., 129. 

18           See White, op cit., 115–16. 

19           ff. 55 and 102v. See L. M. C. Randall, Images, 16. 

20           White, op cit., 42. 

21           ibid., 43. 

22           ibid., 28–9. 

23           See L. M. C. Randall, ‘Exempla as a Source of Gothic Marginal Illumination’, Art Bulletin, 1957, 103.