Book of Hours for Queen Claude of France

Master of Claude of France

Illuminated manuscript on vellum 8.4 x 5.5 cm (3.3 x 2.2 in.) Tours - circa 1520-1523

Book of Hours for Queen Claude of France. Illuminated manuscript on vellum with 27 full or half-page miniatures by the Master of Claude de France.

The Hours of Claude of France (1499-1524) is a unique gem of book art between Renaissance and Mannerism. It was bound with inserted protective paper leaves in the early nineteenth century, has now been rebound in a gold enamel and jewelled book cover made in Prague under the reign of Emperor Rudolph II. Sophisticated enamel medallions commemorate Christmas Night and Easter on the upper and lower cover and the Redemption in four compartments with the Arma Christi on the spine. The binding is a rare and precious example of goldsmith’s art flourishing first in Augsburg and Munich in the last quarter of the sixteenth century and triumphant at the Imperial court of Prague. It includes exquisite deep-cut enamels, a practice first developed by David Altenstetter (1547-1617) in Augsburg, before the goldsmith started to work in Prague at the court of Rudolph II. As far as we know, Altenstetter always used a silver ground for his enamelled works, so he cannot be identified with the creator of this binding. But others, like the ingenious Hans Vermeyen of Antwerp, also worked at the court of Rudolph II. Still, the creator of this precious gem set with fifty-six diamonds ultimately has to remain anonymous, since the work is unmarked, following a common practice adopted for courtly commissions. The only work appropriate for comparison is a golden binding without images but crafted in the same technique (Leuchtendes Mittelalter VI, no. 68), which was first made for Catholic use but was reworked by the same goldsmith in a horizontal format to fit a manuscript of the Twelve Meals of Jesus, with Bible excerpts from Luther’s translation. This modification was thus supposedly undertaken in Prague during the reign of the Winter King, Frederick of the Palatinate, in 1619/20; on the other hand, the binding, which now adorns the Hours of Claude of France, was surely made in the time of Rudolph II.

Measuring 84 by 55 millimetres, this personal Book of Hours of Queen Claude is one of those extremely miniaturised Books of Hours that had been favoured at the French court since the time of Charles VIII (died in 1498) and particularly during the time of Anne of Brittany. A prayer, which is repeated three times, intercedes for the souls of Claude’s parents, Queen Anne of Brittany (died in 1514) and King Louis XII (died in 1515). Only Queen Claude of France could have been the original owner of the manuscript, since the initial C, topped with a crown, appears on a leaf that originally showed a coat of arms with the fleur-de-lis (fol. 17/17v) that was erased by later owners.

Whereas all miniature pages are framed with architectural Renaissance borders, the text pages including the calendar are framed with an elaborate system of references to Claude of France: motifs, which the queen adopted from her mother’s devices (the Spanish motto non mudera and the Franciscan cord) and more emblems such as Claude’s own motto in Latin and Greek, emblems of prudence (armillary sphere) and justice (ostrich feathers), as well as probable allusions to her father (wings – ailes in French – stand for the letter L) and to her mother-in-law Louise of Savoy (unknotted cord). The coloured ground of the border, lavender, can be interpreted as a reference to the amethyst and could point to the imperial ambitions of the French royal house since Charles VIII that also governed the foreign policy of Louis XII and Claude’s spouse, François Ier. Although engravings of four calendar pages and the Assumpta of our manuscript, which was long thought to be of Italian origin, were published by Dibdin in 1817, it was not until 1975 that Charles Sterling published the Book of Hours, which was in the possession of the Rothschild family until 1968. Together with the even smaller fragment of a Book of Hours made for Claude of France known as her “prayer book” (M. 1166 at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York), it belongs to the core group of manuscripts that provide a basis for the identification of the Master of Claude of France.

The artist’s oeuvre was since 1975 augmented by further attributions such as a primer for Claude’s sister Renée in Modena. Apparently, the Master of Claude of France worked together with Giovanni Todeschino and Jean Bourdichon on the Book of Hours made for King Frederick III of Aragon (Latin 1053 in Paris) before 1503. He stayed in Bourdichon’s workshop as an illuminator specialised in border decorations of various kinds and adapted Italian models imported by Todeschino, as well as the botanically orientated floral borders created by Bourdichon before 1508. The Master of Claude of France seems to have painted his first miniatures only in the second decade of the sixteenth century. His brushwork and style contrast strongly with the style of Jean Bourdichon as well as with the style of Jean

Poyer, both active in Tours, and it seems all the more likely that he trained with the Master of the della Rovere Missals (Jacques Ravauld or Ravaux?). This master would have acquainted him with Italian novelties and with the tradition of Jean Fouquet in Tours. Sterling’s dating of our Book of Hours in the period before the coronation of Claude of France in 1517 influenced subsequent research, even if scholars have not always agreed with all of his arguments in detail. The fact that only pages with miniatures were available in reproduction distorted the evaluation of the manuscript: the distinct writing style and decoration of the Book of Hours allows a dating to the 1520s. This makes this unique manuscript the first prayer book in a minuscule format with larger line spacing that facilitated the readability of the small script considerably. In addition, the abstract concept of the borders reveals early Protestant tendencies at the French court, as Myra Orth has observed.

Only the dating as late as the 1520s does justice to the character of the splendid calendar pictures and the pictorial decoration, which is concentrated on the essentials. At the same time, the later dating of the manuscript would allow us to connect the Master of Claude of France with a certain Eloy Tassart, who has been recently discovered in documents from the court of the queen. He was active as the court illuminator of Claude of France in 1521 and 1523. This new finding indicates a dating of our Book of Hours to the final years of the short life of Queen Claude, who already died in July 1524.

The intellectual severity of the manuscript represents a crucial moment in the history of the prayer book: still fundamentally rooted in the late medieval tradition of Books of Hours, the manuscript made for Claude of France dismisses important elements, such as the prayers to the Virgin and the cult of saints, as well as the triumphant propensity for images, which still rules the decoration of the New York prayer book. Both the scribe and the illuminator processed different impulses from Italy, among them the ostrich feathers as a personal device of the magnificent Lorenzo

de’ Medici. Our manuscript is the very point of departure for the definition of the Master of Claude of France, who might be identified with Eloy Tassart. In its new golden binding made in the imperial Prague of Rudolph II, this treasure, which combines magnificent enamel work and diamonds with ravishing book art in script, decoration and miniatures of the monthly occupations as well as the most important events of the New Testament, represents two outstanding apogees from the late phase of the handwritten book. It embodies the French Renaissance, which adopted the greatest achievements of Flemish and Italian art as its own, and is triumphantly linked to the imperial splendour on the eve of the Thirty Year’s.

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Heribert Tenschert - Antiquariat Bibermühle

"Books, Maps and Manuscripts"

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