Folio from a Choral Book: The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, ca. 1430
Ink, tempera, and gold leaf on parchment
13 1/32 x 8 3/4 in. (33.1 x 22.3 cm)
Gift of Robert Lehman, 1943
Excised from a luxurious book of liturgical chants, this folio includes text and image related to the celebration of the feast of Saint Lawrence. The miniature of the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, enclosed within a large, ornamental initial "D," is an excellent example of the International Gothic style of painting popular in northern Italian courts during the first half of the fifteenth century.
Although the original folio has been cut down considerably, the illuminated initial and much of the text are clearly legible.1 One line of the musical staff has been painted red, denoting it as the F line. Painted foliage emanates from the initial, symmetrically aligned above and below the picture, but with alternating coloration. Gold rosettes dot the left margin of the page, while the frame is decorated with finely burnished gold leaf. This manuscript was clearly created both as an object for liturgical use and as an object to be revered for its aesthetic qualities.
The miniature depicts the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, an early Christian saint who was executed by pagan soldiers in Rome. An emaciated Lawrence, seen here with his head shaved in the cleric's tonsure, has been stripped naked and thrown upon a grill to be burned alive. Two executioners poke and prod their victim as he presses his hands together in prayer, and flames lick up around his body. Set against a decorative blue ground, the scene is flattened and compressed. Lawrence's body, the grill, and the logs in the fire are depicted as if seen from above, while the two soldiers are depicted from the side. The painter has sacrificed the illusion of naturalism in order to emphasize the emotional content of this grisly scene.
Like most miniatures adorning fifteenth-century Italian liturgical books, the Oberlin miniature is traditional in its iconography. Perhaps the only unusual addition is the head of God the Father, who witnesses the martyrdom from the top of the initial "D," surrounded by radiant light. This element not only reminds readers of God's authority as the initiator of Lawrence's martyrdom, but also emphasizes the serenity and peace granted the saint during his otherwise painful death. While not unusual within the context of Italian painting overall, the inclusion of God the Father in the representation of Lawrence's martyrdom is surprising. Indeed, this element may possibly derive from Northern European miniature paintings, such as the Limbourg Brothers' image of the Annunciation in the Tr?s Riches Heures, painted for Jean, Duc de Berry sometime between 1410 and 1416. Given the economic and political links between the French court and northern Italian cities, such artistic connections would not have been unusual.
The liturgical text of the Oberlin folio indicates that the manuscript was probably produced in Milan. The neumes (or notes) and Latin phrases from Psalm 111:9 that appear alongside the miniature were those recited on August 9th, the eve of Saint Lawrence's Day, during First Vespers.2 Jeffrey Hamburger has noted that the text here follows the Ambrosian Rite, which is unique to Milan and its environs.3
Formal qualities also link the work to Milan and date it to the early fifteenth century. Anna Melograni (1994) convincingly attributed the miniature of the Oberlin folio to the painter identified by Toesca (1912) as the "Maestro delle vitae Imperatorum," so-named for a series of miniatures executed in Pavia, the home of the Milanese court, around 1431.4 Toesca connected the Maestro with two illuminations from a book currently in Paris, one of which represents Elagabalus and his wives.5 The lean, elegant figures with their attenuated limbs, and the specific decorative patterns in the Oberlin folio are similar to these works.6
The use of the Oberlin leaf and the volume from which it was excised remains uncertain. The folio's design suggests that it may have been part of an antiphonary, used at specific times of the day by a divided choir who would surround the book and sing versicles and responsories to each other as indicated by the text. The small size of the miniature suggests that this book may not have been intended to be seen by a large group of people. Instead, the manuscript may have been used by the celebrant, or priest, reading it from close range.7 The rubric "Mane ad Missam" (Early Morning at Mass)8 implies this text would have been read during the celebration of mass, thus indicating that the manuscript may well have been a gradual.
G. R. Bent III
Collection Robert Lehman, New York, by whom given in 1943
Oberlin, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin Colelge,1995. Books of Revelation: Medieval Manuscripts from Oberlin College Collections. 31 January - 9 April. Cat. no. 9.
Hoenigswald, Ann. "The Treatment and Analysis of Materials and Techniques of Four Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts." Master's thesis, Oberlin College, 1977, pp. 11-13, 79-80, 85-86.
Melograni, Anna. "Miniature inedite del Quattrocento lombardo nelle collezione americane." Storia dell'Arte (1994), pp. 287 and 294.
Hamburger, Jeffrey, F. Books of Revelation: Medieval Manuscripts from Oberlin College Collections. Exh. cat., Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, 1995, p. 12, cat. no. 9.
The recto of the medium- to heavyweight parchment has a relatively smooth, polished surface and is light in tone; the verso has a very pronounced hair pattern. The folio has been cut to about one-sixth its original size, although the miniature itself has not been disturbed. The media is brown ink (iron gall?), red ink, tempera, and gold leaf applied with a bole mordant. The colors are particularly luminous and show little abrasion.9 Numerous reworked areas reveal where the artist/scribe scraped into the skin to remove media. Losses in the media, especially the gold leaf/bole layers, are now stable.
1. The folio has been cut in half horizontally, and has been reduced by about a third along the left and right margins. See Technical Data.
2. The verse from Psalm 111:9 is "DISPERSIT DE[dit pauperi]BUS IUSTITIA E[ius manet in se]CULUM SE[culi]" [Lavishly He has given to the poor; His justice endures forever].
3. Jeffrey F. Hamburger, Books of Revelation: Medieval Manuscripts from Oberlin College Collections (Exh. cat., Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, 1995), p. 12.
4. Anna Melograni, "Miniature inedite del quattrocento lombardo nelle collezioni americane," Storia dell'Arte (1994), pp. 287 and 294; Pietro Toesca, La Pittura e la miniatura nella Lombardia (Milan, 1912), pp. 528-29.
5. The book is located at the Biblioth?que Nationale, Paris (ms. it. 131). See Pietro Toesca, La Pittura e la miniatura nella Lombardia (Milan, 1912), pp. 528-29, figs. 428-29. Elagabalus was Roman emperor from A.D. 218-222.
6. The style of the Oberlin miniature is also closely linked to that of Giovannino de' Grassi and Michelino da Besozzo, and their followers during the 1420s. Giovannino's best-known works are in the Visconti Hours (Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence), where scores of autograph miniatures decorate an elaborately designed book of private prayers (see especially the Visitation on fol. 60v and David Singing the Psalms on fol. 76v); see Millard Meiss and Edith Kirsch, The Visconti Hours (New York, 1972). Michelino's best picture is probably The Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine (Pinacoteca Communale, Siena); see Pietro Toesca, La Pittura e la miniatura nella Lombardia (Milan, 1912), pp. 435-46, pl. 23.
7. Psalm 111:9 was the first phrase said during vespers on August 9th, suggesting that the book was a gradual that contained only introductory passages for various feast days. If so, the manuscript would have been an "Introit" book, or a "Sanctorale Sanctorum," used by the priest to introduce his listeners to the ensuing ceremony.
9. The pigments include lead white, calcium carbonate white, iron oxide yellow, azurite (in blue and green pigments), and flakes of green lake and carbon black. The gold is laid on a bole containing gypsum, calcium carbonate, azurite, and vermilion. From Ann Hoenigswald, "The Treatment and Analysis of Materials and Techniques of Four Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts" (master's thesis, Oberlin College, 1977), pp. 11-12.