THE MAGIC AND THE MASTERPIECE OF
THE GRIMANI BREVIARY
by Ross King
Editor’s Note: When we told our friend Ross King that we planned to publish
a facsimile of the art contained in The Grimani Breviary, he had just one
thing to say: “brilliant.” The author of the highly acclaimed books, Michelangelo
& the Pope’s Ceiling and Brunelleschi’s Dome, Ross was familiar
with the Breviary from his research - its beauty, its rarity, and the lofty
place this illuminated manuscript holds inside St. Mark’s in Venice. Naturally,
we were delighted when he said he would write the foreword to the Levenger Press
edition. Thanks to Ross, we learned much about the role that breviaries played in
changing the way people read, and of the special role that The Grimani Breviary
plays in the history of treasured books. Here are excerpts:
An illuminated manuscript
called for a whole team of craftsmen: the parchment maker, the gold-beater, the
pigment maker, the scribes and miniaturists.
In the Middle Ages and the
Renaissance, a book was truly a labor of love. Many books, especially illuminated
manuscripts, could be years in the making. An illuminated manuscript called for
the tremendous skills and painstaking labors of a whole team of craftsmen: the parchment
maker who turned calf pelts into sheets of vellum, the gold-beater who hammered
ducats into microscopically thin leaves of gold, the pigment maker who ground plants
and stones into beautiful colors, and finally the scribes and miniaturists who covered
the parchment with exquisite lettering and resplendent illustrations.
Private ownership of this
type of manuscript was obviously somewhat limited. But if you were prosperous enough,
chances are that you owned a Book of Hours, the most numerous and popular of all
manuscripts from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Intended for private worship
in the home, Books of Hours were collections of prayers to be recited at prescribed
times throughout the day, the eight canonical “hours” that ran from Matins
at daybreak to Compline at bedtime. Strictly speaking, only the clergy was
required to observe the hours, but many lay people, especially women, likewise made
it their custom to pray eight times a day.
The monthly calendar was
helpful for determining major feast days, which were usually inscribed in red ink - hence
our term “red-letter day.”
Besides performing their
private devotions, people also, of course, went to church. The celebration of the
Catholic Mass required another, similar prayer book, known as a breviary. This service
book had the same composition as a Book of Hours but contained even more prayers
and readings, giving the miniaturist a wider scope for illustration. Like a Book
of Hours, the breviary included a monthly calendar, which was helpful for determining
the dates of Easter and the major feast days. The calendars were illustrated with
scenes appropriate to the months, such as a marriage celebration in April or the
grape harvest in September. The feast days were usually inscribed in red ink - hence
our term “red-letter day.”
Some of the wealthiest and
most powerful rulers in Europe commissioned breviaries for themselves, including
King Philip IV of France and Queen Isabella of Castile. One of the masters who completed
the Isabella Breviary in the 1490s was the Flemish painter Gerard Horenbout. Around
the same time, Horenbout and his collaborators were working on another manuscript,
equally spectacular: the masterpiece known as the Grimani Breviary. It is not known
who commissioned it, although Pope Sixtus IV, who reigned from 1471 until 1484,
is sometimes mentioned as a candidate. The attribution is not far-fetched, considering
that Sixtus was not only a Franciscan scholar (the Breviary follows the Franciscan
Office, or daily prayers, of 1477) but also a great patron of the arts.
The Grimani Breviary
begins the calendar year with a nobleman enjoying a sumptuous dinner as his team
of servants hover helpfully. His expression is so lifelike and the details so exact
that the picture cannot be anything other than a portrait from life.
Perhaps the best clue about
the original patron of the Grimani Breviary comes at the beginning of the manuscript.
Miniaturists often inserted portraits of their patrons into Breviaries and Books
of Hours. The Grimani Breviary begins the calendar year with a nobleman enjoying
a sumptuous dinner as his team of servants hover helpfully. His expression is so
lifelike and the details so exact that the picture cannot be anything other than
a portrait from life.
Such scenes of everyday
life show how breviaries and Books of Hours could be appreciated on a secular as
well as a religious level. Their illustrations possessed, of course, an important
devotional function. Yet there was also a more whimsical side to manuscript illustration.
Illuminated manuscripts often included in their margins what were known as drôleries,
humorous and sometimes grotesque images seemingly at odds with the rest of the text.
One of the greatest pleasures of the Grimani Breviary is the wonderful range and
variety of this kind of decorative marginalia. These images display, like the wealth
of incredibly rich detail throughout the Breviary, an unmistakable delight in the
natural world and a joy in the artist’s ability to create.
The officials of the Basilica
of San Marco, who ultimately took possession of the Grimani Breviary on behalf of
the Republic of Venice, were in no doubt about its beauty and worth: “It is a thing
of inestimable value and its like is nowhere to be found.” Five hundred years after
its creation, it is still every bit as priceless.
© 2007 Ross King. Excerpted
from the foreword to the Levenger Press edition of The Grimani Breviary,
published in 2007.