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Manuscript

  • Place of origin:

    Netherlands (illuminated)

  • Date:

    1300-1320 (illuminated)

  • Artist/Maker:

    unknown (production)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Water-based pigment, gold-leaf and ink on parchment

  • Museum number:

    9005A

  • Gallery location:

    Prints & Drawings Study Room, level E, case I, shelf 67

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This initial A is for the introit for the first Sunday in Advent, which was the most elaborate and had the incipit 'Ad te levavi'. Medieval books had no contents page or index and so there was usually a hierarchy of initials marking important divisions in the text or music. The most important initials might be historiated with a figurative picture (istoire being the term for a story), or decorated. Introits, which were the first sung elements of the Mass, were often introduced by historiated initials in choir books.

At this time such initials had antennae that reached into the margins, on which humorous or fantasy creatures played. They often featured elongated dragons, or grotesque heads grasping the initials between their teeth. Hybrid creatures, made up of two different animals or with animal bodies and human faces, were also common.

Physical description

Cut-out initial A illuminated in water-based pigment on parchment with a gold-leaf background with cusped outline. This historiated initial shows tonsured priest with a white habit kneeling before an altar. His hands are raised in prayer as he performs the Elevation of the Host, and offers his soul up to God. God the Father blesses from clouds above. The left bar of the initial A is formed from a dragon, it's neck is elongated and stretches along the top, so that the dragon's head comes out at the top right corner of the initial. The right bar of the initial is a column with a red, blue and gold chequered pattern and the cross bar is red with blue outline and white decoration. The initial is set against a gold, blue and white chequered background below the cross bar and foliage with acorns above. A dog stands in the top margin and there is further decoration of grotesque heads, flowers and foliage in red, white, blue and green.

This initial comes from a Gradual and starts the introit for the first Sunday in Advent, incipit 'Ad te levavi'.

On the reverse is music on four line stave and text in gothic script, quadrata (textualis), with decorated inital A?, height of stave and text together, in ink with red line.

Place of Origin

Netherlands (illuminated)

Date

1300-1320 (illuminated)

Artist/maker

unknown (production)

Materials and Techniques

Water-based pigment, gold-leaf and ink on parchment

Marks and inscriptions

... dii et fe mitas ... /
... me .v. Aften te ... (?)
[mirror-written ms inscription]
No 13

Dimensions

Height: 182 mm maximum, Width: 135 mm maximum

Object history note

Part of a collection of manuscript cuttings bought from Weale, 1883.

Historical significance: Medieval books had no contents page or index and so there was usually a hierarchy of initials marking important divisions in the text or music. These were at this time added by specialist illuminators and rubricators, in spaces left blank by the scribe. The more important initials might be historiated with a figurative picture (istoire being the term for a story), or decorated, while the lesser initials might be made of coloured letters on coloured or gold grounds or even simply a letter slightly larger than the main body of text and picked out in a contrasting colour such as red or blue.

Introits, which were the first sung elements of the Mass were often introduced by historiated initials in choir books. This initial A is for the introit for the first Sunday in Advent, which was the most elaborate and had the incipit 'Ad te levavi'.

This period of art is known as Gothic and began in the later twelfth century and ended sometime between ca. 1300 and the early sixteenth century, depending on the region. Underlying characteristics of Gothic art include a love of the grotesque, such as hybrid or distorted animals, which featured in marginal illuminations, and a decorative approach to initials, frames and backgrounds, with greater use of gilding. The diaper pattern often featured in Gothic decoration and the dragon was a decorative device used throughout Europe.

At this time such initials had antennae that reached into the margins, on which humorous or fantasy creatures played. They often featured elongated dragons, or grotesque heads grasping the initials between their teeth. Hybrid creatures made up of two different animals or with animal bodies and human faces were also common.

Some of the above was taken from Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms by Michelle P. Brown (London, 1995)

Historical context note

Music was incorporated into the Christian Liturgy early on and had been influenced by the use of music in the synagogue. Plainchant (unison singing, originally unaccompanied) was the traditional music of the western Church and from about 1000, vocal polyphony (music with two or more melodically independent parts) was being practiced. Polyphony made certain chants of the Mass longer and more complex.

Liturgical manuscripts with musical components were either used in the celebration of the Mass or the Divine Office, the basis of Christian Liturgy. The Mass centres on the Eucharist and was attended daily by those in religious orders, the clergy and, with varying frequency, by members of the laity. The Gradual was the response and versicle to the Epistle reading that constitutes one part of the Mass, though the term is more commonly used to refer to the principal choir book used in the Mass. The name derives from the practice of singing the gradual on the steps of the raised pulpit. The choir book was arranged according to the liturgical year (Temporale- services for feast days and saints days around the Christmas period, Sanctorale or Proper of Saints- services for saints days, and Common of Saints- formulae for saints not given individual services within the Sanctoral or Temporale). In addition to the graduals, the choir book contains introits, which were the first sung elements of the Mass and were often introduced by historiated initials. The introit for the first Sunday in Advent was the most elaborate and had the incipit 'Ad te levavi' (I lift up my soul to you, my God).

The above is adapted from Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms by Michelle P. Brown (London, 1995)

Data taken from notes compiled by Rowan Watson. The full text of the entry is as follows:

'44.3
9005 A (MS 190)
GRADUAL
Cut-out historiated initial A (tonsured priest in white habit kneeling before altar, hands raised in prayer bearing Christ Child with Halo, God the Father above blessing), grotesque dog in margin

Inc: [Ad te levavi]

Netherlands. 1300 - 1325

Bought from Weale, 1883, 2s.
Pub: 1923 cat, 20'

Descriptive line

Cutting from a Gradual, Initial A to an Introit for the first Sunday in Advent, 'Ad te levavi'; Netherlands, early 14th century.

Materials

Gold leaf; Pigment; Parchment

Techniques

Illumination

Subjects depicted

Foliage; Dog; Diaper; Dragon; God; Grotesque; Altar; Acorns; Priest; Chalice; Candlestick; Soul

Categories

Religion; Christianity; Manuscripts; Ceremonial objects

Production Type

Unique

Collection code

PDP

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Qr_O122517
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