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Historiated initial from a Cistercian Gradual

Manuscript Cutting
1st half 14th century (made)
Place Of Origin

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.


object details
Categories
Object Type
Materials and Techniques
Brief Description
Historiated initial A with priest raising his soul, Eastern Netherlands (Gelderland or Western Germany), 1st half of the 14th century.
Physical Description
Historiated initial A showing a tonsured priest with a white habit kneeling before an altar. His hands are raised in prayer as he offers his soul up to God (the soul is depicted as a small naked human figure). God the Father blesses from clouds above. The left bar of the initial A is formed from a dragon, its 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 would have started the introit for the first Sunday in Advent, beginning with the words 'Ad te levavi animam meam…’ ('To you O Lord I lift my soul...'), which is commonly illustrated with a soul being lifted to heaven.

Other side: music (staves of 4 red lines) and text in gothic script, with decorated initial A.
Dimensions
  • Maximum height: 182mm
  • Maximum width: 135mm
Production typeUnique
Marks and Inscriptions
  • [mirror-written handwritten inscription] (ms note in ink added in a more casual script down the right-hand side of reverse, in mirror-writing.)
  • No 13 (ms note in ink added above music in second stave down on reverse.)
Object history
Part of cuttings purchased in batches from William Henry James Weale in 1883, 95 on 9 April 1883, 258 on 17 April 1883, 20 on 20 February, for the total sum of £96.7.2 (now Museum nos 8972-9042).

A duplicate number MS.190 was assigned to this object in error and was subsequently cancelled.



Cuttings from the same manuscript in the V&A collection: Museum nos 8990A, 8990B, 9005A, 9005B.



Cuttings from the same manuscript in other collections: Christie's London, 6 December 1989, lot 1; formerly Kofler-Truniger collection, Lucerne, and later Jörn Günther Antiquariat, Catalogue 6 (2002), no.27; Sotheby's, 3 December 2013, part of lot 17, and subsequently De Brailes, Catalogue One, no.I and Catalogue Two, no.II; McCarthy Collection, BM1606 and 1607 (see Kidd 2016 and Kidd 2019, no. 23).
Historical context
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.



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)

Subjects depicted
Summary
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.
Associated Objects
Bibliographic References
  • Catalogue of illuminated manuscripts : Part II, Miniatures, leaves, and cuttings, by S.C. Cockerell and E.F. Strange (London: HMSO, 1908, 1st edition).p. 25 (as Flemish, early 14th century).
  • Catalogue of Miniatures, Leaves, and Cuttings from Illuminated Manuscripts. Victoria and Albert Museum. Department of Engraving, Illustration and Design, by S.C. Cockerell and C. Harcourt Smith (London: HMSO, 1923, 2nd edition).p. 20 (as Flemish, early 14th century).
  • Kidd P., 'Cuttings from an Early 14th-Century Cistercian Gradual', and 'Cuttings from a Cistercian Gradual' from Manuscript Provenance blog, July 2016 [last accessed 25/03/2020].
  • Kidd, P., The McCarthy Collection. Vol. II: Spanish, English, Flemish and Central European miniatures, London: Ad Ilissum, 2019.pp. 120-123 in relation to no. 23 (as Eastern Netherlands (Gelderland? or Western Germany), 1st half of the 14th century.
Other Number
190 - Cancelled number
Collection
Accession Number
9005A

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record createdMarch 31, 2006
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