FIVE HISTORIATED INITIALS, from a Gradual, in Latin, ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPT ON VELLUM
[Germany, first quarter 16th century].
71 x 67mm. THE NAKED CHRIST CHILD HOLDING A GLOBE in a landscape with mountains appearing over a wall, in an initial K with staves of jewelled acanthus and a ground of scattered flowers.
71 x 57mm. A MAN CLUBBING A DOG in a landscape in an initial I with acanthus staves enclosing a grotesque face on a ground of liquid gold (gold slightly rubbed).
71 x 66mm. AN ASCENDING SOUL GRASPED BY AN ANGEL above a swimming stag, in a landscape, in an initial S with acanthus staves on a yellow ground (slight rubbing to stag and lower ground and stave).
75 x 71mm. A MAN KNEELING IN PRAYER TO CHRIST, as he appears at the Last Judgement, seated on a rainbow, in an initial R with acanthus staves on a green ground patterned with acanthus.
67 x 68mm. A PRIEST ADMINISTERING COMMUNION to a kneeling man before an altar with an altarpiece of the Crucifixion, watched by two women, in an initial Q with staves of acanthus belted with pearls, on a green ground patterned with curling hairline tendrils.
By four of the initials and on the reverses of all, remains of four-line staves ruled in red, fragments of text on the reverses. Framed together.
The fragmentary texts and music show the initials to have come from a Gradual. The K probably introduced the Kyrie eleison, since the letters and music on the reverse come from the Gloria which follows the Kyrie. The Q probably opened the Communion for Corpus Christi: Quotiescumque manducabitis panem hunc et calicem bibetis... (For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink the chalice, I Corinthians 11, 26), since the letters on the reverse could come from the Offertory for that feast and the initial shows the priest holding chalice and wafer. In a Gradual, historiated initials were usually reserved for the introits so that this volume must have been given an exceptionally rich programme of decoration.
Variety may have been as important to the illuminator as subject matter: a similar mix of the decorative and the iconographically appropriate, including a sequence of deer, appears in the borders drawn by Dürer, Cranach and Altdorfer in the Prayerbook of the Emperor Maximilian. The illuminator of the present initials skilfully incorporated scenes and letters, with forms overlapped by the staves enhancing the sense of movement and immediacy. Sure touches of colour create effects like the stag surging through the water, while precise black lines detail and define.
The elaborate acanthus initials follow conventions found in Germany from the early sixteenth century in both illuminated and printed books. They are especially close to those attributed to Erhard Schoen in the Eichstätt Missal, printed in Nuremberg in 1517 (see The Illustrated Bartsch, XIII, no .010). The woman's costume in the Communion scene indicates a date around 1520.
PROVENANCE: Sotheby's, London, 13 December 1976, lot 18; W. Voelkle and R. Wieck, The Bernard Breslauer Collection of Manuscript Illuminations, exh. Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, 1992-93, nos 50-54.