THE VON ERLACH ‘HOLY SHROUD’ PRAYERBOOK, in Latin and German, manuscript on vellum with illuminations by the Master of Claude de France [Tours and Switzerland, c.1520s and c.1540s]
A highly bespoke production containing perhaps the earliest surviving painted representation of the Turin Shroud, before it suffered damage from a fire in Chambéry in 1532. The prayerbook, with stunning, previously unrecorded work by the Master of Claude de France, belonged to Johannes von Erlach, Schultheiss of the city of Bern, and then to his son, Bernhard, members of one of the most fascinating families of the Swiss Reformation.
(1) The manuscript is in two parts: the first (ff. 1-19v) dates to the 1520s. The von Erlach coats of arms (gules, on a pale argent, a chevron sable) and the presence of John the Baptist in the miniature on f.1v alongside a kneeling patron clad in armour, along with specific devotions to John the Evangelist, identify the owner as JOHANNES VON ERLACH (1474-1539), Schultheiss of the city of Bern, Swiss ambassador and military commander. The astonishing representation of the Turin Shroud on ff.9v-10 helps situate the manuscript further within its historical context: Johannes travelled to Geneva in 1512 to meet Charles III, Duke of Savoy. The Shroud was then held at Chambéry, capital of Savoy, and would, in 1532, be damaged by a fire. Could Johannes have been so inspired by a visit to the holy relic to have it included in his prayerbook? A terminus ante quem for the production of the first part of the manuscript is provided by the fact that in 1528 Bern converted to Protestantism, and we know that Johannes led an army to put down a rebellion against the new faith – it is unlikely therefore that he would at this stage have commissioned such a ‘Catholic’ manuscript. (2) The second part of the manuscript (ff. 20-104v) is in a later, mid-16th century hand. A devotion to Saint Bernhard on f.73v suggests that the manuscript passed to Johannes’ son, BERNHARD VON ERLACH (1518-1591). (3) PIERRE LOUŸS (1870-1925), French erotic poet and writer. His Catalogue de livres anciens, rares et curieux […] provenant de la bibliothèque de M. Pierre L****, Hôtel Drouot, 25-28 November 1918, no 16.
Prayers: to the Trinity ff.3-6v, to the Virgin, Ave mundi spes Maria ff.7v-9 (misbound, f.15 should follow f.8), to the Holy Shroud, O iubar, nostrae specimen salutis, ff.10v-12, to John the Evangelist f.13v-14; Suffrages to Sts Claude ff.16-17 (lacking beginning of text, likely with a miniature) and Barbara ff.18v-19v; Prayers: to Jesus Christ ff.20-24, to the Virgin, in German, ff.24v-36v and in Latin ff.37-39, with rubric in German instructing the reader to say an Our Father, an Ave Maria and pray to St Apolomardus? and St John f.39v; De Sancta Trinitate ff.40-40v; Psalms ff.40v-43; prayer for victory against one’s enemies etc. ff.43v-47v; O bone Ihesu ff.48-54; Prayer to the Holy Cross ff.54v-58; various prayer, including on the 7 final words of Christ on the cross (f.70v), rubric to St Bernhard (f.73v) ff.58-104v.
The double-page depiction of the Turin Shroud in its undamaged state, held by three Bishops of Savoy, is perhaps the earliest explicit painted representation of the holy relic as we know it today (the illustration in the 12th-century Pray Codex is still the subject of much debate). Giulio Clovio would paint a version in his 1540 Descent from the Cross, but that representation – as with all other surviving representations – clearly shows the damage suffered in the fire of 1532. The depiction in this manuscript is exceptional in that it predates the fire. The artist has a strongly Germanic style, and is responsible also for the miniature of Johannes and John the Baptist.
The earlier section of text, perhaps acquired while Johannes was in France, contains four miniatures which are examples of the finest work of the Master of Claude de France, named after two manuscripts he painted for the queen of France, wife of François I – the Prayerbook (New York, Morgan Library MS M.1166) and Book of Hours (Ramsen, Antiquariat Bibermühle) – and active in the early decades of the 16th century. He worked with an unsurpassed subtlety and delicacy of handling and colour and his miniatures combine a sophisticated naturalism with charm and immediate appeal. The scenes or figures shown in half-length and some of the compositions strongly recall Jean Bourdichon, with whom the Master has been thought to have trained. There have been a number of attributions to the Master since the initial identification of his hand: for up-to-date discussions of his development, oeuvre and bibliography see: R. Wieck, Fit for a Queen: The Art of the Master of Claude de France, 2014, and E. König, The Book of Hours of Claude de France, 2012.
The subjects of the miniatures are as follows: Coat of Arms of the von Erlach family of Bern f.1; Johannes von Erlach, in military garb, kneeling beside John the Baptist f.1v; the Last Judgement f.2, the Deposition f.7, the Turin Shroud ff.9v-10, John on Patmos f.13, St Barbara f.18.
The historiated initials, painted by a regional French hand, are on ff.3, 4, 5 and 6.
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION AND CONDITION:
127 x 77mm. 104 leaves. 14-15 lines, ruled space: 91 x 46mm, illuminated initials throughout, FOUR HISTORIATED INITIALS and SEVEN FULL-PAGE MINIATURES, including one with the ERLACH COAT OF ARMS and a DOUBLE-PAGE MINIATURE WITH THE TURIN SHROUD (lacking four leaves, including perhaps one with miniature, occasional marginal staining, light smudging to the Last Judgement miniature and to the face of St Barbara). 19th-century olive-green morocco gilt (edges lightly rubbed).