THE IMHOF PRAYERBOOK, illuminated by SIMON BENING, in Latin and Dutch, ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPT ON VELLUM
Antwerp [and Ghent] 1511
90 x 62mm. v + 329 + viii leaves, modern pencil foliation 1-342 followed here: 17 (of 8, i cancelled blank), 28, 34+8, 4-108, 1110, 12-138, 14-156, 169(i a singleton with miniature), 17-308, 319(i a singleton with miniature), 328, 337(of 8, final blank cancelled), 34-358, 369(iii a singleton with miniature), 37-398, 406, 418, likely lacking a bifolium with text between gatherings 36 and 37; 13 lines of an elegant calligraphic lettre bâtarde with cadels and decorative flourishes, between 14 horizontals and two verticals ruled in pink, justification: 41 x 36mm, rubrics in red, one- and two-line initials of liquid gold against grounds alternately red or blue, TEN MINIATURES FOUR LINES HIGH of Instruments of the Passion, FIVE MINIATURES TWO LINES HIGH of the Wounds of Christ, TWELVE CALENDAR PANEL BORDERS WITH ZODIAC SIGNS IN ROUNDELS with naturalistic flowers strewn on liquid gold grounds, EIGHT SMALL MINIATURES WITH FULL-PAGE BORDERS, some with bas-de-page scenes and others with strewn flowers, insects or birds, one with illusionistic jewels, ELEVEN FULL-PAGE MINIATURES WITH FACING FULL-PAGE BORDERS with bas-de-page scenes, scatter borders with flowers, fruit and branches on gold or coloured grounds some including trompe l'oeil insects, FIVE FURTHER FULL-PAGE BORDERS of similar types, edges gilt and gauffered, old tasselled bookmarker (a few spots, a little marginal darkening and occasional minimal rubbing, insects on ff.73 and 272 very slightly cropped). CONTEMPORARY RED VELVET OVER WOODEN BOARDS with elaborate German silver clasp, the foliate pierced mounts probably contemporary and the hinged clasp later (edges of velvet rubbed, headbands c.1900). Red solander box.
A JEWEL OF ILLUMINATION -- THE EARLIEST DATED WORK OF SIMON BENING
1. Hans V Imhof (1461-1522): The colophon on f.334v records the writing and completion of the manuscript in Antwerp in 1511. It has been generally accepted that the effaced coat of arms on f.25, discernible if viewed from the reverse against strong light, belongs to the Imhof, one of the patrician families of Nuremberg. The presence of the Suffrage to St Sebald, patron saint of Nuremberg and the name saint of the church where the family had their burial chapel is consistent with this. The importance given to John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, both the subjects of miniatures and devotions, suggest that the original owner was named Johannes or Hans. The Imhof family had amassed immense wealth from the spice trade and had offices throughout Europe, including Antwerp where the manuscript was written, and for many years until his death in 1522 the firm was headed by the merchant and banker Hans V. The family provided important and discriminating patrons of art in their own city and none more so than Hans who was a friend of Albrecht Dürer, the sculptor Adam Kraft and the humanist Willibald Pirckheimer. It is likely that the manuscript was commissioned by him.
2. Herman Hendrick Beels, van Heemstede (1827-1916) and by descent until sold Sotheby's, 21 June 1988, lot 107.
Calendar ff.6-21; Computistical tables and roundels ff.21v-23v (ff.22 and 23 bound-in upside-down); Extract from the Gospel of St John ff.25-26v; Passion according to St John ff.28-42v; Penitential Psalms and Litany ff.45-72v; Prayers to Christ and the Virgin opening with the indulgenced prayer on the name of Jesus ff.73-80v; Fifteen Oes and further prayers ff.82-98v; Prayers on the Passion and other prayers, in Dutch ff.100-120v; Prayer on the Resurrection and other prayers ff.122-126v; Verses of St Gregory and other prayers, in Dutch ff.128-175; Prayers opening with a prayer for Christmas ff.177-193v; Prayers to Christ and the Virgin opening with Salve Sancta Facies and including the Sorrows of the Virgin, prayers to be said during Mass and St Gregory's prayer on the wounds of Christ ff.194-247v; Prayers to the Virgin opening with one to be said before an image of the Virgin to gain 11,000 years indulgence, in Dutch ff.249-289v; Prayers to the Virgin opening with a prayer on her Sorrows and continuing with Stabat Mater in Dutch (the latter with rubrics in Latin, and lacking the final 9 verses) ff.291-296v; Prayers to St John the Baptist, in Dutch ff.298-301v; Prayers to St Francis, in Dutch ff.303-304v; Prayers to St Michael, other saints and All Saints, in Dutch ff.305-326v; Suffrages to saints, in Latin ff.327-334; colophon f.334v. Contact the Department for further detail.
The colophon reads 'Scriptus et finitus est liber iste in opido mercuriali Hantwerpia Anno 1511'. The question was raised in Illuminating the Renaissance, eds T. Kren and S. McKendrick, 2003, p.449 whether the manuscript may have been written by Petrus Alamire, a scribe active in Antwerp in 1511 but originally from Nuremberg and whose family name was Imhof.
In his lifetime Bening was described as 'the greatest master in the art of illumination in all of Europe' and he has retained that position among modern critics: 'the art of no other Flemish illuminator so fully epitomises the triumph of Flemish manuscript painting ... and its enduring eminence as a court art' (T. Kren in Illuminating the Renaissance, p.446, and for this manuscript, cat. no 139, pp.448-449, with further bibliography). This exquisite little volume fully justifies and explains this claim: it is painted with the greatest delicacy and finesse.
Simon was born around 1483, probably in Ghent, the son of the illuminator Sanders Bening and Kathelijn van der Goes, perhaps the sister or niece of the great painter Hugo. His family was also connected to Rogier van der Weyden: he could hardly have been born into circumstances more favourable for his artistic development. His career was long, prosperous and prolific, working for princely patrons in Spain, Portugal and Germany as well as in his homeland, and his achievements were celebrated by Guicciardini and Vasari as well as by his compatriots. Simon lived until 1561 and two self-portraits dated 1558 attest to his enduring artistic activity and ability.
Personal prayerbooks small enough to be carried around and kept close by their owners seem to have been a speciality of Bening and the Imhof Prayerbook is a superlative example. Although it is his earliest dated work, he was a fully mature and developed artist when he painted it and the features that are characteristic of his finest miniatures for the next half-century are already present. The carefully characterised figures, often set in extensive and detailed landscapes or evocative night settings are portrayed with a sensitivity to mood and atmosphere unsurpassed in his work. He makes no concession to scale: these miniatures are a virtuoso performance; framed in simple illusionistic mouldings, they are presented as though they are tiny panel paintings.
The text pages that face the full-page miniatures bring one back into the world of manuscript decoration and have borders characteristic of Flemish manuscripts from the end of the 15th century: yet these too are remarkable and of extremely high quality, equalling the miniatures they face in refinement of execution and echoing their palette. They seem to be the work of Bening himself (Kren, op. cit., p.449.)
It was a consistent feature of Bening's work that he made use of workshop patterns that had first been exploited back in the 1470s, and were often found in manuscripts associated with the Master of the First Prayerbook of Maximilian: this continuity is part of the argument for identifying the anonymous Master with Simon's father Alexander, or Sanders, Bening. One striking and exact example in the present prayerbook is the Stigmatisation of St Francis - the figures exactly replicating those of the older artist in the Rothschild Prayerbook, that summa of Flemish manuscript illumination (sold Christie's, 8 July 1999, lot 402 for £8,250,252) to which Simon had contributed just a few years earlier. Whereas Simon was just one contributor to that manuscript the present book is almost entirely by his hand. Only the miniature of the Baptism of Christ is by another illuminator, an artist named after his work in another great manuscript where his work is found alongside that of Bening, the Master of the David Scenes in the Grimani Breviary.
It is no wonder that the scholar who first published the manuscript was moved to title his article 'Work of art or jewel?' G.I. Lieftinck, 'Kunstwerk of Juweel? Het Gebedboek van de Heer C.H. Beels te Hilversum', Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, VIII, 1957, pp.1-28).
The subjects of the full-page miniatures, and their facing full-page borders are as follows:
ff.24v-25 St John on Patmos, facing a camaïeu d'or sculptural border
ff.27v-28 Agony in the Garden, facing strewn flowers and a housefly
ff.81v-82 Betrayal and Arrest of Christ, facing strewn acanthus, flowers and owls
ff.99v-100 Crucifixion, facing scattered roses and insects
ff.121v-122 Resurrection of Christ, facing fruit and flowers
ff.127v-128 Mass of St. Gregory, facing strewn flowers and flowers in a blue and white pot
ff.176v-177 Nativity, with the shepherds, facing a landscape border with dancing peasants
ff.248v-249 Assumption of the Virgin, facing scattered violets and butterflies and a snail
ff.290v-291 Sorrows of the Virgin, facing strewn flowers and a snail
ff.297v-298 Baptism of Christ, facing a landscape border with a tree-house and ?St Antony Abbot with an angel
ff.302v-303 Stigmatisation of St Francis, facing a border with flowers and acanthus on a banded ground
The subjects of the small miniatures with full borders are as follows: f.43 David kneeling in prayer before his palace, the border with putti, swags and a carved gem
f.73 Christ Child holding a dove, the border with flowers, a blue and white ewer and a fly
f.194 Christ, head and shoulders, the border showing a gothic interior with two children whipping tops
f.327 Half-length figures of Sts Peter and Paul, the border with acanthus and flowers and a climbing monkey
f.328 St Sebald in half-length holding a model of his church, the border with strewn flowers
f.329 St Lawrence in half-length, the border with gothic architecture and a woman pushing a wheelbarrow with a tree planted in a basket
f.330 St Katherine in half-length, a landscape border with a tree-house and the spies returning from Canaan carrying a giant bunch of grapes
f.331v St Anne reading with the Virgin and Child, the border showing enameled and gemstone jewels
The four-line miniatures of the Instruments of the Passion are between ff.100v and 105, and the two-line miniatures of the Wounds of Christ are on f.239r and v.
There are full-page borders accompanying illuminated initials on ff.154v, 168, 272, 295 and 305.