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The Bernard H. Breslauer Collection
The regular visitor to Bernard Breslauer's Fifth-Avenue apartment always looks forward to the moment of stepping into the square entrance-hall. Nowhere else can he submit so completely to the intimacy of medieval and renaissance painting. His eyes are riveted on miniatures by Jean Bourdichon, Simon Bening or Giovanni Pietro Birago. He does well to listen to any commentary his host might provide, because Dr Breslauer is a true connoisseur of illuminated manuscript leaves. The bibliophile may then cross into the sitting room, where the stunning collection of association copies of historical bibliography -- many printed on vellum -- is shelved, or into the library proper, which overlooks the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But the greatest enthusiasts of illumination are invited to turn from the hall into the long corridor whose walls are covered by framed manuscript leaves from large choirbooks. It is mostly from this group that the selection for the present sale has been made.
The quality and interest of these pictures and their border decorations are so uniformly high that I will only single out the Antiphonal miniature by Niccolò da Bologna, the city's most famous illuminator in the second half of the 14th century; as the first leaf purchased by Dr Breslauer -- at auction in 1966 -- it became a cornerstone of his private collection. The manuscript to which it belonged was signed by Niccolò, but the characteristic vigour of the crowded scene in the large initial A showing Three Marys at the Tomb would anyhow leave no doubt about the attribution.
As one of the leading antiquarian booksellers in the world, like his father Martin before him, Dr Breslauer has known most of the great manuscript experts and amateurs of the 20th century. Particularly his close friendships with the collector Wilfred Merton and the keeper of manuscripts at the British Museum, Eric Millar, inspired his taste in book illumination. Conversations with Sir Sydney Cockerell and Sir John Pope-Hennessy were other influences.
The Bernard H. Breslauer Collection of Manuscript Illuminations was made available to a wide and appreciative audience in a splendid exhibition held at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York from December 1992 to April 1993. The accompanying scholarly catalogue ensured that the collection receives enduring international recognition. In their introduction the authors, William Voelkle and Roger Wieck, trace the collecting of single illuminated manuscript leaves back to the mid-15th century (Petrus Christus's Portrait of a Young Man in the National Gallery not only shows the sitter holding a manuscript, but behind him framed and tacked to the wall is a prayer to the Face of Christ with a miniature of Veronica's Veil). The secularization of religious houses before, during and after the French Revolution brought masses of illuminated choirbooks onto the market. Many of them were broken up by art dealers and collectors. On 26 May 1825 Christie's organized the first auction sale entirely devoted to single leaves. The consignor was the abbot-turned-dealer, Luigi Celotti, and the cataloguer William Young Ottley, keeper of prints at the British Museum.
Few will disagree that the earliest history of painting is largely to be found in illuminated manuscripts. It is no less true that medieval painting in the most original condition is also found in manuscripts. The pride taken in illumination is of course best expressed by Dante when the Poet asks the Painter weighted down in Purgatory:
O, dissi lui, no se tu Oderisi
L'honor d'Agubbio, et l'honor di quell'arte
Ch'alluminar è chiamata in Parisi ?
Paris, 23 October 2002 Felix de Marez Oyens
Photographs courtesy of the Pierpont Morgan Library