Tag Archives: Illumination

Taking the Bull by the Horns

When cataloguing the incunabula in the collection of rare books bequeathed to King’s College by Jacob Bryant (1715-1804), I came across a curious and unusual device in a copy of Werner Rolevinck’s Fasciculus temporum, an overview of world history up until the time of the book’s publication (ca. 1490). The title page features two hand-drawn devices: the one at the centre depicts a black bull with horns and nose rings coloured in gold:

Title page of Werner Rolevinck’s Fasciculus temporum (Strasbourg: Johann Prüss, ca. 1490; Bryant.XV.2.6). Underneath the device is an earlier inscription: “Martinus polonus Carsulanensis Ep[iscop]us, hoc Chronicon composuit”, evidently mistaking this work for the chronicle Chronicon pontificum et imperatorum by Martin of Opava (d. 1278). Another owner corrected this misattribution next to the title: “Wernerus fuit collector ha[rum] historia[rum]”.

This emblem appears to have puzzled the staff in King’s Library for over a century. Stuck to the flyleaf opposite the title page is a letter of 3 June 1912 addressed to Arthur Richard Benten, then under-librarian at King’s, by Beckwith A. Spencer of the Royal College of Art. In it, he states that he was unable to identify these two devices despite enlisting the help of Albert van der Put of the National Art Library:

The same device also appears in two other incunabula bequeathed by Jacob Bryant: as an illumination inside the initial of the first page in Guido delle Colonne’s Historia destructionis Troiae (1486):

Detail of leaf a2 recto in Guido delle Colonne’s Historia destructionis Troiae (Strasbourg: Georg Husner, 1486; Bryant.XV.2.7).

and as a tail-piece painted at the bottom of a4 verso in our copy of Robert Gaguin’s Compendium De origine et gestis Francorum (1497):

Leaf a4 verso of Robert Gaguin’s Compendium De origine et gestis Francorum (Lyon: Johannes Trechsel, 1497; Bryant.XV.6.6). The bull device also rears its head as an illuminated initial on leaves b5 verso and g3 verso.

If anyone has any information that may help us identify this device and solve a century-old mystery, please do get in touch!


What’s in a Letter?

As we’ve seen in a previous post, illuminations in incunabula can be seen as a remnant of the manuscript tradition that persisted in the transition to the printing era. In our copy of Ognibene Bonisoli’s De octo partibus orationis (Padua, 1474), bequeathed to King’s College by Jacob Bryant (1715-1804), there are no guide letters in the spaces left blank for the illuminator, so it was up to him to choose which letter to write. On the first page is Bonisoli’s dedication to his pupil, the condottiere Federico Gonzaga (1441-84), who later became the third marquess of Mantua.

Federico Gonzaga (right) in one of Andrea Mantegna’s frescos in the Camera degli Sposi in Mantua, painted between 1465 and 1474.

Instead of inserting an “E” to give “En humanissime pri[n]ceps” (Lo, most humane leader), the illuminator added an “I”: “Inhumanissime pri[n]ceps” (Most inhumane leader):

First leaf of Ognibene Bonisoli’s De octo partibus orationis (Padua: Bartholomaeus de Valdezoccho and Martinus de Septem Arboribus, 1474; Bryant.XV.3.6). The manuscript inscription at the top indicates that the book belonged to the church of Santa Maria Incoronata in Milan, which was completed in 1460.

Though this is most likely to have been an unintentional error on the illuminator’s part, whose Latin perhaps was not up to scratch, it is tempting to imagine that it may have been a parting shot from a disgruntled employee on his final day at work…


A Regal Book of Hours

As we’re approaching Easter, we thought we would share some topical images from a beautiful book of hours recently discovered in the Thackeray collection. Books of hours were medieval devotional books often lavishly illustrated with illuminations and decorations. They usually contained an almanac, selections from the Gospels and Psalms, and various prayers and devotions. With the advent of printing in the fifteenth century, books of hours became more affordable, and manuscript versions were only produced for wealthy individuals.

Title page of Hore diue [vir]ginis Marie, s[e]c[un]d[u]m veru[m] vsum Romanu[m] with printer’s device at head of title (Paris: Thielmann Kerver, 1505; Thackeray.210)

This volume was published in Paris in 1505, and is remarkable in that it is printed entirely on vellum:

The beginning of the almanac for the years 1497-1520

The text is printed in red and black with initials illuminated in red, blue and gold; each page is surrounded by an ornamental woodcut border:

Leaf C3 recto showing illuminations in red, blue and gold

The book also contains many full-page as well as smaller woodcuts. Below is a depiction of the Annunciation:

The Annunciation: the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will become the mother of Jesus

Books of hours often contained the Little Office of Our Lady, also known as Hours of the Virgin, a liturgical prayer to the Virgin Mary:

“Domine labia mea aperies”: the beginning of the Office of our Blessed Lady

Below is a woodcut of the Tree of Jesse, an artistic representation of Jesus’s ancestors:

“Egredietur virga de radice iesse: & flos de radice eius ascendet”  [“there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots”]  (Isaiah 11:1)

Books of hours also contain a selection from each of the four Gospels:

“Initiu[m] s[an]cti euangelii s[e]c[un]d[u]m ioha[n]ne[m]”: the beginning of the Gospel of St. John. The engraving depicts the Evangelist being boiled in oil in Rome in front of the Porta Latina.

This book also has a fascinating history behind it. On the recto of the third fly-leaf is an ownership inscription in German: “Daß püechlein ist fon ihr Gräffin fon Ermelstein”. Underneath it is a hand-drawn coat of arms with the following Latin inscription: “Commitisse de Ermelstein libellus iste spectat, ex dono Caesareae M[aiestat]is Imperatricis Eleonorae dictae Comitisse elargito anno .14. electionis suae in camerariam eiusdem maiestatis suae. E”:

Ownership inscription by the Countess of Ermelstein

The inscription appears to be by the Countess of Ermelstein, who received the book as a gift from Empress Eleonore Magdalene of Neuburg (1655-1720) fourteen years after her coronation. As Eleonore was crowned Holy Roman Empress in 1690, the book must have been presented to the Countess of Ermelstein in 1704.

Happy Easter from everyone at King’s College Library and Archives.

The Crucifixion

The Man of Sorrows: Christ surrounded by the instruments of the Passion



Illuminating the Foundation of King’s College

The foundation of King’s College was a gradual process. Although it was founded in 1441, John Saltmarsh (1959) has pointed out that a garden belonging to Trinity Hall was bought for the intended site of King’s College on 14 September 1440 so planning must already have been well under way. A number of instruments were required to establish and endow King’s College. Principal among those are

Detail of Henry VI from the Charter upon Act of Parliament, 16 March 1445-6 (KC/18) ©DIAMM

Detail of Henry VI from the Charter upon Act of Parliament, 16 March 1445-6 (KC/18) ©DIAMM

  1. The Letters Patent granted by Henry VI, 12 February 1440-1 (KC/11)
  2. Royal Letters Patent re-founding King’s College, 10 July 1443 (KC/13)
  3. The Founder’s Statutes
  4. The Founder’s Will, 16 September 1447 – this version is known as the Windsor Will (KCW/100)
  5. Charter upon Act of Parliament, 16 March 1445-6 (KC/18)

At different times, items 1, 2 and 5 have been referred to as the ‘Foundation Charter’, although the true foundation charter is item number 1. Subsequent documents served to alter plans for the College, particularly enlarging it, and to endow it with further lands. Aside from the vital function these documents serve for King’s College, they are also noteworthy due to their decoration and illumination.

The Letters Patent granted by Henry VI, 12 February 1440-1 (KC/11)

The Letters Patent granted by Henry VI, 12 February 1440-1 (KC/11)

The first document (above) is noteworthy as a fine example of strapwork. Here, the intricate decoration of the capital ‘H’ at the start of ‘Henricus’ includes buckles. According to an essay by Elizabeth Danbury (1989) in England and her Neighbours , strapwork first appeared in royal charters in the late 1430s and early 1440s, meaning that this and comparable royal grants to Eton upon their foundation (at the same time as King’s College) are early examples of this form of embellishment.

Embellishment of the initial letter of the King’s name is common in royal charters, though styles varied over the years. Perhaps even more striking in its decoration is the fifth item, the Charter upon Act of Parliament, 16 March 1445-6 (KC/18).

Charter upon Act of Parliament, 16 March 1445-6, in its case (KC/18) ©DIAMM

Charter upon Act of Parliament, 16 March 1445-6, in its case (KC/18) ©DIAMM

The Charter upon Act of Parliament confirmed the Founder’s earlier gifts and gave additional privileges to the College. The importance of the document is immediately obvious due to the size (approx. 99cm by 72cm), the wide margins, and the symbolism on the bottom-most of the large sheets of valuable vellum. These are joined at the lower edge and when one turns to the first sheet, which is actually at the bottom, one finds a striking illumination which depicts the purpose of the document and celebrates Henry VI’s generous gift. It also gives a visual commentary on British politics at the time.

First sheet of the Charter upon Act of Parliament, 16 March 1445-6 (KC/18) ©DIAMM

First sheet of the Charter upon Act of Parliament, 16 March 1445-6 (KC/18) ©DIAMM

A group of miniature figures around the initial in the top left corner of this sheet represent the granting of the charter in Parliament. The figures kneeling in the left margin are the Commons and the Speaker, who bears a scroll. Above them, the Lords are depicted. They look towards the King, showing that even they are subordinate. Once again showing the importance of the initial in royal charters, the King appears kneeling at the centre of the initial ‘H’ in ‘Henricus’. Again, we see excellent strapwork. Above the Founder, angels carry his crown and the arms of England and France. Further angels carry the arms of St Edward the Confessor and St Edmund the Martyr, at the far left and right respectively. Above ‘Henricus’ are the patron saints of the College: Our Lady and St Nicholas. At the upper edge, just above Our Lady, the holy Trinity look down. Thus a hierarchical endorsement of the Henry VI’s foundation is depicted, from the House of Commons and the House of Lords below the Founder to the Lord above him.

Detail of the Charter upon Act of Parliament, 16 March 1445-6

Detail of the Charter upon Act of Parliament, 16 March 1445-6

Unusually, we know who created the wonderful illumination seen in this item. His name was William Abel. The Audit Roll of Eton College for 1447-8 (Eton College, ECR EA.3, m.9) includes a payment of 26s. 8d. for the illumination of their consolidation charter of 5 March 1446 (Danbury, 1989), which serves the same purpose as, and looks very like, the Charter upon Act of Parliament which he illuminated for King’s College.


Images of the Charter upon Act of Parliament, 16 March 1445-6 (KC/18) courtesy of DIAMM.

Danbury, Elizabeth (1989) ‘The Decoration and Illumination of Royal Charters in England, 1250-1509: An Introduction’, in Michael Jones and Malcolm Vale (eds.) England and her Neighbours: Essays in Honour of Pierre Chaplais. London and Ronceverte

Saltmarsh, John (1933) ‘The Muniments of King’s College’ in Cambridge Antiquarian Society’s Communications, vol. XXXIII

Saltmarsh, John (1959) ‘King’s College’ in Roach, J.P.C. (ed.) The Victoria history of the county of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely. , Vol.3. London