In 1994, the Mayer van den Bergh Breviary was loosed by conservators from the restrictive neo-Gothic binding that had discouraged both scholarly perusal and photography and carefully dismantled. Its leaves were displayed individually to the world for the first time in 1996. Since that debut, in Flemish Illuminated Manuscripts, 1475-1550, where it merited over fifty pages of catalogue space, the Breviary has also enjoyed its own picture book (1997), a place in the landmark celebration of Flemish miniatures, Illuminating the Renaissance (2003), and most recently its own exhibition at the Mayer van den Bergh Museum in a new gallery space. This was the dismembered manuscript’s last and most lavish public appearance before rebinding, and Brigitte Dekeyzer’s accompanying monograph provides essential material for the scholar without unduly discouraging the civilian v isitor. The book is drawn from her dissertation; she also wrote the entries on the Mayer van den Bergh Breviary for all the publications cited above, which explains both their unusual depth and the remarkably harmonious state of scholarship on the manuscript.
The scholarship devoted to the “Ghent-Bruges style” of manuscript illumination has been marked by four interests in particular: an urge to uncover the authorship of the miniatures in these highly prized manuscripts, a consideration of their links to panel painting, a fascination (quite understandable) with the illusionism of their borders, and more recently a recognition that these books have a lot to teach us about workshop practices. All of these approaches, however fruitful and necessary, can have the effect of fragmenting our perception of the book, whether by ignoring text at the expense of pictures or concentrating on the oeuvre of an individual artist whose hand might appear in dozens of manuscripts. One of the strengths of this book is that Dekeyzer has summarized and built on earlier scholarship, considering questions more often applied to earlier illumination – evidence of religious attitudes, the identity of the book’s patron, and the relationship between text and image, for example.
Dekeyzer divides her book into five chapters, introduced by a prologue that moves smoothly from the arrival of printing and the cachet of manuscripts, t to the history of the Mayer van den Bergh Breviaryitself, to the book’s contents and decoration. (Actually, her prologue is rather ceremoniously preceded by a Preface, a Foreword, and an Introduction.) Chapter I (“Like painted panels”) characterizes the “Ghent-Bruges” style not only by its famous combination of convincing “window-like” miniatures and trompe-l’oeil borders, but moves into a more sophisticated discussion of light and implied space. Her summary of the phenomenon of Ringbom’s dramatic close-ups touches on painting technique as well as devotional motives.
Chapter II (“Word and image”) provides a tutorial on the various parts of a breviary and the illustration typical for each part. Even the mystifying apparatus for computing the date of Easter and other movable feasts is explained in helpful detail. She then tackles the relationship between texts in the Breviary and the images that accompany them, concluding that the miniatures in the Temporale function independently, concurrently with the text rather than, say, as illustration or commentary. The opening of the psalter, devoted to the life of David, emerges as an especially rich display, but more concerned with biblical history than ‘illustrating’ the psalms it introduces. The decoration of the rest of the psalter, however, follows a different and more subtle course, and Dekeyzer’s explanations are illuminating. Rather than the traditional illustration to “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” (Psalm 52/53), which in the fifteenth century might simply show a jester, the Breviary follows t the spirit of the verse and depicts the Israelites turning from God to worship the golden calf.
Chapter III (“Masterly hands”) takes up the question of attribution and introduces us to the usual suspects: the Maximilian Master and his shop, the Master of James IV of Scotland and Gerard Horenbout (treated as distinct artistic personalities), and Gerard David. All were active around 1500, the date Dekeyzer proposes for the Breviary. Simon Bening, whose professional life seems to date back only to about 1521, has been dropped from consideration.
Chapter IV (“Between tradition and renewal”) does an excellent job of imposing order on the complex questions of where the Breviary’sartists found their compositions and how they used existing iconographic traditions. Dekeyzer orders her material by subject matter, proceeding from Old and New Testament stories to Apocrypha, tales of saints and miracles, and “icons of suffering.” Within those categories she is then free to dart from stained glass to panels to pattern drawings, usually under the shadow of Hugo van der Goes, and still keep the focus on iconography. The discussion supports her clarification of the Breviary artists’ particular kind of creativity, which lay in combinations of text and image rather than in novel compositions.
Chapter V (“In search of the patrons”) lays out the case for two finalists: Manuel I of Portugal and his second wife Mary of Castile. Portuguese text accompanying the Easter tables indicates that theBreviary was adapted, if not originally made, for a Portuguese patron. Since it is such a lavish book, the popular candidate has long been the king of Portugal, Manuel I (r. 1495-1521). Unfortunately, none of the elements we might expect to see in a book made especially for Manuel – his arms or the insignia of the Order of Christ or an emphasis on Manuel’s patron saint, Jerome – are present. Several inclusions in the calendar and choices for text and miniatures do suggest a patron with Franciscan and Augustinian sympathies, and that certainly applies to many members of the Portuguese royal family, but other choices point to a female patron. Dekeyzer convincingly discards Manuel as a candidate in favor of his queen, Mary of Castile. The many images of the Virgin in the second, later half of the book (including a rare full-page miniature of Our Lady of the Snow flanked by scenes of the founding of Santa Maria Maggiore) might suggest adaptation for a woman named Mary. Whoever the source of the commission, it seems we must acknowledge at least one change of intended owner to account for the omissions, repetitions, and subtle inconsistencies between one part of the manuscript and the next – what Dekeyzer calls the “book’s intrinsic and visual bipartite nature” (p. 171).
The two appendices deal with: 1) the liturgical and pictorial contents of the book; and 2) the illuminators implicated in its decoration. The first appendix is gratifyingly de tailed, and includes the names of all the saints honored in the calendar pages (not just the ones the author has decided are significant) and in the litany. “Contents” includes the subjects of the miniatures and where they occur, of course, and also which pages receive borders and which borders are historiated.
Dekeyzer’s book is generously illustrated and clearly and engagingly written. The manuscript’s new accessibility restores it to the side of its more famous sisters: The Hours of Isabel la Católica in Cleveland, her Breviary in London, the La Flora Hours in Naples, and the Grimani Breviary in Venice. 2004 marked the centenary of the Mayer van den Bergh Museum, and the success of these interrelated projects – the expanded gallery, the conservation and generous display of one of the collection’s jewels, and this fine monograph – is as fitting a flourish as one could wish.
Princeton, New Jersey