A Master Illuminator's Fiery Historiation from a Luxurious Manuscript of Great Consequence

TEXT FROM END OF 1 KINGS AND OPENING OF 2 KINGS.

(Germany [possibly Augsburg]: 1507 or slightly later). 417 x 273 mm. (16 3/8 x 10 3/4"). Double column, 34 lines in a fine gothic book hand.

Rubrics in red, capitals struck in red and occasionally in blue, running titles in red, and A 10-LINE (90 mm.) HISTORIATED "P" DEPICTING ELIJAH ORDERING FIRE FROM HEAVEN, the prophet pictured sitting high on a hillside with a group of soldiers and horses below in a verdant valley with hills and rocky outcroppings, flames erupting from the sky and raining down on soldiers, the initial decoratively painted in gray tones and in a bevelled frame of gold and red on embellished green ground, with its ascender and descender stylized into acanthus leaf extensions, margins around the initial with five large gold bezants and penwork embellishments. See: Gwara, "Otto Ege's Manuscripts," HL No. 44; Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture, p. 269. Small portion of upper corner torn away and repaired (not affecting text and as with all extant leaves from this volume), remnants of mounting tape along one edge, gold of one bezant rubbed away, some general soiling and marginal staining to the fore edge, penwork embellishment smudged in one place, but THE INITIAL IN VERY FINE CONDITION, the margins generous, and the text clean and legible.

Featuring a beautifully preserved initial very probably done by master illuminator Leonhard Beck, this handsome leaf comes from a large and luxuriously illustrated multi-volume lectern Bible, part of which now resides at the Walters Art Museum (MS W. 805). Like our leaf, the Walters' volume (comprised of the first eight books of the Old Testament) contains a large historiated initial at the beginning of each biblical book, plus a larger illustration of the Creation similar to that in Koberger's 1483 Bible and 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle. It also contains an inscription noting the date of completion (7 February 1507), meaning that our leaf was also finished around that time. We know that at least one volume from the original set landed in the hands of biblioclast Otto Ege, appearing as specimen leaf no. 49 in his "Fifty Original Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts" (though leaves with historiation were evidentially sold individually). Our initial opens the text of 2 Kings (or 4 Kings in the Medieval Bible structure), describing Elijah's encounters with the men of King Ahazia of Israel, who were sent to consult the Philistine god Beelzebub. Elijah intercepts the men, questioning why they have not sought out the God of Israel instead. Although he spares this first group, Elijah punishes subsequent parties by calling down fire from the sky to consume them. The initial here depicts one of these encounters, showing a group of five men in the foreground--two on horses and one holding a spear. The men look up to where Elijah sits upon a hill, with one hand raised and in the shape of a fist, as flames burst forth from the heavens. Next to the prophet lies a sword and pot, probably referring to other events in Kings--perhaps an allusion to the events in which Elijah slays false prophets, and in a later chapter, purifies a poisoned stew. The hilly and verdant surroundings are composed of different shades of green under a blue sky, with orange from the fire and some of the garments, as well as dashes of mauve, gray, and gold. These colors are continued onto the letter, frame, and decoration, making for a cohesive and beautifully executed whole. Leonhard Beck (ca. 1480-1542) was a versatile early Renaissance artist based in Augsburg, who produced manuscript illuminations, panel paintings, and woodcut engravings for printed books. His style was influenced by the work of Hans Holbein the Elder, with whom he apprenticed in the late 15th century, as well as that of his father and artistic collaborator, the illuminator Georg Beck (d. ca. 1512). The Grove Encyclopedia notes two extant manuscripts attributed to the father and son team (see Augsburg, Stadtbibliothek Cod. 40a; and Munich, BSB Cod. Lat. 4301), saying that "of the small, lively biblical scenes in the decorated initial letters," the "innovative features make it plain that the painter responsible for the majority of the 35 illuminated initials was a younger, more progressive artist, who must be Leonhard Beck." Compared to the initials in these manuscripts, our leaf has obvious similarities; Leonhard favored bold colors, figures with long legs and rather stout torsos, round and well-articulated faces, and a distinct wavy pattern used on garment edges. His historiations are extraordinarily lively, often with many figures occupying the same space; yet these scenes seem far more expansive than what ought to be possible in three-and-one-half inches--in large part due to the artist’s precision and masterful use of composition. Of interest paleographically, the script is very regular, no doubt due in part to the ruling both at top and bottom of the minims, and an almost rigorous absence of expected abbreviations suggests that the book was meant to be read from in a public setting. In every way--from its striking miniature to its large format to its lovely script--it is readily apparent that this leaf comes from a manuscript that was an expensive production of great consequence, a holy book but at the same time a luxurious object intended to be seen and admired. We were able to trace just one other example of a leaf from this manuscript offered separately at auction.
(ST15625c)

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PJP Catalog: 76.019

TEXT FROM END OF 1 KINGS AND OPENING OF 2 KINGS. WITH A. VERY LARGE AND STRIKING HISTORIATED INITIAL AN ILLUMINATED VELLUM MANUSCRIPT LEAF FROM A. LECTERN BIBLE IN LATIN.
TEXT FROM END OF 1 KINGS AND OPENING OF 2 KINGS.