A Nativity Scene Exhibiting Great Tenderness and Involving a Remarkably Plush Bed and a Warming Cloth about To Ignite


(France (probably Besançon): 3rd quarter of 15th century). 239 x 165 mm. (9 3/8 x 6 1/2"). Single column, 15 lines in an elegant gothic book hand.

Rubrics in dark pink, line-enders in dark pink and blue highlighted with a gilt bezant, several one-line initials and two two-line initial in burnished gold on dark pink and blue ground with white tracery, one three-line initial in pink with white tracery, filled with trefoils painted red or blue, all on a gold ground, verso with panel border of delicate hairline vines terminating in gilt bezants and ivy and with painted flowers, recto with A HALF-PAGE MINIATURE OF THE NATIVITY in an arch-topped gilt frame, the Virgin nursing the Christ child on a red mattress under a large open-air structure, Joseph on the right warming a white cloth over a fire, the heads of a cow and an ass poking over a green fence, SURROUNDED BY A LUXURIANT FULL BORDER consisting of hairline vines terminating in gold bezants and ivy, colorful acanthus, and flowers, the text and image further framed by a "U"-shaped line of gold, extending the full height of the miniature. Miniature with a little erosion and flaking to the white paint (not at all noticeable unless examined very closely), two minor smudges of no consequence, vague yellowing to two small areas in tail and fore margin, but in overall fine condition, the paint and gilt quite bright, the margins very ample, and the detail extremely well preserved.

With a lovely palette, attractive composition, nearly immense proportions, and a delightful sense of narrative, this splendid leaf from a Book of Hours opens the hour of Prime with the Nativity and does so with some charming departures from the expected scene. For one thing, the artist has provided the Virgin with a large, plush mattress covered in bright red fabric, as she contentedly nurses her newborn son. Nothing rustic about this Virgin's bed, despite its presence in an open-air stable with close proximity to manure. (As the Mother of God, the Virgin deserves to be comfortable, and although this depiction is certainly not unprecedented, it deviates from the normal tableau, which typically shows her kneeling or standing in the night's cold.) Then, in a very rarely seen and immensely charming moment, Joseph stands nearby, drying a large piece of fabric over the heat of a fire--no doubt meant to wrap the naked baby in its absorbed warmth. His attention, however, is focused not on the task at hand, but on his wife and her child, making for a doubly tender moment (at the same time, the cloth seems to be getting uncomfortably close to the flames!). Stylistically, this leaf can be localized to the Franche-Comté region in eastern France, and is closely related (if not directly attributable) to an atelier specializing in Books of Hours made for the Use of Besançon and most likely situated in that city (see Avril and Reynaud, p. 197). The similarities are especially apparent in the figures' faces, which are slightly puffy in appearance and have distinct, slit-like eyes. As noted by Avril and Reynaud, the unnamed master of this atelier was deeply indebted to the Master of Morgan 293, a talented Burgundian illuminator active in the second quarter of the 15th century, whose name derives from a particularly lovely Book of Hours made for the Use of Besançon. In fact, there are certain consonant details between this miniature and the Nativity in the Morgan manuscript: both compositions feature a bright red bed or mattress in front of a green wattle fence with two animals peeking over the top, and the open-air shed is also extremely similar, with a gabled roof pushed up near the top of the composition and long beams--including the one that bisects the center of the picture plane--framing the scene. Regardless of the identity of the artist, our immensely charming miniature is an excellent example of a distinct regional style and offers the viewer multiple sources of pleasure in its richly detailed composition and interesting design, delicately framed and perched within an animated field of rinceau decoration in the surrounding borders.

Price: $9,500.00