(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 one two-line initial in burnished gold on dark pink and blue ground with white tracery, one three-line initial in blue with white tracery, filled with a flower and 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 a few painted flowers and leaves, recto with A HALF-PAGE MINIATURE OF THE ANNUNCIATION TO THE SHEPHERDS in a thin, arch-topped gilt frame, with two shepherds in the foreground gazing up at an angel in the sky, several sheep grazing nearby, and a background consisting of a rugged hillside, an orchard, and a walled city and church on the horizon, SURROUNDED BY A FULL BORDER consisting of hairline vines terminating in gold bezants and ivy, colorful acanthus, a strawberry, and several different kinds of flowers, the text below the miniature further framed by a "U"-shaped bar of gold, pink, and blue extending the full height of the miniature. Ink penwork in border slightly smudged in a few places, additional very minor imperfections but THE MINIATURE ESPECIALLY WELL PRESERVED, and the paint everywhere very fresh and bright.
Even more than with other appealing Annunciation to the Shepherds miniatures from Books of Hours, this scene offers considerable animation and special charm, with an unusually fine outdoor setting and composition, the whole being reminiscent of the work of the Master of Morgan 293. In the present setting, two shepherds crane their heads sharply upward to witness an angel emerging from the heavens, bringing them the news of the birth of Christ. Their active stances suggest that they were caught unawares and in the middle of their work tending a flock of sheep (the animals half happily grazing and half with heads raised in response to the miraculous light from above). The figures here are robust and attractively rendered in bright colors, with faces expressing either fear or curiosity--the shepherd on the left shields his eyes in order to understand and record the notable moment. Their surroundings are exceptionally pretty, incorporating varied landscape features like a river highlighted with silver, giving the waterway a sense of movement and shine. 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 a number of compositional similarities between our miniature and the Annunciation to the Shepherds in the Morgan manuscript: in both cases the shepherds in the foreground face each other, while their sheep graze in the space between; the background of each miniature is extremely well developed and displays similar shapes and motifs, including multiple hills populated with bushy trees dotted with gold, a river flowing through the center of the composition, and structures with multiple turrets along the horizon. Certain details on the figures are also consonant: each shepherd wears a distinct netted pouch around his waist and carries a crook, the figure at the left of each composition holds up a hand to shield his eyes in an identical manner, and the faces are sharply upturned, almost horizontal, their gazes fixed on the angel appearing above them. Whoever the artist responsible for the present miniature, the painting is an excellent representation of a distinct regional style, full of fine detail, and beautifully composed--and the work comes down to us, happily, in fine condition. (ST17060W)