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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Painting in Italian Choir Books, 1300–1500

Illuminated choral manuscripts represent a unique fusion of music, text, and image in which boldly painted miniatures enliven and amplify the meaning of the chants and provide visual cues to guide the singers. Choir books played a vital role in the liturgical services and daily prayers of medieval religious communities. The golden age of choir books began in the thirteenth century and lasted through the sixteenth. The foundation of new religious orders during the thirteenth century, including the Dominican (1205), Franciscan (1209), and Augustinian (1256), and the rapid growth of older orders such as the Benedictine (sixth century), Camaldolese (eleventh century), and Vallombrosan (eleventh century), prompted an increasing demand for choir books.

Saints affiliated with the various monastic orders appear prominently in the illuminations of these manuscripts. For example, the martyrdom of Peter Martyr, a Dominican saint canonized in 1253, is portrayed in two Dominican choir books produced in Bologna (23.21.2) and southern Italy (2005.273) in the second half of the thirteenth century, shortly after the order’s liturgy was formalized. Pope Innocent III’s (1160–1216) legendary dream sequence of Saint Dominic saving the crumbling church of St. John Lateran (31.134.5) is dramatized in an initial A, cut from a fifteenth-century choir book executed for a Dominican community in northern Italy.

Unlike books of hours, which were intended for individual devotion and usually small enough to be held in the hand, choir books were created for shared, communal worship and consequently necessitated a larger format (sometimes as wide as three feet across when opened). Thus, the miniatures of choir books often approach the scale of small panel paintings. The majority of extant illuminated manuscripts with musical notation are known as graduals and antiphonaries (antiphoners). Complete sets usually comprised multiple volumes. Graduals, the earliest examples of which date to the ninth century, contain the music and text sung during the Mass throughout the year. An illuminated letter R from a fifteenth-century gradual (96.32.16), for example, signifies the beginning of the text and music of the Requiem, the Mass of the Dead. The initial, painted by the Florentine illuminator Mariano del Buono (1433–1504), was appropriately decorated with a scene of a funeral procession. Led by mourners who sing open-mouthed as they enter the church in the background, the procession winds around “off-stage” to the foreground, where the deceased is carried by richly dressed pallbearers. Penned in red at the upper right of the folio, the word “Introit” indicates that this is the music to be sung during the priest’s entrance into the sanctuary to celebrate the Mass.

Antiphonaries contain the music and text sung during the celebration of the Divine Office, a cycle of prayers recited at regular, prescribed hours of each day, as first codified by Saint Benedict in the sixth century. A leaf from an antiphonary, created in Venice around 1400 (90.61.3), portrays the Visitation of the Virgin Mary with her cousin Elizabeth. The Feast of the Visitation had been established by Pope Urban VI (ca. 1318–1389) just a decade earlier, in 1389. The office of the Feast was written by an English cardinal, Adam Easton, who appears in the central medallion at the bottom of the folio, flanked by Saint Dominic and another saint of the order.

Psalters contain the biblical Book of Psalms. The Veronese painter and illuminator Girolamo dai Libri (1474–1555?) decorated a psalter for the Olivetan monastery of Santa Maria in Organo in Verona around 1501–2. The artist portrayed King David (12.56.3), considered the author of the 150 psalms, gazing up toward heaven in prayer; however, his eyes are simultaneously directed outside the frame of the initial M as if he were reading the adjacent music and text of the psalm on the folio. In other representations of David, where he is accompanied by musical instruments (1975.1.2470) or in the act of writing (28.225.65), his role as the composer of the psalms is more explicit.

A laudario, the earliest examples of which date to the thirteenth century, was intended for use among laudesi, groups of citizens who united in confraternities and convened for prayer and the singing of laude, or sacred songs. These lay societies sang in Italian rather than Latin. For the lavishly illustrated laudario commissioned by the confraternity of Saint Agnes for use at the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence (2006.250), the illuminator, Pacino di Bonaguida (active 1303–ca. 1340), departed from the monastic tradition of enclosing the miniature within an enlarged initial A of “Appostolo,” to create an independently framed, two-part miniature that resembles a diptych. At the left, the artist portrayed the gruesome flaying of Saint Bartholomew with dancelike beauty, while at the right, the saint, wearing his own skin as a mantle, is beheaded and his soul is carried up to heaven.

The consecration or renovation of a chapel, church, or cathedral often provided the occasion to commission a set of choir books. Two cuttings portraying the Presentation of Christ in the Temple in an initial S (26.159.1) and the Beheading of Saint Paul in an initial S (26.159.2), both attributed to the Master of Bagnacavallo, probably once belonged to the choir books created for the new cathedral of Imola, near Bologna, completed in 1271 and consecrated in 1278. The patron of this set of choir books seems to have been Bishop Sinibaldo Meloti da Certaldo, who commissioned the decoration of the tribune of Imola Cathedral at this time. The production of a multivolume ensemble of choir books was a vast and expensive undertaking that involved numerous artists and craftsmen whose responsibilities included preparing the parchment, transcribing the text and music, illuminating the borders and initials, and producing the bindings. The famous set of choir books commissioned for the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence and esteemed by the sixteenth-century historian and artist Giorgio Vasari was in production for over 135 years but was never completed. Lorenzo Monaco (1975.1.2485; 1999.391) and Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci (21.168), two renowned artists who participated in the creation of these elaborate choir books, were Camaldolese monks of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Don Silvestro (1339–1399), who took his monastic vows at age thirteen, became the subprior of the monastery by 1389 and in 1397 was elected prior. Lorenzo Monaco (documented 1391–1423/24) became a member of Santa Maria degli Angeli in 1390 and, shortly after being appointed deacon in 1396, left the order to further his artistic endeavors. Don Simone Camaldolese (active 1375–98), who illuminated the Initial C with Saint Lawrence (90.61.2), was also affiliated with this monastery.

Just as some illuminators received their training in monastic scriptoria, others trained in family workshops. Niccolò di ser Sozzo (active ca. 1334–d. 1363) (96.32.12) was probably the son of the Sienese illuminator Ser Sozzo di Stefano. Girolamo dai Libri and his father, Francesco dai Libri (1450–died after 1503), as their name suggests, were a family of illuminators who collaborated on the choir books of Santa Maria in Organo in Verona around 1501–2 and whose styles are often difficult to distinguish. Regardless of their training, many book illuminators, such as Girolamo dai Libri, also produced large-scale painted works. Illuminators often executed miniatures for various types of manuscript commissions, including non-Christian and secular works. For example, Mariano del Buono (1433–1504), who painted the Initial R with a Funeral Procession (96.32.16) for a gradual, also illuminated at least eight Hebrew manuscripts, including the Mahzor (prayer book) belonging to the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York (Ms. 8641). Nerius (active 1310–25), who executed an Initial A with Scenes of Easter (12.56.1) for an Augustinian antiphonary, produced numerous legal manuscripts in his native Bologna, a city renowned for its law university.

In the 1790s, when Napoleon’s armies occupied the Italian peninsula and monasteries were suppressed, choir books were rendered obsolete. Some of them were relocated to nearby cathedrals or civic libraries, while others passed into the hands of dealers and collectors. The Scottish collector James Dennistoun purchased miniatures by the Bolognese illuminator Niccolò di Giacomo da Bologna (active 1349–1403), such as Initial E with the Martyrdom of Saint Stephen (2007.236), directly from the Carthusian monks of the Spirito Santo at Farneta, near Lucca, in 1838. The English collector William Young Ottley, who lived in Italy during the 1790s, purchased parts of a choir book from the monks of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence, including the cutting of the Birth of the Virgin (21.168) by Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci and numerous other miniatures by the artist before the rest of the volume passed to the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence.