Artists of Northern Europe, Illuminated manuscripts

Mary & Joseph arrive in Bethlehem

It is only a couple of days to Christmas Eve and two thousand years ago Joseph and Mary were probably heading to Bethlehem to be counted for the census called by Caesar August.  Their arrival in Bethlehem is not one that is usually recorded visually, but there are a few marginal images hidden in some of the most spectacular illuminated books of hours of the last days of the Ghent Bruges school.

Arrival at Bethlehem - without Nativity
The arrival in Bethlehem. The Rothschild Hours

St Luke tells us that when Mary and Joseph arrived in the town, there was no room at any inn, but the couple eventually found shelter in a stable, where the heavily pregnant Mary gives birth. That event has inspired artists, but today the birth of Christ has yet to happen.  The margin of the full page illumination of the Nativity in the Rothschild prayerbook (now in the National Library of Australia) is one of the rare examples where the arrival of the Holy Family in Bethlehem is shown.  In the Croy Hours in the Biblioteque Municipale de Rouen Ms 3028, there is an almost identical scene. Another example is in the Book of Hours of Ferdinand & Isabella of Spain, now in Madrid, and this is thought to be a present from the Emperor Maximilan I.  The Madrid hours dates from 1475 and is attributed to primarily to Hugo van der Goes, but there are clearly other hands at work.

Little is known about who owned the Rothschild Hours in Australia, but because of the lavish illuminations of an extremely high standard we can conclude that whoever commissioned it was at the highest level of society, and very wealthy. It dates from between 1500 – 1520.  During the 16thcentury it was owned by the Wittelsbach family.  The Wittelsbach family were a European royal family who numbered two Holy Roman Emperors – one in the 14thcentury and another in the 18th;  a king of the Romans at the beginning of the 15thcentury; between 1305-1309 a Wittelsbach sat on the throne of Hungary; then between 1440-1447 another was king of Denmark and Norway.  There were two anti-kings of Bohemia in the 17thand 18thcentury and finally, a king of Greece in the 19th.   There is a record of the book being in a library collection in Heidelberg in the 1600s, but then we have no record of its whereabouts until the book came into the Viennese branch of the Rothschild family owning it during the 19thcentury. When Austria was annexed by Hitler in 1938, the book was taken by the Nazis and remained in the Austrian national collection even after the defeat of Hitler.  It was not until 1999 that the book of hours was returned to the Rothschild family.  Since then it has been sold twice.  First in 1999 for £8,580,000 and again in 2014, when it fetched £8, 195,783.  Apart from the astronomic price when sold, it is one of the most lavish examples of illuminations by the Ghent Bruges School just like the Spinola Hours, the Grimani Breviary and many other illuminated books.  All of these books are a collaboration of several workshops.

The various workbooks left by Hugo van der Goes were owned by Alexander Bening and these provided the inspiration for those working on these manuscripts.  Alexander Bening was a member of the Guild of St Luke, as was his son Simon and the various other artists of the Ghent Bruges school.  The Bening’s identity as part of the team that created the Grimani Breviary (in the Marciano Library, Venice) lay hidden for nearly five hundred years until  Eric Drigsdal identified their portraits as members of the court of King Soloman witnessing the arrival of the Queen of Sheba.  The pair stand just behind the throne and are both dressed in their red Guild uniforms.  Drigsdal also identified Alexander Bening’s signature hidden in the margin, which identifies him as The Master of the David Scenes in the Grimani Breviary.  Several of the scenes in this book of hours are echoed in other illuminated manuscripts of this period which suggests that the Van der Goes workbooks were shared among the various illuminator families including the Horenbouts.

Rothschild prayerbook copy
Rothschild Hours 1500-1520, now in National Library of Australia. Stokes Collection.

Who it was who painted this particular bas de page of this page is unknown, but clearly they were inspired by St Luke 2 v7.  The artist  records the moment that Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem and are seeking accommodation. (See also Croy Hours folio 166v)  I have cut out the central image so we can concentrate on the images in the margin.

Screen Shot 2018-12-22 at 16.54.14
Rothschild Hours: Arrival in Bethlehem. detail.

In the bas de page we see Joseph and Mary, together with the ox and ass, standing outside in the cobbled street of a 15thcentury northern European town.  I am not sure why the ox is part of this scene as it is the donkey who has carried the Virgin to Bethlehem.  Joseph appears to be talking to the woman standing behind a very low fence and Mary is standing behind Joseph with her hands crossed on her stomach.  Mary is clearly very heavily pregnant.  The woman in the doorway carries an infant and there is clearly an animated dialogue. We do not know this woman’s name, but perhaps she is sympathetic to Mary’s plight.  She is being observed by a man who is leaning out of the window, so who makes the decision to offer Joseph the stable,  and why does a white dog lies in the street looking at Joseph?  We can only assume this is the inn that has the stable and if so, it is a very posh building as it is built of brick.   This being the case, then perhaps the ox is on its way back to the stable after a day at pasture and it is just a coincidence that it is behind the donkey in this scene. The question of the dog remains unanswered.

What of Mary?  St Luke tells us that very shortly after their arrival she is in labour.  As she stands waiting to see if there is a room, perhaps she is already suffering a low back ache or is having contractions.  If so, Joseph must have been desperate. (St Luke 2 v6)  Desperation is not an easy emotion to capture in paint, but for me this artist does seem to have caught some of Joseph’s anxiety.  Perhaps the artist had watched his own wife go into labour and was remembering his own anxiety, or more controversially, was the artist a woman with first hand experience of labour?

At sky the top of the page is dark, so we know it is night-time.  At the top left the clouds have parted and an angel has appeared to three shepherds (St Luke 2 v8-9).  That it is night time explains why the street outside the inn is empty.

On the opposite page, that margin shows another group of ordinary people also being visited by an angel who is announcing the birth of the Saviour.   If you look closely, you will see a bag-pipe player which accounts for the dancing.  (St Luke 2 v20).

However, today is only 22ndDecember therefore the Birth is yet to happen and the angel has yet to appear to our humble shepherds, so our meditations are with Mary while Joseph negotiates with the lady innkeeper.

Here is a 17th  century carol by Richard Crashaw wherein he has the shepherds singing in celebration.

In The Holy Nativity of Our Lord God:
A Hymn Sung as by Shepherds

[CHORUS] Come we shepherds, whose blest sight
Hath met love’s noon in nature’s night;
Come lift up our loftier song
And wake the sun that lies too long.

To all the world of well-stol’n joy
He slept; and dreamt of no such thing.
While we found out Heaven’s fairer eye
And kissed the cradle of our King.
Tell him he rises now, too late
To show us aught worth looking at.

Tell him we now can show him more
Than he e’er showed to mortal sight;
Than he himself e’er saw before;
Which to be seen needs not his light.
Tell him, Tityrus, where thou hast been,
Tell him, Tityrus, what thou hast seen.

[TITYRUS] Gloomy night embraced the place
Where the noble Infant lay.
The Babe looked up and showed His face;
In spite of darkness, it was day.
It was Thy day, Sweet! and did rise
Not from the East, but from Thine eyes.

[CHORUS] It was Thy day, Sweet! and did rise
Not from the East, but from Thine eyes.

[THYRSIS] Winter chid aloud; and sent
The angry North to wage his wars.
The North forgot his fierce intent,
And left perfumes instead of scars.
By those sweet eyes’ persuasive powers,
Where he meant frost, he scattered flowers.

[CHORUS] By those sweet eyes’ persuasive powers,
Where he meant frost, he scattered flowers.

[BOTH] We saw Thee in Thy balmy nest,
Young Dawn of our eternal day!
We saw Thine eyes break from Their East
And chase the trembling shades away.
We saw Thee; and we blessed the sight,
We saw Thee by Thine own sweet light.

[TITYRUS] Poor world (said I), what wilt thou do
To entertain this starry Stranger?
Is this the best thou canst bestow?
A cold, and not too cleanly, manger?
Contend, ye powers of heaven and earth
To fit a bed for this huge birth.

[CHORUS] Contend, ye powers of heaven and earth
To fit a bed for this huge birth.

[THYRSIS] Proud world, said I; cease your contest
And let the mighty Babe alone.
The phoenix builds the phoenix’ nest,
Love’s architecture is his own.
The Babe whose birth embraves this morn,
Made His own bed ere He was born.

[CHORUS] The Babe whose birth embraves this morn,
Made His own bed ere He was born.

[TITYRUS] I saw the curled drops, soft and slow,
Come hovering o’er the place’s head;
Offering their whitest sheets of snow
To furnish the fair Infant’s bed:
Forbear, said I; be not too bold:
Your fleece is white, but ’tis too cold.

[CHORUS] Forbear, said we; be not too bold:
Your fleece is white, but ’tis too cold.

[THYRSIS] I saw the obsequious seraphims
Their rosy fleece of fire bestow.
For well they now can spare their wings,
Since heaven itself lies here below.
Well done, said I: but are you sure
Your down, so warm, will pass for pure?

[CHORUS] Well done, said we: but are you sure
Your down, so warm, will pass for pure?

[TITYRUS] No, no, your King’s not yet to seek
Where to repose His royal head.
See, see, how soon His bloomed cheek
Twixt ‘s mother’s breasts is gone to bed.
Sweet choice, said I! no way but so:
Not to lie cold, yet sleep in snow.

[CHORUS] Sweet choice, said we! no way but so:
Not to lie cold, yet sleep in snow.

[BOTH] We saw Thee in Thy balmy nest,
Young Dawn of our eternal day!
We saw Thine eyes break from Their East
And chase the trembling shades away.
We saw Thee; and we blessed the sight,
We saw Thee by Thine own sweet light.

[CHORUS] We saw Thee; and we blessed the sight,
We saw Thee by Thine own sweet light.

[FULL CHORUS] Welcome, all Wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span.
Summer to winter, day in night,
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little One! Whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.

Welcome, though nor to gold nor silk,
To more than Caesar’s birthright is;
Twin sister-seas of virgin-milk,
With many rarely-tempered kiss
That breathes at once both maid and mother,
Warms in the one, cools in the other.

Welcome, though not to those gay flies,
Gilded in the beams of earthly kings,
Slippery souls in smiling eyes;
But to poor shepherds, home-spun things,
Whose wealth’s their flock, whose wit, to be
Well read in their simplicity.

Yet when April’s husband showers
Shall bless the fruitful Maia’s bed,
We’ll bring the first-born of her flowers
To kiss Thy feet and crown Thy head.
To Thee, dread Lamb! whose love must keep
The shepherds, more than they their sheep.

To Thee, meek Majesty! soft King
Of simple graces and sweet loves.
Each of us his lamb will bring,
Each his pair of silver doves;
Till burnt at last in fire of Thy fair eyes,
Ourselves become our own best sacrifice.

Richard Crashaw (1613-1649)

 

Sources.

https://web.archive.org/web/20081223041717/http://www.chd.dk/misc/iconheri.html

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