The Hidden Treasures

Jean de Mauléon, Paris,1520, The Albiac Book of Hours. Antiquariat Bibermühle AG, Ramsen.

The defeat and death of the last Burgundian Duke, Charles the Bold, in 1477 had far reaching consequences for the political landscape of Europe. Large parts of the mighty Burgundian lands fell into French hands. The wealthiest part, Flanders, was acquired by the Habsburg ruler Maximilian by his marriage with the Burgundian daughter of the last Duke.

The shift of power also led to a change of the production of illuminated books. The industry of illuminated books was booming after the invention of printing and the manufacture was primarily served by the printers in Flanders by the close-knit guilds of Bruges and Ghent in particular, though the Paris and the French kingdom had long roots in the book trade. The beautiful and coloured world of illuminated books and books of hours in particular existed since the twelfth century and religious motives and self representation were among the most important motives for the (aristocrat, ecclesiastical and wealthy burgher) clients or patrons. Artists from all over Europe contributed to the illuminations.

The picture of the production and trade in books suggests a close-knit group of specialist craftsmen, tradesmen and a small group of wealthy clients. Drawing and painting were needed both for the making of books, but a good command of (ancient) literature was a sine qua non. The highly visualized medieval and renaissance world understood the meaning of each symbol, word or comma. The way we understand today the symbols of fast food restaurants, google or or pop stars. The elite culture is replaced by mass culture, religious symbolism is replaced by sport marks, but the principles remain the same: visualization of a message. Another difference with the past is the anonymity of the artists.

From many paintings or illuminated books we don’t know the names of the artists, though we admire their works until today. The world of the illuminated books reveals an almost unrivaled beauty, where the medium is the message. The hidden world of the illuminated books  knows many master pieces of art. Another difference with paintings and fresco’s is the authentic legacy. Many paintings and fresco’s have been changed, repaired or damaged in the course of their history, illuminated books, however, still give the original picture. Famous artists as the brothers Van Eyck, the Limburg Brothers and Rogier van der Weyden started their career by illuminating books.  (Source: N. Barker, ‘The Printed Book of Hours’in The Book Collector, Volume 53, Nr. 3, Autumn 2004).