BOOK OF HOURS The Hours of Gabrielle d’Estrées, Use of Paris, illuminated manuscript in Latin and French on vellum

Northern France, (Paris), c. 1480


152 by 105mm, 150 leaves (plus 2 original endleaves at front), complete, collation: i-xi8, xii6, xiii-xvii8, xviii6, xix10 (the last quire including last endleaf and pastedown), catchwords, single column, 20 lines in an angular letter batârde, capitals touched in red, red rubrics, small initials in liquid gold on burgundy, pale blue or brown grounds, line-fillers in same, larger initials in white scrolls on burgundy grounds enclosing foliage sprays on brightly burnished gold ground and accompanying three-quarter miniatures, Obsecro te with three-quarter border of coloured acanthus leaf and other foliage, 8 quarter-page miniatures (for Hours of the Virgin after Matins) with three-quarter borders as before, 6 three-quarter page arch-topped miniatures with figures and draperies heightened with liquid gold strokes, and with borders of foliage on dull-gold and blank parchment shapes, some thumbing to a small number of borders with only significant smudge in border of fol.107r, slightly trimmed at edges with damage to catchwords and loss of outer vertical borders up to edges of decoration on some miniature pages, later architectural designs enclosing human faces with contemporary colouring pasted to front endleaves, seventeenth-century French binding morocco, profusely gilt-tooled with floral sprays and ‘s’ shapes within 2 rows of double fillets, cracking at spine edges, but solid in binding, in fitted brown-cloth covered slipcase.

This finely illuminated Book of Hours has an illustrious provenance, reaching to the height of the sixteenth-century French nobility and innermost parts of the royal court.

The volume comprises: a Calendar (fol.1r); the Gospel readings (fol.13r); the Obsecro te (fol.17v); the Hours of the Virgin, with Matins (fol.21r), Lauds (fol.37v), Prime (fol.47r), Terce (fol.51r), Sext (fol.54v), Nones (fol.58r), Vespers (fol.61v) and Compline (fol.68r); the Seven Penitential Psalms (fol.77r) followed by a Litany and prayers; the Hours of the Cross (fol.101r); the Hours of the Holy Spirit (fol.104r); the Office of the Dead (fol.107r); Suffrages to SS. Christopher, John the Baptist, Genevieve, and Mary Magdalene, followed by prayers to the Virgin. The endleaves at the back are filled with near-contemporary prayers.

The illuminations can be attributed to the Maître de Jacques de Besançon (fl. 1480-1500) and/or his atelier. Actually named François he was the son of the celebrated Maître François (fl. 1465-1480) probably the foremost influence on the illumination of books of hours in later C15 Paris. Between them they were responsible for a large quantity of good “commercial” books of hours as well as some outstanding pieces. While their work is similar, François II had his own distinctive style which has been identified in a book of hours at the université de Québec à Montréal which bears a remarkable resemblance to the present. In particular, the striking and unusual image of a robotic “Death” figure about to spear a shocked young woman is common to both (we are indebted to Brenda Dunn-Lardeau of that university for this information).

The large miniatures comprise: 1. fol.13r, St. John seated in a grassy landscape, writing on a scroll, as his attribute the eagle appears to him; 2 fol.21r, the Annunciation to the Virgin in a richly decorated gothic room, with a small bird in the margin; 3. fol.77r, David kneeling at the foot of a hill as God appears to him in the sky above; 4. fol.101r, the Crucifixion, with a small yellow bird in the border; 5. fol.104r, Pentecost in a detailed gothic interior; 6. fol.107r, Death as a tall corpse wrapped in a white shroud, lifting a spear to strike a young woman in blue dress, as she falls back in horror, the whole scene set before a half-timbered charnel house, with the skulls of the dead stacked up inside the rafters.

Provenance:1. Commissioned by a wealthy Parisian patron in the late fifteenth century, perhaps the young noblewoman who is shown being struck down by a skeletal death on fol.107r: with the three patron saints of the city, SS. Geneviève (3 January), Denis (9 October) and Marcellus (1 November) in red in the Calendar. Near-contemporary additions to the endleaves at the back appeal to the royal virgin saint, Isabelle of France (1224-1270; the sister of St. Louis, and daughter of King Louis VIII, who founded the Franciscan Poor Clare monastery at Longchamps immediately west of Paris; her cult approved in 1521) as “sancta mater ysabella” (sacred mother Isabelle) and “nostre ysabelle” (our Isabelle), perhaps suggesting that the original commissioner retired to that royal monastic house in her old age. 2. Almost certainly used by Gabrielle d’Estrées, mistress of King Henri IV of France, in her devotions: with an inscription of the seventeenth-century on the inside of the front pastedown, describing this book as “manuscrit a[ve]c armes de Gabrielle d Estrees provenent de chateau de Prince de Condé” (the arms presumably once on the previous sixteenth-century binding). The political marriage of Henri IV to Margaret of Valois in 1572, was made with the hope of uniting Catholics and Protestants at the height of the French Wars of Religion, but was far from happy – and Henry as a Protestant Huguenot was even excluded from the religious part of his own marriage ceremony and had to wait outside the Cathedral of Notre Dame. He had a string of mistresses both before and after his elevation to the French monarchy in 1589, but none more important than Gabrielle d Estrées. She was born a Catholic in 1573, and in 1590 met and fell in love with the king at the age of seventeen. They were openly affectionate in public, and deeply devoted, with her accompanying him on campaigns and living in the royal tent, even when heavily pregnant. She was given the titles of Duchess of Beaufort and Verneuil and Marchioness of Monceaux, and served the king as confidant and political advisor as well as lover. She was most probably single-handedly responsible for his conversion to Catholicism in 1593 aimed at bringing the divisive religious wars to an end and enabling his coronation. In 1595 he legitimised by public proclamation his son by Gabrielle, and went on to do this twice more with further children of theirs in the same decade. In 1596 he awarded her a formal place on his royal council. The openness of their relationship and her perceived power over the monarch, bred scandal, and pamphlets circulated ridiculing the couple and nicknaming her La Duchesse d’Ordure (the duchess of filth). In March 1599, after a papal annulment of his actual marriage, Henri proposed to her and gave her his coronation ring. However, married bliss was not to be theirs, and she died suddenly only days later, on 11 April, either through seizures brought on by pregnancy or malicious poisoning. The king was consumed by grief, and setting aside convention wore black in mourning (the first occasion on which a French king did so), and gave her a full state funeral as if she were a queen. She is buried in the abbey of Notre-Dame-La-Royale de Maubuisson Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône (Île-de-France). She is the presumed subject of the erotic painting Gabrielle d Estrées et une de ses soeurs of 1594, now in the Louvre, in which she and her sister sit half-naked in a bath as she holds Henry’s coronation ring in her fingertips and her sister coquettishly touches Gabrielle’s nipple with her thumb and forefinger, and she was also the subject of a posthumous publication: Mémoires secrets de Gabrielle d\'Estrée, presumed to have been written by a close friend. She was not a Parisian herself, and so is unlikely to have inherited the present book from a family member, and more probably she received it as a gift (perhaps even from the original owner in her extreme old age). Its rebinding then with her arms suggests its importance to her.3. Almost certainly later in the library of the Prince de Condé in its first incarnation (perhaps among the 900 manuscripts which formed this family’s early library, before the wild collecting of illuminated manuscripts by Henri d’Orléans, duc d’Aumale, including the celebrated Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, in the mid-nineteenth century; the two parts now forming the opulent library of the Musée Condé, Chantilly.
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