BOOK OF HOURS The Hours of Catherine Semo, Use of Rouen, in Latin and French, illuminated manuscript on vellum

Flanders, (ms), beginning of 15th century


132 leaves (including one original endleaf at front), wanting a single leaf, collation most probably i12, ii8, iii4, iv8, v8, vi8, vii9 (fol. 50 a singleton added), viii8, ix8, x4, xi9 (one leaf missing before fol. 78), xii8, xiii6, xiv8, xv10, xvi6, xvii8 (see Leuchtendes Mittelalter V, no. 17), single column, 16 lines in a fine and angular late gothic bookhand, capitals occasionally touched in yellow, rubrics in red, small initials in blue with red penwork or liquid gold with black penwork, line-fillers in same, larger initials in burnished gold on blue and pink grounds touched with white penwork, these often with sprays of single-line foliage with gold leaves and flowerheads in margins, fourteen three-quarter page miniatures set within profusely filled borders on all sides of single line foliage with gold leaves enclosing realistic sprays of vividly coloured flowers and mirrored sprays of stylised acanthus leaves, all miniatures above large initials in blue or pink heightened with white penwork which enclose stylised floral sprays and are set on brightly burnished gold grounds, some set within thick decorative framing bars of colours and gold panels on three sides, the border decoration on fol. 25r with foliage emerging from a gilded pot in the bas-de-page supported by two human-headed winged creatures with long golden tails like peacocks, two leaves with ownership device of an initial ‘G’ speared by a dagger set in centre of all three outer margins, the first with another dagger in the border at its lower outer corner (see below), some small smudges and spots, but overall excellent condition with wide and clean margins, 200 by 145mm., bound in eighteenth-century English mottled calf with double gilt-fillet, cracking at edges of spine, but sound.

This is an impressive and glittering large-format Book of Hours, from the library of a named female Norman aristocrat of the sixteenth-century, and in a crisp and excellent state of preservation.

The volume comprises: a Calendar (fol. 1r), the Passion Readings (fol. 13r), the O intemerata (fol. 17r) and Obsecro te (21r), the Hours of the Virgin (fol. 25r), the Seven Penitential Psalms (fol. 78r), the Office of the Dead (fol. 92r), followed by a Litany, Suffrages to the Saints (fol. 118v), and French prayers including Doulce dame (fol. 119v).

The artist here owes much to the grand era of commercial production in Paris in the opening decades of the fifteenth century. A number of his compositions, such as the depiction of God the father closely follow the models of the Boucicaut Master (fl. 1400-1430), the most original commercial artist working in Paris in the early decades of the fifteenth century. His palette is bright and sparkling, and his use of gold is extravagant and eye-catching.

The large miniatures comprise: 1. The Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, within a brightly coloured gothic interior with pink columns, blue and red vaulting and a delicately painted chandelier, as the Virgin kneels to read from a book open on her prie-dieu; 2. the Vistation of the Virgin to St. Anne, before a tesselated background in gold and colours; 3. The Nativity, with the Virgin reclining and gazing at the Child in swaddled clothes as Joseph sits at the foot of the bed; 4. Annunciation to the Shepherds, set in a rocky landscape as three angels descend singing from a roll; 5. The Adoration of the Magi, with Joseph seated in the foreground and one of the kings doffing his crown to the Child; 6. The Presentation in the Temple, set within a rich pink gothic interior beneath a deep blue sky with golden stars; 7. The Flight into Egypt, in a rocky landscape before a medieval walled town; 8. The Coronation of the Virgin, as God the Father sits next to her and blesses her while an angel sets the crown on her head, all within a precisely painted interior with silver windows and ornamental stonework spires; 9. The Crucifixion, between the Virgin and St. John with two others on crosses in background, all before a richly tessellated ground; 10. Pentecost, with the Virgin seated on a throne, hands clasped together in prayer and surrounded by followers as the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove; 11. Funeral Service with a tonsured priest kneeling before the altar as rows of mourners in black and a choir begin to sing from open books ; 12. St. Margaret being swallowed by a scaly gold dragon, and emerging from a fissure in its side, rectangular miniature with armorial devices in borders (see above); 13. The Virgin and Child seated on a large red throne before a black background covered in gold acanthus leaves, with the original owner of the book kneeling in adoration, rectangular miniature with armorial devices in borders (see above); 14. God the Father holding Christ on the Cross, seated before a large red curtain, rectangular miniature.

Provenance: 1. Written and illuminated in Flanders in the early 1400s, most probably for the patron whose portrait can be found on fol. 119v, with him kneeling in devotion as a clean-shaven young man in sumptuous dark-pink robes before the Virgin and Child, and whose device of a gilt initial ‘G’ pierced vertically with a tiny dagger can be found in all three outer margins of that miniature as well as that of St. Margaret on fol. 118v. The latter perhaps showing especial devotion to that saint. He was most probably a native of Rouen (note St. Albinus of Angers for 1 March in sparse Calendar and St. Ouen of Rouen [under variant spelling “Audoene”] in Litany). The device may allude to the name le Geurchoys/Geurchois, as the book was owned in the sixteenth century by Catherine Semo, wife of Guillaume le Guerchoy of Rouen, Lieutenant-General to the Vicomte de Rouen, with her lengthy inscription promising wine on St. Martin’s day to the finder (and presumably returner) of the book, added in a fine calligraphic hand to front flyleaf (scribbled over and with letters partly obscured and altered by later hand) above her signature: “Ces heures appartiennent a honneste femme Catherine Semu, femme de très honorable homme Guillaume le guerechoys lieutenant g’nal en sa viconte de royen parce qui les trouvera si les luy rende et il aura son vin Le jour de St. Martin”. Her husband was certainly a member of the le Geurchoys/Geurchois family of Rouen, who were a numerous clan of influential local bureaucrats and government figures, and is recorded elsewhere in 1575 as in the service of the Vicomte, as well as in the 1560s to 1580s as “avocat du Roi”. She is not apparently recorded anywhere else, and this inscription may be the sole surviving evidence of her life.3. In the library of John Borthwick, of Crookston, by the nineteenth century at least: printed armorial bookplate with pen inscription “number in catalogue XXII”. The Borthwicks claimed lordship in the peerage of Scotland (although John Borthwick was never the head of that family), living at Crookston House in Midlothian in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries before rebuilding it on a grander scale in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. They possessed a grand library from the late seventeenth century onwards, with manuscript volumes now in the Bodleian (a twelfth-century Jerome on Mark from the London Carmelite convent, and with the Borthwicks since 1688; an English Pseudo-Bonaventure of the fifteenth century; and a twelfth-century French Ivo of Chartres, Panormia), the Bibliothèque nationale de France (a collection of Arabic treatises on astrology in French translation, dated 1349), the Beinecke at Yale (a mid-fifteenth-century Middle English translation of the Stimulus Amoris by Hilton; and a fifteenth-century Guillaume de Tigonville, Dits Moraux de Philosophes), and Bryn Mawr College, PA. (Book of Hours of Low Countries origin, from c. 1460). This volume passed by descent to Major J.H.S. Borthwick; his sale Sotheby’s, 3 June 1946, lot 204 (with illustration), to the bookseller Thorpe for £210.4. Reappearing in Tenschert, Leuchtendes Mittelalter V: Psalter und Stundenbuch in Frankreich vom 13. bis zum 16. Jahrhundert, no. 17.5. Carlo de Poortere (1917-2002): with his red leather label with gilt embossed binding carriage on front endleaf.
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