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Simon Bening (1483 - 1561)



July 9, 2001
London, United Kingdom

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[Bruges, 1530-1535] 59 x 42mm. 216 leaves including a first blank endleaf and two final leaves ruled otherwise blank, mostly in gatherings of eight with 13 inserted singletons with miniatures, apparently COMPLETE, 15 lines written in black ink in a round gothic bookhand between two verticals and 16 horizontals ruled in red, justification: 38 x 25mm, rubrics of pink, one- and two-line initials of liquid gold on grounds alternately of blue, grey and red, four- to six-line initials of foliage or branches of liquid gold or white against coloured grounds flecked and framed with liquid gold, TWELVE CALENDAR MINIATURES of the occupations of the months, TWENTY-TWO FULL-PAGE MINIATURES in narrow frames most with spandrel brackets in the upper corners, TWENTY-THREE FULL-PAGE BORDERS of Ghent/Bruges type, many of strewn flowers on grounds of yellow or brown flecked with gold, and including birds or insects, others where the flowers are replaced with jewels, emblems, animals or figures (slight thumbing and darkening at edges, particularly affecting the Calendar, small pigment losses affecting the face of the Virgin in the Annunciation, the hair of God in the Coronation of the Virgin, the face of one of the angels in the Man of Sorrows, the mantle of the Virgin in the Virgin and Child, a small smudge to the face of the Virgin in St Anne with the Virgin and Child, a v-shaped loss from the border of f.94 the fragment surviving in the gutter). Spanish or Portuguese early 19th-century panelled red morocco with a double gilt fillet, gilt spine in four compartments tooled with a leaf spray, copper-gilt clasp and catch with crossed cross and anchor and a flaming heart, the symbols of the Theological Virtues. AN UNKNOWN WORK FROM BENING'S FINEST PERIOD: OF JEWEL-LIKE EXECUTION AND SIZE PROVENANCE: Like many of the most splendid 16th-century Flemish manuscripts this exquisite Book of Hours contains no certain evidence to indicate its early ownership. The sparse Calendar does, however, include in red the feast of Vincent of Saragossa (22 January), and the Litany has Berard and his associates among the martyrs, and Engratia of Saragossa as the final virgin. All three of these saints were venerated in Portugal, and it is possible that the manuscript went to, and remained in, that country for the binding seems most likely to be Portuguese or Spanish. It is clear from Damiao de Goes' oft-quoted appraisal of Bening's work how high his reputation was in Portugal by 1530, and he is known to have undertaken several commissions for Portuguese royalty and members of their court. CONTENT: Calendar ff.2-8; Office of the Virgin, use of Rome ff.10-114v: matins f.10, lauds f.37, prime f.54, terce f.62, sext f.69, none f.76, vespers f.83, compline f.94, variants f.101v; Seven Penitential Psalms ff.116-129v; Litany ff.129v-141v; Office of the Dead ff.143-175v; Prayers to Christ ff.177-194: Conditor celi et terre rex regum f.177, Salve sancta facies f.182, O dulcissime domine iesu f.f.185, O domine iesu xpe adoro te in cruce pendentem f.192; Obsecro te ff.195-199v; Suffrages ff.201-214v: to Sts Michael f.201, John the Baptist f.203, Peter f.205, James f.207, Christopher f.209, Anne f.212, Mary Magdalene f.214 ILLUMINATION: No renaissance illuminator had a higher reputation than Simon Bening -- 'the best master in the art of illumination in all of Europe' -- and the assessment of his contemporaries remains undisputed. By the 1530s -- the likely date of the present Hours -- he was patronised by princely patrons in Spain, Portugal and Germany as well as in his homeland. Later in the century his achievements were not only celebrated by compatriot historians, Denis Harduyn and Antonius Sanderus, but also by Guicciardini and Vasari. Simon was born around 1483, probably in Ghent, the son of the illuminator Sanders Bening (fl.1469, d.1519) and Kathelijn van der Goes, probably the sister or niece of the great painter Hugo. His family was also connected to the great painter Rogier van der Weyden. Simon could hardly have been born into circumstances more favourable for his artistic development. In 1500 he was required to register his mark at the painters' hall in Bruges, showing that he must already have been producing miniatures for sale in the city, and he joined the Guild of St John and St Luke there in 1508. From 1517 onwards he paid annual dues to the Bruges guild and became a citizen, settling there permanently, in 1519. In 1522 he presented the guild with a large Crucifixion miniature in lieu of fees, and he often contributed considerable sums for the decoration of the guild chapel. He served as dean of the guild in 1525, 1536 and 1546. Everything shows his career to have been long, prosperous and prolific. He lived until 1561 and two self-portraits dated 1558 attest to his enduring artistic activity and ability (London, V&A, P.159-1910 and New York, Metropolitan Lehman Collection, M.191). Few documented works survive from this long and successful career: and those that are the most certain -- the five leaves of the Genealogy of the Infante Dom Fernando of Portugal (BL, Add. Ms 12531), which Bening painted between 1530 and 1534 on drawings by the Portuguese artist Antonio de Hollanda -- are far from characteristic products of an illuminator's output. Of the known signed works, the Crucifixion in a Missal made in 1530 for the town hall at Diksmuide, which was the basis for the early attributions to Bening, was destroyed in the First World War. The surviving signed works are limited to the self-portraits and the Passion Prayerbook of Albrecht of Brandenburg (Los Angeles, J.Paul Getty Museum, Ludwig Ms IX, 19), which is signed with the initials SB. Around this core a large and ever-increasing body of work has been identified as Bening's. The present manuscript -- entirely unrecorded and previously unknown -- is an exceptional and exciting addition. Small, personal prayerbooks, either Hours or Rosaria, seem to have been a speciality of Bening. A number of such manuscripts survive with miniatures by him, and of a size that would have enabled their owners to have carried them around and kept them close. Few of these books are as extensively autograph as the present manuscript and none, as far as we have been able to ascertain, is as small. It seems likely that it was intended to be worn, serving both as devotional aid and as jewellery; it could have been hung around the neck or, more probably, from the girdle of its owner. In spite of their size the miniatures of this Book of Hours are of the highest quality: incredibly detailed, affecting and atmospheric and painted in Bening's most polished technique. Many of the compositions are both iconographically and compositionally inventive. There are no concessions to scale: it is a virtuoso performance. In the Calendar miniatures, often no taller than 11mm 7/16 inch), lively figures are set in extensive landscapes that convincingly convey seasonal conditions. Bening's full-page Calendar scenes are rightly accepted as one of his greatest achievements but the restricted space available to him in this manuscript clearly triggered a fresh and thoughtful response. Where possible he exploited the relative sparseness of the feasts listed by the scribe to extend the miniature field up into the two text columns. This resulted in variable and irregular stepped tops to the scenes. In each case his composition of the month's occupation makes use of these extensions to focus attention, emphasise movement or augment the content. For February this is exploited to provide a composition more pertinent to its place in a liturgical Calendar than the habitual subjects of pruning or wood-gathering. On the left a family of four carries candles as they follow a path that joins a wider way on the right-hand side. The additional height on that side houses an abbey, the destination of various groups of waiting or processing figures, all of them heading to celebrate one of February's major feasts, Candlemas: Bening has given expression to the liturgical context in contemporary terms. November's miniature of a stag-hunt is the most irregular shape with two central stepped projections. These are used to show diagonal progression as hounds from both sides pursue the stag who, unwittingly, heads towards the most distant -- and highest -- figure of a horseback hunter. There is a comparable resourcefulness and the display of supreme skill in the full-page miniatures. Although these miniatures are no more than 45mm (1 and 3/4 inches) tall, single figures of saints have an imposing presence and a monumental solidity, narratives are populous and packed with incident, and the iconic devotional images are deeply touching. The sweet, contemplative Virgin in the half-length Virgin and Child of folio 194v, so clearly adored by her infant son, would no doubt have seemed the perfect conduit for the prayers of the owner. Following James Marrow's listing of dated and datable manuscripts (see below) several scholars have analysed the evolution of Bening's style and suggested a chronological framework. There was a change in style around 1530, a move to using smaller brushstrokes resulting in a velvety texture, softer-edged forms and a more atmospheric character to the miniatures; landscapes are more convincingly articulated and include deep vistas in cool blues and greens; figures are more convincingly set in space and shown in a more realistic scale to their setting (see Kren, Testa and Hindman in the references below). The Calendar scenes are an almost magical demonstration of these qualities and they also characterise the full-page miniatures. Even those compositions based on treatments found in other Bening manuscripts are transformed to heighten the impression of recession. The Virgin and Elizabeth in the Visitation, for example, are a familiar pair and the entire composition is clearly a reworking of a commonly used model, for example in the Norfolk Hours (Duke of Norfolk collection, Arundel Castle) and the 'Flower' Book of Hours in Munich (Bayerische Staatsbibl. Clm 23637). Yet the rocky outcrop that forms a backdrop behind the saints in those manuscripts has been moved from its central, middle-ground position -- its distinctive contour is visible over to the left and so far off that aerial perspective renders it blue. All of the space has been opened up, the central couple no longer stands on a foreground stage but on a path that winds back towards Zachariah's house. Zachariah too no longer has a prominent position in the middle-ground; although recognisably the same figure, he is now so scaled down and far removed from the central event that were it not for knowledge of the other versions he might be thought an anonymous piece of scene-setting. The Visitation and the Flight into Egypt were the only subjects in the Infancy cycle that were suitable stages for Bening to demonstrate his accomplishment in representing open country and aerial perspective; but in the illustrations to the Suffrages he was able to create a succession of remarkable landscapes. Rather than the sequence, sometimes repetitive, of half-length figures that often introduce such prayers, here Bening has chosen to show the saints full-length and in complex and detailed settings. The river, banks and landscape in the St Christopher miniature -- a remarkable and fresh interpretation of the subject -- is very similar to that of the Baptism of Christ in the Beatty Rosarium (Dublin, Chester Beatty Lib. Ms W.99), thought to date around 1530. This is just one of the analogies found in the two manuscripts and it seems most likely that the present Hours was painted during the same period. Comparison with the Book of Hours written by Anthony van Damme (New York, Pierpont Morgan Lib. Ms M.451), and dated by him 1531, confirms such a dating. Several compositions are found in both books but the treatment of the New York miniatures, albeit they are fifty percent larger, is broader and less detailed: there is no deep architectural setting behind the group of figures in the Mass of St Gregory, and St Michael vanquishes Lucifer against a mandorla of coloured light rather than the more detailed sombre, rocky and fiery background of Hell. The miniatures of the van Damme Hours are framed in a variety of ways, including some with surrounding Ghent/Bruges borders but in the present manuscript Bening uses just one framing device, a simple moulding, usually with spandrels in the upper corners, that he continued to use in his latest works. His miniatures are presented like panel paintings, in defiance of their tiny size and flexible pages. By banishing the Ghent/Bruges borders to text pages, Bening minimised the attraction of the spectator's eye back away from the prospect into sacred history that he had so naturalistically portrayed. The greater attention to detail, the expansion of subject-matter and the display of his mastery of landscape and delight in different light effects -- the miraculous light of the Christ Child illuminating the Nativity, the fire in the stable lighting Joseph's face in the Adoration of the Magi, the reflection of St Christopher's clothing in the water -- all suggest that this manuscript was made by Bening as a demonstration of his supreme technical mastery and artistic sensibility. Everything is consistent with this being a work of the early 1530s, described by Testa as 'the period of greatest accomplishment'. MINIATURES: Each month of the Calendar occupies a single page. Framed within a simple fictive moulding, the feasts are written in two columns above a bas-de-page scene of the relevant occupation in a landscape setting. The occupations are as follows: f.1v a snow-covered landscape with a house on the left where a woman warming herself before the fire is visible through the open door, an old woman with her overskirt over her head and blowing on her fingers walks by followed by two snowballing children (January): f.2 a family carrying candles walk towards a road leading to an abbey, two other men, perhaps friars, approach from the right foreground (February): f.2v a woodcutter chops at the trunk of a large tree watched by two noblemen with a greyhound (March): f.3 two shepherds release their sheep from a hut and lead them towards summer pasture (April): f.3v a nobleman and woman walk in a wood, his horse tethered at the left (May): f.4 a shepherd shearing a sheep, two other sheep grazing and another man passing by (June): f.4v haymaking, a man scything in the foreground, a woman in the middle distance (July): f.5 harvesting, in the foreground a man cuts corn while a woman to the left ties sheaves, on the right beyond a five-bar gate a woman from a distant house brings food (August): f.5v ploughing, one man behind the plough pulled by two horses, another man in the foreground taking ?water from a bucket (September): f.6 three men and a child wait with an ox in the yard outside the room where two men slaughter another ox (October); f.6v hunting, in the foreground two huntsmen on foot, one blowing a horn, send their hounds in pusuit of a stag who runs towards open country and the waiting rider (November): f.7 slaughtering a hog, a man straddling the pig and slitting its throat while a woman catches the blood in a pan, a woman in the doorway of a cottage and two children watch (December) The subjects of the full-page miniatures are as follows: f.9v Annunciation, in a late gothic bedchamber, with countryside and a distant town visible through the open window f.36v Visitation, Zachariah outside his large country house towards the background f.53v Nativity, a night scene with the adoring figures of the Virgin, Joseph and angels lit by the miraculous light coming from the Christ Child f.61v Annunciation to the Shepherds, a night scene with two shepherds in the foreground and two in the distance looking up towards the angel f.68v Adoration of the Magi, set under the eaves of the stable, a midwife visible inside heating water, Herod's soldiers approaching from the distance f.75v Presentation in the Temple f.82v Flight into Egypt, with the ox following the Holy Family, the idol falling behind them and a squad of soldiers in the distance f.93v Coronation of the Virgin, the Virgin kneeling in front of a gothic bench where identical figures of God the Father and Christ are seated f.115v King David in Penitence f.142v Raising of Lazarus with St Peter unbinding Lazarus's hands f.176v Crucifixion with the Virgin and John the Evangelist, Jerusalem in the valley f.181v St Veronica displaying the vernicle after the passage of Christ on the way to Calvary f.184v Man of Sorrows, Christ seated on the lid of a tomb, flanked by two angels, holding the nails and displaying the wound in his side f.191v Mass of St Gregory, set in a gothic church with spectators watching through the screen as Gregory elevates the host and the figure of Christ appears on the altar, a cardinal in the foreground holding Gregory's papal tiara f.194v Virgin and Child in half-length f.200v St Michael conquering Lucifer, with the fires of Hell in the background f.202v St John the Baptist, beside the Jordan and pointing Christ out to his three companions f.204v St Peter, standing and holding a key and a book, and visible again penitent in a cave in the right background, Jerusalem with the Holy Sepulchre in the distance f.206v St James, in the background two travellers and their dog head towards the shore and the ships f.208v St Christopher, the saint, nearly waist-deep in water, scoops the tiny figure of Christ into his arms, deer and a shelter on the distant shore f.211v St Anne with the Virgin and Child, Anne enthroned with the Virgin and Child seated at her feet, houses and people visible to either side of the cloth of honour f.213v St Mary Magdalene, the penitent saint, bare-breasted and holding a crucifix aloft, kneels in a grotto, a prowling fox and grazing deer up above REFERENCES: J. Marrow, 'Simon Bening in 1521: A group of Dated Miniatures', Liber amicorum Herman Liebaers (1984), pp.537-59 T. Kren, Renaissance Painting in Manuscripts, Treasures from the British Library (1983), pp.79-85 T. Kren, J. Rathofer, Simon Bening: Fl„mischer Kalendar (1998), facsimile of Munich Bayerische Staatsbibl. Clm.23 638 J. Testa, The Beatty Rosarium: A Manuscript with Miniatures by Simon Bening (1986), facsimile of Dublin, Chester Beatty Lib. Ms W.99 J. Testa, 'An unpublished manuscript by Simon Bening', Burlington Magazine, 136 (1994), pp.416-426 S. Hindman in The Robert Lehmann Collection, IV, Illuminations (1997), pp.98-119.

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July 9, 2001, 12:00 AM EST

London, United Kingdom