Western and Oriental Manuscripts and Miniatures | 06 December 2017
Bifolium from an early Book of Hours, with an ape holding an object to his...
Bifolium from an early Book of Hours, with an ape holding an object to his nose while a magpie looks at his bottom , in Latin, illuminated manuscript on parchment [France (perhaps Poitiers), c. 1390]
2 leaves (conjoined), with one large dark pink initial ‘D’ (opening “Domina labia mea aperies …”, the reading for Matins in the Hours of the Holy Spirit), finely shaded with white geometric penwork, on a delicate ground of blue with white foliage and burnished gold edging, enclosing a realistic lion’s mask with coloured ivy leaf foliage sprouting from the mouth and ears and all on a burnished gold ground, extending into margins with coloured foliage with serrated gold grounds and a riotously full text border of red and blue leaves arranged like bosses on coloured bars sprouting gold leaves, the corners with further serrated gold grounds and sprays of similar foliage which fill the borders, a finely executed penwork ape in the upper outer corner of the foliage wearing a hood around his shoulders and raising a brown circular object to his nose as a magpie looks at his bottom, all this surrounding single column ruled in pink ink for 12 lines of a good late gothic bookhand (written space: 80 by 54mm.), red rubrics, 2-line initials and line fillers as before, one-line initials in liquid gold on coloured grounds, the remaining pages with one 2-line initial each, terminating in large sprays of gold and coloured foliage in the margins, small spots, slight trimming to top and outer edge (with losses to extreme edges of foliage and edge of ape’s forearm), else in outstandingly fresh and bright condition, each leaf 147 by 110mm.
From a Book of Hours once owned by Edgar Osbourne (d. 1978), chief librarian of Derbyshire and antiquary. This was the finest leaf of that parent volume.
Apes and monkeys commanded great fascination for medieval people, and the wealthy must have seen them often as pets kept in noble courts throughout Europe. In manuscript art they are the masters of the edge of the page, ‘aping’ human action to mock us or bring bawdy or smutty humour in their wake. Here the ape holds a brown circular lump which might be fruit, but on consideration of where the magpie is looking and the common association of apes with toilet humour in the margins of other manuscripts, it might be something far worse. The artist here is embracing the medieval love of dichotomy, offsetting the sacred and beautiful space of the centre of the leaf with an intention to cause the viewer to recoil once the monkey is seen and his action contemplated.
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