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The Da Costa Hours – Leather Edition
121 brilliant miniatures by Simon Bening
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.399, Ghent/Bruges, ca. 1515

CODICES SELECTI, Vol. CXVI

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Further Pictures

 

Book illumination reached one of its greatest highpoints and at the same time its apogee in the fantastic art of the Ghent-Bruges school – with major artists such as Gerard Horenbout or Gerard David creating unforgettable masterpieces. Yet without a doubt the greatest master of them all is Simon Bening, whose works marked both the climax and conclusion of the great Dutch tradition of book illumination. The Da Costa Hours is probably the greatest early work of this exceptional artist. While some of the 121 brilliant miniatures represent a critical synopsis of what book illumination had produced in the previous centuries, others offer a view of the last great testimonies to the magnificent tradition of Dutch book illumination.

Simon Bening – a “star” of his time

Book illumination was probably already in his blood – after all, his father Alexander was a famous book illuminator. A number of researchers have identified Alexander as the Master of the First Prayer Book of the Emperor Maximilian, and Simon’s uncle was the great painter Hugo van der Goes. Simon Bening was born around 1483 in Bruges or Antwerp; in 1508 he was admitted to the guild of book illuminators in Bruges – this was an indispensable requirement for anyone wishing to work as an artist in the outgoing Middle Ages. Nonetheless, he didn’t settle in Bruges prior to 1519: presumably he lived and worked at his father Alexander’s house. Alexander died in 1519.
At the very same time Simon was being introduced into the art of illumination by his father he also discovered the works of other book illuminators such as Gerard Horenbout, with whom he went on to illustrate marvelous manuscripts. Simon Bening had become the undisputed ‘star’ on the book illuminator scene throughout Europe at the very latest by about 1525 –Êjust like his contemporary Titian, incidentally, in panel painting. Yet even by 1510 or thereabouts he had already managed to establish a major reputation in Europe. His customers included no lesser a figure than Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, one of the most important patrons of art in the 16th century who awarded commissions to major artists of his time such as Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach the Elder.
In 1530 the Portuguese diplomat and humanist Damião de Góis described Bening as being ‘the best master of book illumination in all Europe’ –Êand was entirely right in this assessment. In addition to The Da Costa Hours his masterpieces also include the book of hours for Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg (in private ownership), the Genealogical Tables of the Royal Houses of Spain and Portugal (London, British Library, Add. 12531), the Hennessy book of hours (Brussels, Bibliothéque royale, Ms. II. 158) and the Statutes of the Order of the Golden Fleece (Madrid, Instituto de Don Juan de Valencia). Just like Michelangelo and Titian, Bening went on to live a long life. In 1555 he was still paying his final subscriptions to the guild of book illuminators in Bruges at the age of 71 or 72. When he died in 1561 the great tradition of the Ghent-Bruges school died with him – forever.

Unique artistry and fantastic creations

Bening’s profound knowledge of pictorial language was enormously important for the way he decorated The Da Costa Hours – particularly because the incredible number of miniatures meant that he needed to use a large number of compositional models. For instance, the codex required two cycles of pictures illustrating the Passion of Christ; the first eight for the Passion’s officium and a further four to depict the account of the Passion by the four Evangelists. Equally, the four Evangelists had to appear twice, the first time as authors of the biblical reports they had written and the second time in conjunction with their symbols. To meet these iconographic and compositional requirements Bening drew upon templates dating back to the time of Charles the Bold, the Last Duke of Burgundy. These templates had already been used by painters such as the Viennese Master of Mary of Burgundy.
Yet Bening didn’t simply copy these templates – by completely redeveloping them he acquired a mastery which not even the original creators could ever have dreamed of achieving. To illustrate the point, for the nighttime scene of Christ being taken prisoner on folio 15v Bening used a depiction by the Master of the First Prayer Book of the Emperor Maximilian in the Flora book of hours as his template but dramatically darkened the scene: only a single torch lights the scene. The deep blue which dominates the scene is ideally complemented by the decorative border in green; the same green can also be found again on various parts of garments in the scene itself. Bening’s attempt to design his landscape panoramas even more impressively is revealed in the 12 fullpage calendar miniatures which are probably some of the most famous and best examples of book illumination.

Although great masters of the previous century such as the Limburg brothers and the Master of James IV of Scotland had already created tremendous calendar pictures, Bening perfected this genre in revolutionary fashion: the perspective he gives to the landscapes and the atmospheric design make these pictures stand out in the history of book illumination. One outstanding example for instance is folio 10v, the Labours of the Month of September. The combination of the foreground and centre of the picture is already impressive in itself, yet the low valley, enveloped in a blue light, seems to stretch into infinity. And indeed the horizon bends realistically. This is the first time such a broadening expanse was depicted in this way.

The history

The Da Costa Hours is one of the first manuscripts to have been created by Simon Bening. His first dated work, the Imhof book of hours, is from 1511; our book of hours appeared in 1515 – and it is one of the first masterpieces to have been created for a Spanish customer. For the coat of arms which was painted over on folio 1v has been ascribed to a member of the Sá family from Portugal. The emblem which has been painted over it, however, refers to the man after whom this particular book of hours has come to be named: Don Alvaro da Costa, armourer and treasurer to Manuel I, the King of Portugal who ruled from 1495 to 1521 and founded the Portuguese colonial empire.
According to a history of the Da Costa family, in 1514 the manuscript was given as a present by Pope Leo X to King Manuel I who subsequently passed it on to Don Alvaro. The codex then remained in the possession of the Da Costa family for four centuries. In 1882 the manuscript was put on display in Lisbon by João Afonso Da Costa de Sousa Macedo e Albuquerque (1815-1890). After he died the book of hours was inherited by his younger brother Luiz Antonio da Sousa Macedo e Albuquerque. It is at this point that we lose trace of our manuscript for a while, only for it to reappear in 1905. It is now owned by the London-based antiquary Bernard Quaritch. In the same year he sells the manuscript on to a collector, George C. Thomas from Philadelphia. His successors go on to sell the codex to John Pierpont Morgan in 1910.

The Fine Art Facsimile Edition

The facsimile edition of The Da Costa Hours has now been published as Volume CXVI in the series Codices Selecti. It is a complete reproduction of the manuscript with 388 folios in the original format of 17.2 x 12.5 cm with a faithful edge trim and with colours authentically rendered right down to the last detail. Moreover, the gorgeously engraved gilt edging has also been faithfully reproduced in line with the original. The original shiny gold coatings of the original, the unique atmosphere and mood, and the intensive, brilliant colours are accurately reproduced in the facsimile edition as are the countless initial letters in gold within the text.

The commentary: Your guide to the world of Simon Bening

Gregory T. Clark has provided an extensive scientific commentary. In it he reveals the origins and history of the manuscript, the historical context it was written in, and provides a detailed description of the miniatures, the pages with decorative initials and the entire artistic accoutrements.

   
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