Faksimile Editionen

The Savoy Hours

The Most Noble Fragment of a Lost Masterpiece

New Haven, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, MS 390

Some of the most imposing names in French bibliophily—the Duke of Berry’s, above all, along with his older brother, the French king Charles V—are associated with the Savoy Hours. This manuscript began a bibliophilic competition between the two brothers, to whom we are indebted for the most beautiful medieval books of hours. It was created between 1335 and 1340 for Blanche of Burgundy, the granddaughter of the canonized Louis IX. Even in those days the work must have drawn attention, thanks to the wealth of ornamentation and the number of miniatures of high ­artistic quality. In the 1370s the art ­aficionado Charles V purchased the magnificent Savoy Hours and kept it in his private chambers among his most favourite books. Ultimately, in 1409, Charles V’s son presented the highly desirable Savoy Hours to his uncle, John of Berry.

 

French Gothic – setting the style for future manuscripts

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Paris was the uncontested centre of manuscript illumination in Europe. Blanche of Burgundy, the granddaughter of the French King Louis IX, known as St. Louis, was also the widow of Edward, Count of Savoy. In the 1330s she commissioned the workshop of the famous Jean Pucelle to create her luxurious Book of Hours. Only the best was good enough.

 

Gothic elegance and brilliant gold in fifty miniatures

Graceful, slim figures whose elegant gestures radiate great ease, and faces outlined in fine strokes and harmonious proportions comprise the allure of the miniatures in the Savoy Hours. Every image appears against a background ornamented in gold, whether it depicts small rhombuses, curving foliage, delicate lines, or generous planes. Aside from the purely decorative motifs, the illuminator also sometimes added landscape components in order to reinforce the narrative power of his scene. An elegant band of blue, white, and red in a quatrefoil shape with rectangular points frames the scene.

 

A stroke of luck for art history

It is an absolute stroke of luck for art history that the Savoy Hours has remained partially intact. As is so often the case in art history, a burglary turned out favourably—in retrospect. In the eighteenth century the manuscript was the property of Victor Amadeus II, Duke of Savoy. In 1720 the duke donated his book collection to the Bibioteca Nazionale e Universitaria in Turin, of which he was the founder. The Savoy Hours fell victim to the library’s devastating fire in 1904, and it was believed that this masterpiece was irretrievably lost, until 1910, when a monk in the Catholic Episcopal Library at Portsmouth Cathedral discovered twenty-six pages from the Savoy Hours. Obviously, they had been removed at an earlier point in time and for some unknown reason wound up in England.

 

The bishop’s legacy

The first bishop of Portsmouth, John Virtue, donated the Savoy Hours, along with the rest of his enormous library, to the diocese, with the stipulation that no book from the collection would ever be sold. During the Blitz in World War II, however, the entire library had to be stored elsewhere. When a London book dealer in the mid-1960s recognized the value of the Savoy Hours, the fragment was immediately put into the vault, which was broken into shortly thereafter. At that point, the bishop and chapter of Portsmouth decided to auction the books to protect them, and to make them available to scholars. It must have been a difficult task to justify taking this step, which violated the bishop’s express instructions. So all of the bookplates in all of the books from the Virtue and Cahill Library, including the one in the Savoy Hours, were covered over—an intriguing testimony to recent library history that once again proves that “books have their own destinies.” You’ll find many more interesting details in the volume of commentary that accompanies the facsimile edition.

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University in New Haven (USA) is one of the world’s largest archives of rare books and manuscripts. The Beinecke family donated the library to Yale in 1963. In 1969 the library acquired the precious fragment of the Savoy Hours.

 

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