This Annunciationis a fine example of illumination deriving directly from the Beautiful Style, the greatest flowering of artistic production in Bohemia in the years around 1400 at the court of King Wenceslas IV (r. 1378-1419) in Prague. The Angel Gabriel addresses the Virgin Mary with the words “Ave Maria gratia plena” written on the scroll between the two figures. The initial ‘E’ very likely begins the chant “Ecce virgo concipiet…” sung in Advent, drawn from the prophesy of Isaiah foretelling that Jesus was born to a virgin.
The similarity of the illumination and script (on the verso of the miniature) with manuscripts made during the reign of Wenceslas is clear. Although there was no uniform artistic expression during this later period, even among painters in Prague, various stylistic elements in our miniature suggest that it dates from the tumultuous years that followed. In the course of the Hussite wars (1419-1436), illuminators continued to make reference to the Beautiful Style, especially in representations of Biblical figures, such as the Virgin Mary here, but in general their figures became firmer, draperies plainer, facial features more austere with eyelids resembling “slits of vision,” and hair often presented in a solid mass. A preference for the colors green and lemon yellow can also be observed in this later style, while in works of the Beautiful Style the palette was rich and the colors jewel-like and glowing. The draperies of our artist, however, are lyrically soft and flowing with rhythmic pockets of shadow, comparable to the voluminous folds suggesting sculptural fullness in the Beautiful Style. The sleeves of the Virgin’s blue cloak form two symmetric cascades of V-shaped folds falling down her shoulders, while the lines of the hem make a delicate curve around her knees suggesting the tender moment of meeting, as she rises from genuflection to face the angel. The Virgin’s hair curls smoothly under the diadem-like circlet and cascades over her shoulder, while the hair of the angel is electrically frizzy. The wavy lines that streak through the hair pursue the ornamental quality characteristic of the Bohemian artists (cf. Schmidt in Drake Boehm and Fajt 2005, pp. 108-110).
The facial type is a descendant of exceptional Bohemian models such as the Annunciate of c. 1400 at Harvard (fig. 1, drawing, Harvard University Art Museums, 1947.80) and the head of a woman at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, representing the Virgin Mary and associated by its style with an Antiphonary made for the Seitenstetten Abbey around 1405 (fig. 2, watercolor on vellum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010.119). An instructive comparison of the figures and draperies in our miniature can also be made with approximately a dozen leaves cut from an Antiphonal painted in Prague c. 1400-1410 (fig. 3, New York, Morgan Library and Museum, MS M. 961; no. 116e in Drake Boehm and Fajt 2005). In addition, the deeply cusped leaves in the framework of the letter ‘E’ are borrowed from a fourteenth-century model, such as the punch work in the Virgin and Child panel painted in Prague in 1345-50 (fig. 4, Prague, Rimskokatolicka farnost u Sv. Jakuba Starsiho Praha-Zbraslav; no. 5 in Drake Boehm and Fajt 2005). This attachment to a fourteenth-century ornamental tradition is repeated in the contrast between the floor tiles that recede in a gradation of silver (now oxidized in gray) and meet with an ornamental background filled with filigree patterns. Comparable backgrounds in gold filigree are found in the above-mentioned Antiphonary made in Prague c. 1400-1410 (figs 5 and 6, J. Paul Getty Museum, MS 97, ff. 2v, 3v; nos. 116f and 116h in Drake Boehm and Fajt 2005). The most inventive celebration of ornament in our miniature is perhaps the subtle play of gold tones that articulate the feathers in the angel’s wings.
The initial ‘E’ enclosing the Annunciation most probably begins the chant “Ecce virgo concipiet…” sung on Wednesdays during the Advent season, as well as on the fourth Advent Sunday. It derives from Isaiah 7:14, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The text on the verso of the miniature confirms the context in the hour of Compline at Christmas. The rubric on the verso reads: “Ad completorium: Veni redemptor gentius, v. custodi nos Domine. Super psalmo antifona cum ceteris” and announces the Christmas hymn of St. Ambrose, Veni redemptor gentius, and the antiphon from psalm 4:2, which can be read in part on the fragment, “Mi[serere mei, et exaudi] orationem meam. Cum [invocarem exaudivit me Deus justitiae meae, in tribulatione dilatasti mihi]” (the two phrases of the verse are inverted).
We are grateful to Dr. Maria Theisen for her expertise.
Unpublished; for comparisons and further reading, see:
B. Drake Boehm and J. Fajt (eds), Prague: The Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437, New York, New Haven, and London, 2005.
P. Brodský and J. Pařez, Katalog iluminovaných rukopisů Stahovské knihovny, Prague, 2008.
P. Brodský, Iluminované rukopisy českého původu v polských sbírkách, Prague, 2004.
P. Brodský, Katalog iluminovaných rukopisů Knihovny Národního muzea v Praze, Prague, 2000.
E. Kloss, Die schlesische Buchmalerei des Mittelalters, Berlin, 1942.