This large, skillfully illuminated leaf comes from a manuscript of the monk Gratian’s Decretum, the most important canon law text of the Middle Ages written before 1139 in Bologna and accompanied here by the gloss of Bartolomeo da Brescia, completed after 1245. It opens Causa XXXIII of the second part of Gratian’s Decretum with Question 1, introducing the law of indissolubility between two adulterers: Vir quidam maleficiis impeditus uxori sue debitum reddere non poterat. The illumination showing an adulterous woman and man about to be united by a bishop in front of an assembly, as the legitimate husband approaches the new husband and threatens him with a stick. As the case goes, the husband has become impotent through witchcraft, resulting in the wife taking a lover. When the husband regains his virility, his wife is already married. The marriage, however, is reinstated, but the husband then vows celibacy, turning to a life of spiritual abstinence. Not surprisingly, Gratian’s text favors the male in the partnership: “the husband is the head of the wife” and additionally he states that the husband may ignore a vow of abstinence made by his wife if he did not give her permission (though not the other way around!) “because of her subordinate condition, in which she obeys her husband in all things....it is just that the lesser serve the greater.”
Nine illuminated leaves from the same manuscript are held in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (inv. Marlay Cuttings It. 3-11). These are attributed to an artist known as The Marlay Master, named after Charles Brinsley Marlay (1831-1912) who bequeathed the cuttings to the Fitzwilliam. The Marlay Master works closely and in the same style with a group of at least three hands. Their style derives from that of Nerio and precedes those Bolognese artists active in the second quarter of the century, such as the Master of 1328, the Seneca Master, and the Illustratore. One of the Marlay artists was responsible for another illuminated copy of the Decretum in the Vatican (BAV, Vat. Lat. 2492). Striking is the manner in which figures burst out of the frames, the animated gestures of the figures, and their accentuated facial features including large deep-set eyes, Roman noses highlighted in white, and white modeling of the chins and necks. L’Engle and Gibbs (p. 132) praise the artists who “form a more cohesive group than normal among Bolognese illuminators … their compositions are not repeated from Gratian to Gratian … [and] they seem frequently to have preferred to reinvent familiar subjects.”
The page is lavishly illuminated in rich gold leaf and bright pigments with a 4-line initial ‘C’ on a burnished gold background with a beardless male bust facing left; a 5-line initial ‘U’ on a burnished gold background with the bust of a bearded man; a 4-line initial ‘Q’ on a burnished gold background with the profile of a beardless man. The margins are decorated with fantastical creatures, a seated figure wearing black stockings holding a scroll of foliage and an elongated bird-like mammal separating the gloss from the text at the top. There is light brown spotting, a worm hole, very slight wear to the gold and pigment, evidence of contemporary erasures and corrections. The leaf is in remarkably fine condition.
Bologna was a thriving center of study, beginning in the eleventh century with the city’s unofficial schools and continuing in the twelfth century with the origin and rise in importance of the university, to which faculty and students flocked from all over Europe to teach and study law. Pages like this, the sister leaves in the Fitzwilliam, and the many other extant codices pay tribute to the importance of Bologna for legal studies, but also to its wealth, as rich nobles and rulers sought to commission their personal illustrated copies.
Published [The Marlay Master], although our leaf was unknown to the authors: S. L’Engle and R. Gibbs, Illuminating the Law: Legal manuscripts in Cambridge Collections, (exh. cat., Fitzwilliam Museum), London, 2001, pp. 126-33; and T. Kennedy, ed., Medieval Bologna: Art for a University City, (exh. cat., Frist Museum of Art), London, 2021, pp. 50-52