Three vibrant miniatures from a Dominican codex
Master of B 18 (fl. 1325–1340s)
In one of only two references to the visual arts in the Divine Comedy, Dante singles out manuscript illuminators in Bologna as among the greatest in Europe. Bologna was the largest city in Italy and the fifth largest city in Europe, outranking Paris. For three centuries from c. 1300 through the fifteenth century, the city witnessed a period of great prosperity – in culture and the arts, in its religious foundations, and in commerce and civic activities. Its master illuminators include the First and Second Masters of San Domenico, Nerio (whose style quotes directly from Giotto who spent time in the city in the 1330s) and the Master of 1346 and the “Illustratore,” culminating in the action-packed narratives of Nicolo di Giacomo (1349-1403) at the end of the fourteenth century. Its famous university led to Bologna becoming a center for manuscript illuminations of law books, but its wealthy religious institutions fostered biblical and Christological sequences such as shown here.
Three vibrant miniatures painted in Bologna in the second quarter of the fourteenth century by one of the finest artists of the Bolognese milieu, the Master of B 18. Though evidence of the parent manuscript is limited, another miniature from this book depicting Abraham with Three Angels is also known (previously Les Enluminures MIN 50433) and was executed by the Hungarian Master (fl. 1325-1340s). The shimmering decoration in these surviving cuttings indicates that it was certainly a sumptuous codex, possibly a Vita of saints created for the convent of San Domenico in Bologna where both are documented through commissions. The miniatures represent the only known collaboration between these two masters and mark an important moment in the development of Bolognese miniature painting. Their notable provenance in the Holford Collection signals their appreciation at an early date.
The three the miniatures – MIN 50431, Saint Thomas Aquinas receiving the cord of chastity from two angels (recto), Three Marys (verso) and MIN 50432, Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saint – can be attributed to the Master of B 18 (active Bologna and Padua ca. 1325–1340s). Previously known as Secondo Maestro di San Domenico, the artist was prolific in the second quarter of the fourteenth century, illustrating a great variety of manuscripts from religious texts to legal documents (fig. 1). His current designation stems from his illumination of a volumen parvum in Padua (Biblioteca Capitolare, MS B 18). Of the three present miniatures, MIN 50432, Virgin Enthroned with Saint, is clearly by his hand while the recto-verso pair of MIN 50431 was likely executed by his workshop. The kneeling figures here of the Dominicans are less carefully rendered. Otherwise, the fork-like hands, tubular figures, bulbous noses, thin curved eyebrows, and beady eyes painted with a straight line above and a triangular dark pool below, are characteristic of this illuminator’s style.
Stylistic details date the miniatures to around 1325 or slightly later, early in the artist’s career (Thomas Aquinas was canonized in 1323). In particular, the rectangular background in MIN 50431 is hatched with diagonal gold crisscrossed lines forming diamond shapes that enclose four-petaled flowers set in alternating bands of white, green, and blue. This type of patterned background, along with the white tracery on a dark blue field in MIN 50432, was common to Bolognese miniatures up to around 1328 when illuminators started to compose backgrounds in dark red, green, black, or blue, overlaid with intersecting gold lines and geometric designs.
Mounted on paper, the verso text on miniature 50432 and 50433 is obscured making it difficult to identify the parent manuscript. However, other codicological features on the cuttings provide some clues. The lower remains of two red and blue ink-flourished initials are visible on the upper edge of MIN 50431; one in the left-hand margin, the other situated at the miniature’s midpoint. A tiny remaining flourish at the upper midpoint of MIN 50433 confirms the original presence of another flourished initial. This indicates that the text was written in double columns with the miniatures occupying the full two-column width. At the left-hand upper edge of MIN 50431 (recto), the remains of another flourished initial are accompanied by a horizontal red ink line – a device often used by Bolognese artists to mark separation between image and text for compositions placed at the bas-de-page (fig. 2; London, British Library, Add. MS 27377, fol. 8v). This would also explain the double-sided illumination of MIN 50431. It is possible that all four derive from the bas-de-page, but MINs 50432 and 50433 could also have been placed at midpoints to separate the texts.
We are grateful to Susan L’Engle for expertise, and to Innocent Smith for the identification of the scene with Thomas Aquinas.
Robert Stayner Holford (1809-1892), Dorchester House, London, by descent to George Holford (1860-1926), sold London, Sotheby’s, 12 July 1927, lot 3; Private Collection, sale London, Sotheby’s 29 January 1951, lot 35; to Carsten (1921-2012) and Charlotte Grodtmann (d. 2020), Switzerland.
Susan L’Engle, “Master of B 18, the Roermond Volumen Parvum, and Early Fourteenth-Century Illumination in Bologna,” Codices Manuscripti 52/53 (2005), pp. 1–20, at 15.
Susan L’Engle, “The Illumination of Legal Manuscripts in Bologna, 1250–1350: Production and Iconography,” PhD diss., New York University, Institute of Fine Arts, 2000, 147–49.
Venturino Alce and Alfonso D’Amato, in La Biblioteca di S. Domenico in Bologna, Florence, 1961, p. 163, pl. 113.
R. Benson, The Holford Collection, Oxford and London, 1927, vol. 1.
For further reading see:
Manoscritti miniati della Biblioteca Capitolare di Padova, ed. Giordana Marini Canova et al., 2 vols., Padua, 2014, vol. I, no. 57, pp. 345–50.
Silvia Battistini, “Maestro del B 18 (Secondo Maestro di San Domenico),” in Dizionario Biografico dei Miniatori Italiani: Secoli IX–XVI, ed. Milvia Bollati, Milan, 2004, pp. 482–84.
Susan L’Engle, “Maestro del leggendario Angioino Ungherese (Hungarian Master),” in Dizionario Biografico dei Miniatori Italiani: Secoli IX–XVI, ed. Milvia Bollati, Milan, 2004, pp. 562–64.
Zsombor Jékely, “Demeter Nekcsei and the Commission of His Bible,” in Bonum ut Pulchrum: Essays in Art History in Honour of Ernó Marosi on His Seventieth Birthday, ed. Livia Varga, et al., Budapest, 2010, 197–212.Feren Levardy, Il leggendario ungherese degli Angio conservato nella Biblioteca Vaticana, nella Morgan Library e nell Ermitage, Budapest, 1963.