Monday, 5 January 2015

The Psalter of Bonne of Luxembourg - A Masterpiece of 14th Century Illumination

In New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art can be found a small masterpiece of 14th Century art: the Psalter (or prayer-book) of Bonne of Luxembourg, the daughter of John the Blind, King of Bohemia, and wife of the future Jean II of France. Bonne died of the plague in 1349, before Jean ascended the throne, so she was never Queen of France, though her children included the future Charles V.

Bonne of Luxembourg, with her husband Jean. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image is in the Public Domain).

The descendants of Jean II and Bonne of Luxembourg. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image is in the Public Domain).

The psalter is tiny, 12.5 x 8.4 x 3.9 cm, but there are 334 pages of text and illustrations. Some of the text is in Latin (psalms, canticles, the creed and litanies), and some is in French (there is a page for each month of the year, with astrological information taken from the Roman writer, Manilius).

A page from the psalter. The image is of one fool drinking, whilst another pulls his cowl and strikes him with a broom. In the margins of the psalter, there are around 200 depictions of birds, with 40 species recognisable. Metropolitan Museum of Art (image is in the Public Domain).

The psalter was probably made in the 1340s, a period during which new commercial illumination workshops were increasingly vying with the great monastic scriptora. Women, as well as men, were involved in these endeavours, and this particular manuscript was produced by a father-daughter team - Jean le Noir and his daughter, Bourgot (the future Charles V rewarded them with the grant of a house in Paris in 1358).

A page from the psalter, with a depiction of the crucifixion. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image is in the Public Domain).

Two pages from the psalter. The theme of "the three living and the three dead" is taken from a poem by Baudoin de Conde. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image is in the Public Domain).

Such psalters were intended as an aid to personal devotion. After Bonne's death, it is likely to have remained in the French royal collection. This collection was broken up after the revolution of 1789. We know that, in 1865, it was owned by a collector named Ambroise Firmin Diderot, and it was subsequently purchased at auction by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969.

I think, however, that it is now possible to say a little more about its post-revolutionary history. Jane Ashelford, in her biography of the 18th Century British spymaster, Philippe d'Auvergne, records that, on a visit to London in 1784, Philippe received, from his adopted father, Godefroy de la Tour d'Auvergne, Duc de Bouillon, an "illuminated Bible" that had been made for Bonne of Luxembourg (her source is Philippe's papers in the Jersey Archive). Since I can find no record of such a Bible existing, I think it overwhelmingly likely that it was this psalter he received.

Philippe may have believed it to have been a genuine family heirloom, but this cannot be the case. Godefroy must have purchased it at one of the post-revolutionary auctions, and would presumably have taken it either to his ducal seat in modern-day Belgium, or to his chateau in Normandy, or to his Paris town-house.

Godefroy de La Tour d'Auvergne, Duc de Bouillon, by Jean-Francois Gilles Colson. Musee d'Evreux (image is in the Public Domain).

Philippe, in turn, would have taken it to Jersey, where it would have been in his library either at Mont Orgueil, or at the pavilion he had built for his pleasure at La Hougue Bie (it is in this context that the psalter functions as a non-human "character" in my novel, Omphalos - one of my protagonists, staying as Philippe's guest, comes across it in his library). Philippe was declared bankrupt in 1816, and, at this point, the psalter must have been sold, and its provenance between 1816 and 1865 remains, for the moment, unclear.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. Fascinating. And so nice to be able to actually see it!

  2. Thanks, Maggie! I hadn't realised, until I posted this, that Bonne herself just missed featuring on the cover of the book - her husband is there instead - it won't please my Belgian friends!