Frontispiece to Boethius, De Consolatione Philosophiae, French, c.1460-70, Frontispiece to Book II
This delicate 15th century painting on vellum would once have illustrated a French translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy.
The Consolation of Philosophy was written by the Roman philosopher Boethius (c.480 - c.525 AD) in 524 AD while he was in prison awaiting trial for treason. The most widely-read text in the Middle Ages after the Bible, it took the form of a dialogue between Boethius himself and Philosophy discussing such things as why the good seem to suffer while the wicked flourish. This illumination is attributed to the Master of Coëtivy, named after a Book of Hours he decorated for Olivier de Coëtivy and his wife between 1458 and 1473. The word ‘illumination’ refers to the silver and gold decoration which would catch the light, but can also relate to how such images ‘illuminate’ the text and act as a navigational tool. For example, this particular illumination highlights the start of Book II of Boethius’ dialogues.
Here we see Boethius in conversation with Philosophy, finely dressed in a dark blue robe and a headdress known as a hennin. Boethius sits in a room, the walls of which seem to be decorated with tapestry hangings. Through the windows a town can be seen in the distance and outside the building Fortune turns her wheel and determines men’s fates. A king sits happily at the top of the wheel, awaiting his inevitable fall. At the bottom of the wheel another king hangs upside-down, his crown falling to the ground. The gold text written in French directly onto the miniature reads: ‘se jai bien entendu’ and ‘O tu home pourquoi te plain tu de moi’. The whole picture is framed by an elaborate floral border populated with birds and butterflies.
One of the most striking things about this miniature is its richness of colour and detail. If you look closely you can see delicately-painted fur lining Boethius’ cuffs and collar, a diamond pattern on the roof, the marble-effect on the blue column and the carefully depicted expression on Boethius’ face. The colours would have come from plants and minerals, such lapis lazuli and saffron, bought as powders and mixed with gums or egg to make paint. The gold decoration was made in two ways, either by hammering the metal into thin sheets, applying it over an adhesive and burnishing it, otherwise mixing it into a gold solution and painting it on.
We do not know when or why this illumination was removed from the book it once adorned nor do we know how it entered the Collection. Illuminations were detached for a number of reasons. Those created separately from their intended manuscripts were sometimes never pasted in or came unstuck, while many manuscripts were dismembered in times of unrest (such as the dissolution of the monasteries in England or the French Revolution); later on illuminations were cut from manuscripts by Antiquarians and collectors. All those in the Wallace Collection are cut very close to the miniature, implying they were preserved for their aesthetic value, rather than their relationship with the text. They were almost certainly collected by Richard Wallace who showed great passion for medieval and Renaissance works of art.
- De Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts, (London, 1994)
- Alexander, J.J.G., Wallace Collection Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscript Cuttings (London, 1980)
(books available from Wallace Collection Shop)