Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Monkeys in the Margins - the Breviary of Queen Isabella

Monkey Playing the Bagpipes
from the Isabella Breviary
Flemish (Bruges), ca. 1488-ca. 1497
London, British Library
MS Additional 18851, fol. 270
This "monkey", despite the well-observed
paws, is more humanoid in appearance than
most.  Clad in a fool's hood (note the ears) he
is meant to be seen as grotesque.
I've been somewhat under the weather recently and so have not been doing much research.  However, I just came across this interesting and amusing article on the medieval manuscript blog of the British Library that I thought I would share with you.

To read the blog article and see the other illuminations, click on
Monkeys in the Margins - Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts

A Breviary, contains the psalms and readings and prayers for the Divine Office, also known as the Liturgy of the Hours.  Often associated with the clergy and religious alone, the breviary is an important prayer tool for the laity as well.  In the later middle ages especially, it was a well-used item by many in the literate classes.  A shortened version, for the use of the laity, known as the Book of Hours , is the most common book surviving from the middle ages.  Most of the manuscript editions we see today are the luxe versions prepared for and used by the noblility. Often these contained calendar pages , illustrations of Biblical events, devotional images and border decorations so that each was a little art gallery. 

Frequently, the border decorations on the pages included paintings of plants and animals from the natural world, sometimes providing thinly disguised commentary on the folly of human activities.  The artist (or artists) who decorated this manuscript Breviary, which belonged to Queen Isabella of Castille (the patron of Christopher Colombus) seems to have had a particular interest in the humanoid activities of monkeys, who preen, play the bagpipes, tend to the vines they live among and perform other activites.