AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PAGE of this impressive medieval work in precious parchment, an illumination catches the eye. Surrounded by a climbing ivy in gold leaf, the image has the status of an icon: not a simple illustration but a presence. There, a king, kneeling on his prayer table, in a gesture of humble devotion, meditates. His hands are clasped and if his head wears a crown, he is dressed in a penitent’s habit, a simple monk’s robe. His gaze is turned towards an altar surrounded by hangings and decorated with four large red candles whose lamps raise long flames.
Like the Tent of the Covenant in the desert, this sanctuary that the Jews venerated, this sacred Christian space also celebrates an alliance, that manifested by the death and resurrection of Christ. And it is no longer a question of a distant eastern desert but of a very urban Sainte-Chapelle, built in Paris between 1241 and 1248 by King Louis IX to house the relics of the Passion. It was one of his successors, Charles V (1338-1380), who came here to venerate the holy relics in one of their very rare representations: a small altarpiece evokes the crucifixion, the cross with two crosspieces bears a piece of the Holy Cross and the circular reliquary, the crown of thorns. The dark background of the scene is decorated with blue fleur-de-lis. A tricolor border runs around it: white for the Father, blue for the Son, red for the Holy Spirit. The beautiful Latin text on the page is that of a liturgical office dedicated to this veneration. The artist, an anonymous master illuminator* like the capital of France knew several at the same time, contributed to the decoration of a dozen other pages of this work commissioned by the sovereign in 1365, and was also involved in several other manuscripts famous. A source of pride for Charles V who loved books so much. Because it was he who founded the country’s first royal bookstore, ancestor of the National Library of France (BNF).
* This artist is also nicknamed “the Master of the Book of the Coronation of Charles V”.
This Breviary for the use of the Sainte-Chapelle is being acquired by the BNF and will be kept on the Richelieu site which reopened in 2022 in Paris. Pilgrim joins the call for donations launched for the preservation of this work. More information on bnf.fr