The Artists of the Prise Frontispiece

by Domenic Leo

The Machaut Master was fully capable of painting in a relatively finer style than that which predominates in the body of MS A. The best example of the high level of the complexity he can attain is the dense composition on the opening page for the Prise (fol. 309, A149; figs. 1, 33). It is an ambitious, two-column miniature, complete with bar extenders and marginalia.

Figure 33. BnF, ms. fr. 1584. Prise, frontispiece, double-column miniature of Lusignan’s men storming a Saracen fortress or castle (fol. 309, A149, det.)

Another artist painted a peacock in the right margin (fig. 8). His use of brilliantly colored green and blue washes and refined style demonstrates a command of the medium which appears nowhere else in MS A. Jacques Boogaart convincingly argues that the peacock represents Juno, to whom the bird is sacred. In fact, when Pierre de Lusignan is born, four goddesses are called on by Saturn:

To look after and direct,  
To teach and instruct him (ll. 143-144).[1]

pour lui nourrir et gouverner
enseingnier et endoctriner. (ll. 141-145)

Thus, Hebe, Minerva, Juno, and Venus are entreated to bestow gifts on the newborn. After having called on Minerva for the gift of wisdom, Juno is summoned to confer the gift of wealth, and arrives:

… arrayed with such finery
That all the air shimmered
With the brightness gleaming from her (ll. 160-162).[2]

qui estoit si tres bien paree
que tous li airs resplendissoit
de la clarte qui delle yssoit (ll. 159-162)

This corresponds favorably with the vivid luster of the peacock fanning its tail feathers directly under the frontispiece miniature.

Figures 34 and 35. BnF, ms. fr. 1584.
Prise, frontispiece, Three Saracens atop a fortress or castle wielding a lance, a rock, and a bow and arrow (fol. 309, A149, det.); ‘Crusader’ heraldry’ (fol. 309, A149, det.)

The elderly man with flowing, shoulder-length white hair and a long beard in the historiated initial may be the work of another artist, as is evidenced by his treatment of the mouth as a single line making a ‘frown’ with a red line transecting it in the middle (fig. 9). Furthermore, the colors of the background in the historiated initial and surrounding frame are not used elsewhere in MS A – blue with two decorative red loops with red dots between them for the first, and matte coral for the latter. The man in the initial cannot be Pierre de Lusignan, who wears a crown and wields a hatchet in the miniature (fig. 37). He is most likely Saturn, who plays an important role in the Prise, discussed above, overseeing and directing the pantheon of Roman deities in the text (ll. 169-180). In this case, if the same artist painted both the historiated initial and the peacock, he could be subtle enough to create a meaningful visual rapport between the two images on fol. 309. 

Figures 36-37. BnF, ms. fr. 1584.
Prise, frontispiece, one of Lusignan’s men disembarks on a ladder into shallow water where fish swim (fol. 309, A149, det.); Prise, frontispiece, Pierre de Lusignan, wearing armor and a crown, wields a hatchet (fol. 309, A149, det.)

The lions on the lower bar extender, painted with tawny-brown washes, and the butterfly above speckled with red, blue, and green (with details applied on its wings with a sharp, fine quill), however, are the work of the Machaut Master (fig. 59). They relate to an earlier depiction of lions in the manuscript on fol. 227. In the bas-de-page image on the opening page of the Prise, the lion at left is a flip-side version of the one on fol. 227, and the lion at right is a ‘finished’ version of the sketch on the same folio (fig. 58). This treatment is a strong indicator that this quire was originally intended to stand on its own. Do the lions indicate a manuscript destined for royalty?

Figures 38 and 39. BnF, ms. fr. 1584. Prise, frontispiece, Lusignan’s knight sets fire to the castle gate; the portcullis half open (fol. 309, A149, det; Prise frontispiece, orange rinceaux on a matte coral background (fol. 309, A149, det.)

The Machaut Master took great care in painting this complex, crowded miniature (fig. 33). But who was responsible for the many roles necessary to create this manuscript? For example, the upper frame of this miniature is darker than the others. The ‘planner’ left room for the masts and castle turrets which pierce it rather than intersect any ruled lines. This area is populated with Saracens, identifiable by a white ‘turban’ knotted at the nape of the neck over which a helmet is worn (fig. 34). The sloppy application of the matte coral background may be a sign of hastiness. It is unique in MS A. Was it meant to be gilded? Perhaps, but a close observation reveals feathery, orange rinceaux (fig. 39). Overall, the attention to detail, mostly executed with a fine black line, and which the artist added after applying the washes of color, is impressive. The water with swimming fish (fig. 36), the armor (including two types of helmets and scalloped sections of fabric on the epaulettes), the half-raised portcullis (fig. 38), the hinges on the wooden gates to the castle, and the generic ‘crusader’ heraldry on their shields - neither Templars nor Hospitalers - make it clear that this was a time-consuming endeavor which certainly represents highly polished work by the Machaut Master.[3]

Figures 40 and 41. BnF, ms. fr. 1584.
Prise, frontispiece, foliate spray from bar extender with leaves painted in blue, red, and green (fol. 309, A149, det.); Prise, foliate spray from two-line initial with leaves painted in grisaille (fol. 310)

In sharp contrast to the amount of effort the Machaut Master expended to create the complex composition of the large miniature, the secondary decorative elements were finished hastily. The multi-colored sycamore leaves sprouting from the bar extenders do not relate in any manner to the sharply pointed leaves painted in grisaille on all other folios in the manuscript (figs. 40-41). Furthermore, given the amount of decoration lavished on this folio, one would expect the leaves to have been gilded. This is a certain indication that the artist(s) responsible for this portion of the painting was pressed for time. He painted the leaves quickly with washes of translucent color.


[1] Translation from Palmer, 2002.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Some of these elements also appear in the image of Paris leading Helen into a boat in Confort (fol. 145v, A77).




***********************STOP PRESS!!!!!!!!************************

The Complete Poetry and Music of Guillaume de Machaut Volume 1 is out now!!!!

Volume 1: The Debate Poems is now available in print.

You can also enjoy the entire volume online via the Middle English Texts Website.

Edited and translated by R. Barton Palmer, with art historical commentary by Domenic Leo, and musical commentary by Uri Smilansky, the volume contains  Le Jugement dou Roy de Behaigne, Le Jugement dou Roy de Navarre, and Le Lay de Plour.




The Ferrell-Vogüé Machaut Manuscript

Full colour facsimile with introductory study by Lawrence Earp, Domenic Leo and Carla Shapreau. Preface by Christopher de Hamel

"It is a vast manuscript of royal luxury, 390 leaves of parchment, 314 mm. by 220 mm., illustrated with 118 enchanting miniatures by a workshop of court illuminators led by the Master of the Bible of Jean de Sy.They include pictures of gothic chivalry and romance, with mythology and natural history. Music is included on 235 pages of the manuscript, with almost the entire corpus of the ballades, lais and motets of Machaut, as well as his great polyphonic setting of the Mass, the four-part Messe de Nostre-Dame.The manuscript has never before been photographed in its entirety or reproduced in colour."

"Vol. 1 introductory study (225 pages colour/mono), vol. 2 facsimile (789 full colour pages) on 150gsm matt art paper. Full size reproduction, hard bound in buckram, presented in hard slipcover."

Available now from DIAMM Publications.

The Art of Grafted Song: Citation and Allusion in the Age of Machaut by Yolanda Plumley

Available now from Oxford University Press

"Presents the first detailed exploration of citational practices in the song-writing tradition of fourteenth-century France. The first monograph-length study on the Ars nova chanson with new evidence about the emergence of the new polyphonic chanson. Provides new evidence about the circle of poets and composers who engaged with Machaut and created a new style of poetry and song. Explores little studied collections of lyrics and songs of the period and provides fresh insights and perspectives on Machaut's works."