The Master of the Bible of Jean de Sy and the Prologue

by Domenic Leo











Figures. 42 and 43. BnF, ms. fr. 15397. Bible of Jean de Sy, an angel speaks with Abraham (fol. 35, det.); Bible of Jean de Sy, sketch for a miniature with Lot deep in his cups (fol. 30, det.)

Figure 44. BnF ms. fr. 15397. Bible of Jean de Sy, sketch for a miniature where Lot’s daughter inebriates him, and then she and her sister have intercourse with him to conceive (fol. 30, bas de page, det.)

The most refined work in MS A is by the well-known Jean de Sy Master, who painted on an appended bifolium at the head of the manuscript; perhaps his greatest and, surely, his most famous work of art (fols. E/A1 and D/A2; figs. 46, 48). He was active c.1355-c.1380, although his most demanding works were in the late 1360s and throughout the 1370s.[1]

Figure 45. BnF, ms. fr. 22912. French translation of Augustine’s Cité de Dieu (fol. 384)

The earliest and, arguably, the most masterful example of his style is in a Bible of 1355-1365, translated into French by the Dominican, Jean de Sy (hence the artist’s name), at the behest of Jean le bon (BnF, ms. fr. 15397). The artist’s hallmark traits are: copses of ‘umbrella’ trees; soft, clinging textiles; the pronounced use of Italian-derived modeling; highly refined painting techniques; and characters filled with verve and wit. In one image of this manuscript, an angel delivers a message from God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac (fol. 35, fig. 42). The angel has one wing pointed down and another nearly at a right angle to his body. The Jean de Sy Master further enlivens the scene by creating a sense of drama with the position of both figures’ hands. His penchant for including everyday objects and the smallest of details runs from buttons and the nails on horses’ shod hooves, to the minute, bare feet of the angel with stunning red wings. As this Bible was left in large part unfinished, his working practices are visible. The unpainted drawings show even more closely how the artist uses modeling to attain the suggestion of three-dimensionality and solid, grounded figures (fig. 43). For example, the bas-de-page preparatory drawing on fol. 30, which shows Lot’s daughters who inebriate him and then have intercourse with him, is astonishingly well-accomplished (fig. 44).[2] Notable details include the curtain links, two types of pillows, and the carefully drawn broken pediment on the headboard of the bed at right.

Figure 46. BnF, ms. fr. 1584. Prologue, Nature presents her children to Machaut (fol. E, A2)

The Jean de Sy Master and his atelier created both small- and large-scale works, but none reach the same level of artistry found in the Prologue. He painted in at least fourteen major manuscripts in the 1360s and 1370s, and, based on the provenance of extant manuscripts, worked exclusively for the aristocracy.[3] For example, he painted large, high-quality miniatures in two copies of Raoul de Presles’ translation of Augustine, La Cité de Dieu, in c. 1356 and 1365. They were owned by Charles V (who commissioned the translation) and his brother, Jean, duc de Berry, respectively (fig. 45).[4]



















Figures 47 and 48. BnF, ms. fr. 1584.
Prologue (fol. Dv); Prologue, Love presents his children to Machaut (fol. D, A1)

At least three manuscripts are important for thematic material and compositions which are directly related to the Prologue images. The lavish opening miniature for Charles V’s illuminated copy of the Songe du vergier, (London, British Library, MS Royal 19 C IV), written at his behest, and painted in 1378, is full-folio. A cleric sleeping at the bottom of a verdant garden dreams of an argument between the secular world in the form of a nobleman, and the theological and spiritual world in the form of a cleric with scarlet red robes; the ruler is seated above in a cobalt blue mantle bedecked with yellow fleur-de-lys.[5] Between 1376 and 1379 he participated in illuminating the extravagant Grandes Heures de Philippe II ‘le hardi’, duc de Bourgogne (1342-1404) (Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 3-1954 + Brussels, BR, MSS 11035-37 and 10392), creating eleven nearly full-folio, monumental images.[6] He was equally talented at creating new iconography for secular works, such as Nicolas Oresme’s translations of Aristotle for Charles V of the 1370s (France, Private collection).[7] The Jean de Sy Master’s range is breathtaking and his delicate iconographic creations are almost always fresh, unpredictable, and unique. His presence, in and of itself, and the superior quality of his work in MS A, are clearly signifiers of royal patronage.


[1] The Jean de Sy Master painted a series of small miniatures in another complete-works Machaut manuscript, MS Vg, where he headed a large and varied atelier. See Leo, Introductory Study, pp. 98-101.

[2] Smaller, less detailed sketches, which have not been entirely trimmed, sometimes appear beneath the drawings.

[3] For a list of period manuscripts, including many painted by him, see Leo, “The Pucellian School,” esp. pp. 167-168. Homolka, “Painters and Workshops,” pp. 136, 280-282, discusses the argument that the Jean de Sy Master’s training was connected to the Master of the Luxembourg Genealogy’s career in Prague (fig. 223 is erroneously attributed to the Jean de Sy Master). Homolka is expanding on the work of Sterling, La peinture médiévale, pp. 174-179. For a detailed overview of this material, see Leo, “The Beginning is the End,” pp. 102-103.

[4] BnF, ms. fr. 22912 (1375, presentation copy for Charles V, 27.9cm x 20.32cm – 11in x 8in); Angers, Bibiliothèque municipale, ms. fr. 162 + Cambridge, Mass., Houghton Library, fMS Typ 201 (c. 1376, two-vol. copy for Jean, duc Berry, 48cm x 33.3cm – 18.9in x 13.11in). See Wieck, Late Medieval and Early Manuscripts, pp. 4, 128; and Smith, Illustrations of Raoul de Praelles’ Translation, pp. 47-70, 200-204. 

[5]See Avril, Les fastes du gothique, cat. no. 282, pp. 327-328. Discussed in the context of Charles V’s patronage, see O’Meara, Monarchy and Consent, p. 46. On the depiction of the author-narrator, see Sherman, Imaging Aristotle, p. 207. For recent bibliography on the text, see DLF, pp. 1402-1403.

[6]Most recently, see Binski and Panayatova, The Cambridge Illuminations, cat. no. 85, pp. 198-200.

[7] See Sherman, Imaging Aristotle, MS B (France, Private Collection; French trans. by Nicole Oresme, Politica and Oeconomica), 1375-1376, ‘Appendix III’, pp. 317-319. For a monumental miniature by the Jean de Sy Master, which has a similar treatment of the landscape and incorporates images of the homes of the peasants in the Prologue images, see ‘Bonne democracie’, fol. 230; described in Sherman’s Book VI, ‘Good Democracy: A Pastoral Vision?’ pp. 240-252.



***********************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."