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(early 15th century)
||tempera and gold on parchment
||151 mm x 157 mm
||Esterházy Collection, acquired in 1870
||Prints and Drawings
The end of the fourteenth century was marked by the ravages brought about by the Hundred Years'War and epidemics, the waning power of the pope and the Holy Roman emperor, schisms and heretic movements. During this time of political and ideological decay of the late mediaeval societies, called the autumn of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga, a surprisingly rich art blossomed. This was the last efflorescence of the Gothic style, a magnificent cadence to a world about to disappear, and a flamboyant overture to the coming Renaissance. The International Gothic of the 1400s conquered every important court in Europe. This was the golden age of Prague, which Charles IV (1346-1378) made the new capital of the Holy Roman Empire. The city's late Gothic transformed not only the nearby Bohemian and Moravian towns, but radiated its influence all over Central Europe.
Thanks to the passion for books of Charles's successor, the ill-fated Wenceslaus (1378-1419), as well as to the lavish liturgy of the monasteries, a great many magnificent codices were produced, though few have survived the vicissitudes of history. Nor was time more merciful with the ornate missals of the Sedlec Cistercians. Made in 1414, the highly decorated, multi-volume Antiphonal and Gradual - collections of the texts and songs of the liturgy - have survived only in fragments. Ending up after a long odyssey in the library of the university and the National Archives in Brno, the incomplete volumes have been robbed of almost all of the miniatures. It is not known when the illuminations were removed from the books: only nine separate miniatures are extant, which were originally in the Sedlec codices; eight of these are preserved at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.
Framed with a golden border, this "S" initial once stood before the psalm that introduced the Pentecostal prayers of the Antiphonal. As is the case with most mediaeval artists, we do not know the name of the illuminator who combined the observation of nature characteristic of contemporary French miniatures with the lyric sensitivity of the beautiful style and the graceful elegance of its ornamentation. The Museo Diocesano of Gerona holds a manuscript with the legend of the martyrs, which was illuminated in the same workshop as the Sedlec choir books. Almost nothing is known of the Prague illuminator who is commonly referred to as the Master of the Gerona Martyrology, nor is it clear how many collaborators worked in his workshop and its practice. All a handful of manuscripts in a similar style seem to prove is that the Sedlec miniatures were made in the same Prague workshop that had produced the Gerona Martyrology a few years earlier. The wealthy Sedlec Monastery, which was situated near Kutná Hora, the town famed for its silver mines and mint, could in any case afford to commission work from the most appreciated illuminators.
Text: © ZOLTÁN KÁRPÁTI