Friday, November 8, 2013

Abbey Monks Receive a New "Old" Gift

A 15th Century Book of Hours Joins Collection of Rare Books

Story and photos by Brother Lorenzo Conocido, O.S.B.

A Welcomed Gift

Every once in a while, the Abbey receives rare and sometimes rather amusing gifts from generous people that add to our eccentric collection of artifacts and historical pieces, from life-sized taxidermy, to fine vestments from Samoa, to old Chinaware, to even the world's largest porcine hairballs!

The morning of September 26th was one of those days, and a small group of curious monks gathered at the monastery switchboard after the morning Mass to welcome yet another rare gift.  The gift that we recently received well might just keep Victoria Ertelt, the Abbey Library Administrator, our dear Joe Sprugg, and perhaps Fr. Augustine De Noble, O.S.B., smiling for awhile.

Victoria Ertelt delicately opens the pages of the manuscript while presenting it to the monks at the monastery switchboard area.

A Generous Bequest

Thanks to an extremely generous donor who preferred not to be named, the Mount Angel Abbey Library has been able to purchase a lovely addition to its rare book collection.  A fine 15th century illumimated vellum manuscript Book of Hours in Latin and French now joins the thousands of Antiquarian and rare book title collections that were printed and published from the 12th to 19th centuries, most of which are Roman Catholic.  This new illuminated manuscript was purchased from Pirages Fine Books, Inc., a well-established seller of fine books and medieval manuscripts.

Bookplate of the former owner, Edward Hailstone (1818-1890); Hailstone was a Yorkshire antiquary who amassed a collection of manuscripts.

A handy size of 7x5 inches, this 110-vellum page Book of Hours contains a Liturgical Calendar, Psalter, collections of prayers, and a shimmering Litany with page after page of brushed-gold geometric shapes and intricate full border accents.  The manuscript's vellum, a writing parchment normally from the skin of a calf, sheep or goat, is generally in excellent condition with an ornate morocco bookplate in the inside cover engraved with a name, Edward Hailstone, the former owner of the book and an antiquary.  With a manuscript this thick, you can only wonder how many flocks of sheep that were sacrificed in the name of art to produce this book!

Inside the Manuscript

One couldn't help but get fascinated with its eight full pages of arch-topped miniatures, enough to keep someone drawn into deep meditation at the delicate fine brush strokes, vibrant colors and the illuminating brilliance of gold and silver, a well-deserved treatment to depict very important mysteries and scenes from the Bible like the Annunciation, Nativity, and Crucifixion.  Living up to its name of illuminated, as described in the bookseller's catalog, "nowhere is gold better employed than in the Pentecost miniature," where the radiance and heavenly brightness of the dove, the Holy Spirit, mightily glistens down to the Virgin, St. John and St. Peter.

Pages of the manuscript contain elaborate borders, all hand-painted.

The Pentecost miniature

The pages of the Litany where gold shows up quite nicely in this photo.

During the Middle Ages, the materials that were used to color images in the manuscripts were all natural pigments.  According to Br. Claude Lane, O.S.B., one of the Abbey's finest iconographers, these pigments came from stones and minerals of the earth, from which colors never fade so that its vibrancy is immortal.  Br. Andre Love, O.S.B., a monk and iconography student at the Iconographic Arts Institute, said that the vibrant blue pigment that was extravagantly used in the miniatures is called azure-gesso or the lapis lazuli, an expensive mineral that can only be found in present-day Afghanistan.

With no FedEx and UPS available for next-day delivery during the Middle Ages, Fr. Augustine, one of the Abbey's archivists, imagines "perhaps everything was transported either by foot, or with poor camels to haul these earth stones and minerals."

The Manuscripts Today

But just how relevant is this manuscript?  Today, manuscripts of this type are valued with a hefty price tag because of their rarity and high artistic quality, and if you are in the serious business of collecting valuable artifacts, it might just have secured you a comfortable retirement.  Well, if you are a seminarian and vying for Paper of the Year award with an impressive, authentic 15th century bibliography, you might as well throw that idea out now for just some obvious practical reasons.  Unless you are a Latin scholar or an Old French linguist, the texts contained in this manuscript are no more than a display of beautiful typography, with words that are too highfalutin.  Google Translate may only provide little help, if any at all.

Keeping the Treasure

Keeping and preserving manuscripts of this kind is like keeping a precious gem.  In fact, the Abbey Library's collections are kept mostly in restricted areas, temperature-controlled rooms and secured glass display cabinets.  They are in rooms 208, 111A, the Archives room, the "Fall" room on the first floor and inside "The Vault," and according to Joe Sprugg there are only three people on the hilltop who know the vault combination.  The Abbey Library website provides a downloadable application form to those who are interested in seeing these excellent collections of rare books. (See form here.)

Sprugg, a professional librarian and an Abbey Library Volunteer for nearly twenty-five years, in one of his interviews for MAS Journalism, recalls cataloging over 4000 books for the Library just for the rare book section alone.  According to Sprugg, "There are over 7000 rare book titles available right now if you go to our online library catalog."  Among the thousands of rare book titles in the Library, he also mentioned that there are only twelve Book of Hours of this kind that are in the current collection.

So, does the arrival of new illuminated Book of Hours still excite him? "It doesn't happen always . . . yes," he said.  "Every piece is history.  It is exciting!"

The pages of these manuscripts are very sensitive to foreign contaminants.  Holding the book like a true expert herself, Victoria wore white gloves when she opened and presented the newly acquired manuscript to the monks.  She said, "Other libraries and owners even prohibit people from breathing on the manuscripts."

Now you wonder why you can't find these books in the general circulation area!  That's why most of them are now digitized so you can enjoy fingerprint-free, no breath-holding browsing, and you can print your own personal copy (and perhaps spare another herd of sheep!).

Victoria said that the Abbey Library will hold an exhibit on December 7 featuring rare books, Civil War documents and artworks.  Phillip Pirages, the owner of the company where the book was purchased, is going to be there to talk more about this new addition in the Abbey Rare Book Collection.  Victoria said, "This book is the star of the event!"

A Spark of History

According to Sprugg, trade unions that were composed of miniature artists, vellum producers, calligraphers and pigment providers were established during the 1400s just to accommodate the laity's demands for more copies of the Book of Hours so they could share in the Liturgy of the Hours said by the priests, monks, and nuns.  He also mentioned that a copy of the Hour can be finished in a month to six months depending on the intricacy and details of the book and because they are all handmade, no two books or images are alike.

The presence of this Book of Hours in our midst today gives us not only beautiful images and typography but also reflects the laity's thirst for deepening their spirituality and humanity's ingenuity and innovation in the history of book making.  Even in the absence of Photoshop, Quark, and Publisher, the intricacy of images and texts reflects the hours and the resources spent to produce these illuminated manuscripts.  With each single character, every fine brush stroke, the pages of these manuscripts tell about our history, preserve an extinct culture, and illumine a mystery.

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