Three Living

Recently I have been reviewing reproductions of small medieval manuscripts in connection with a project to which I was invited. These two cards have particularly caught my eye for longer because of several reasons.

First of all, the theme of the scene seems to be very up-to-date in its gruesome way. Here we are witnessing a meeting of three living and three dead, based on thirteen century legend. The artist made sure that we did not miss this one – the dead are shown in different stages of decomposition (note especially the imagination-inspiring bundle of guts in the last skeleton). The middle figure speaks to the surprised riders with these words: ” What you are, we were, and what we are, you will be.” A reminder of the transience of human life. The youngsters come from noble families, one of them wears a crown, the other holds a falcon on his shoulder – a clear signal that they are indulging in one of the favorite courtly entertainments – the hunt. This meeting surprised them strongly, they are frozen in horror, one of them covers his mouth with his hand, suppressing the scream.

attributed to Jean Le Noir, Prayer Book of Bonne of Luxemburg, before 1349, fol. 321v 322r, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The pages come from the Prayer Book of Bonne of Luxemburg, wife of the future King of France – John the Good. The Duchess died in 1349 during a plague raging since two years in Europe. The prayer book was certainly ordered before her death. It is hard to resist the impression that the fear of an all-encompassing threat could have had a direct impact on the creation of this illumination. After all, it reminds us of the fragility of all human aspirations, and perhaps calls for the appropriate behavior in times of plague?

Fortunately, the cards also offer a respite from worries. When we take our sight off the gruesome scene, we find an escape from the darkness. On the margins the illuminator has placed various species of birds, shown with great precision. Each viewer can become an ornithologist for a moment and admire these wonders of nature (and art). The author of the illuminations was most probably Jean Le Noir, an artist in the service of John the Good. Interestingly, his collaborator in carrying out the orders was his daughter Bourgot, the enlumineresse. Perhaps it was she who made these images of feathered beings? We don’t know that also. But I find it very inspiring to try to seek for human story hidden in an object of art from over 600 years ago.

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