Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"For Which the Queen Prayed": Claude of France's Prayer Book

In The Wall Street Journal, Barrymore Laurence Scherer reviews an important exhibition of Queen Claude of France's prayer book and book of hours at The Morgan Library and Museum in New York City:

The illuminations in Claude's prayer book are imbued with richly layered symbolism not just relating to holy writ, but to the queen herself, especially to her persistent anxieties about bearing healthy sons. The central example of this symbolism is the book's only full-page image without text, a glowing painting of the Holy Trinity. "The Trinity," on the left-hand page of the opening, is complemented by an illumination of adoring choirs of angels on the right-hand page. Images of the Trinity usually depict the Dove of the Holy Spirit hovering over a white-bearded God the Father and Christ the Son either on or with the cross or bearing the stigmata of his Crucifixion. This one differs significantly—wearing identical purple robes, the Father and the Son resemble youthful twins. Moreover Jesus (on the left) bears no stigmata. This is the Christ who has not yet assumed flesh on Earth via the Immaculate Conception, explains Mr. Wieck, author of the splendid exhibition book (which includes a contribution by conservator Francisco H. Trujillo). The Father, steadying a golden-clasped book on his lap, gestures in benediction. Christ, with eyes lowered, places his left hand on the book, raising his right hand in affirmation. The implication here, explains Mr. Wieck, is that Christ will obey his Father's command to descend to Earth to suffer for humanity's sins. And in the blue cloud below the figures, an almost microscopic vignette of spires and towers represents the unredeemed world at that moment.

The symbolism extends further: Although the prayer book's other illuminations are all rectilinear, "Trinity" is oval. And it is framed differently than the others. Nearly every image in the book is framed by a cordelière, a rope motif adopted as an armorial device from the rope belt worn by Franciscan monks. Most pages are framed by Queen Claude's personal cordelière, running a rectangular course around each page and tightly knotted at the top, bottom and sides. But the cordelière framing "Trinity" is arranged in open loops—King Francis's armorial device. Thus the complete symbolism of this single page is that as God bestowed his Son upon mankind, so may he bestow a son and heir upon Francis and his queen. Even the painting's oval shape possibly symbolizes the fertility for which Claude prayed.

Queen Claude was Francois I's first wife. Both Mary Boleyn and Anne Boleyn had attended her as they remained in France after Louis XII, Mary Tudor's first husband, died. (This Mary Tudor was Henry VIII's favorite sister). Queen Claude and Catherine of Aragon met at The Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. Queen Claude died when she was 24 years old after bearing Francois seven children, including his heir, who would reign as Henri II. Francois remarried after Claude's death, becoming betrothed to Charles V's sister while he was held prisoner in Spain after the Battle of Pavia.

Note that for those of us who cannot go to New York City to see the exhibition, we can view the prayer book on line here.

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