Calvin’s Unknown Rare Art Treasure

by Frans van Liere.
Calendar for December
Calendar for December, on folio 7 recto

Calvin College owns one medieval manuscript. At least, it is part of a manuscript: seven leaves, containing a liturgical calendar, which at one point was part of a medieval Psalter or prayer book. It contains one particularly beautiful miniature, which now is on the cover of my forthcoming book on the medieval Bible. This was the reason that I decided to delve deeper into the history of this manuscript. I was assisted in this by a student, Dan Wagner, who was conducting an independent study in medieval paleography with me over the summer. A pasted label inside the cover describes the manuscript as part of a thirteenth-century prayer book. Upon further investigation, we found out a great deal more about this manuscript.

The manuscript was given to Calvin in 1912, by Thomas M. Peck, a wealthy philanthropist, speculator, art collector, and drug store owner in Grand Rapids.

The purpose of a liturgical calendar in a prayer book or psalter was to indicate the main church festivals, such as Christmas and Easter, and the feast days of the apostles and major saints. These calendars were commonly illustrated with miniatures displaying the signs of the Zodiac (Aquarius, Pisces, and so on) and the so-called labors of the month. Some of these adorable miniatures now adorn Calvin’s Medieval Studies webpages.

Piety mixed with superstition in this calendar. At the bottom of each calendar page we find a line from a poem, describing for each month the so-called “evil days,” or “Egyptian days.” Some of us may avoid Friday the thirteenth, but according to this poem, each month had at least two days when you did better to stay home. Together, the lines form a poem in elegiac verse, the Versus de mensibus, sometimes attributed to Priscian.

Where does this manuscript come from, and what were its whereabouts before it came into the possession of Mr. Peck? There is no documentation about this. Reconstructing the provenance and date of a manuscript is usually a matter of analyzing the style of handwriting, the style of the illustrations, and the contents of a manuscript. Putting all these clues together is the kind of detective work that makes the heart of a medievalist run a bit faster.

The writing of the calendar is in at least two different hands. An analysis of the main hand and the style of the miniature suggests that the manuscript is German, and dates from the late twelfth, rather than the thirteenth century.

While the saints’ feast days in this calendar are quite generic (such as Saint Nicholas and Saint Martin, who enjoyed wide venerations throughout Europe), a later hand added some saints, such as Saints Heribert, Cunibert, and Regenfled, that pinpoint very clearly to the city of Cologne, in Germany. Other saints that were added in the later hand can be helpful in dating that hand. Saint Francis, for instance, was not canonized until 1226, indicating that the additions must be from after that date. Someone in the mid-thirteenth century must have adapted this calendar to the use in the diocese of Cologne.

Annunciation of the Virgin, on folio 7 verso

Was this calendar part of a prayer book, a so-called Book of Hours, as the label suggests? Experts agree that the use of these popular prayer books for the laity did not became common until the later part of the thirteenth century, which is much later than the date of our manuscript. Also, in Books of Hours, the calendar was usually followed by the Gospel sequences, illustrated with portraits of the four evangelists. After that came the so-called “hours of the Virgin”, with a miniature of the Annunciation. But in our manuscript, the Annunciation appears right after the calendar. This suggests that our manuscript was a Psalter (a prayer book containing mainly the Psalms), rather than a Book of Hours, which contained other prayer sequences, such as the Little Office of the Virgin Mary. Other questions remain. If this manuscript is only a fragment, what happened to the rest of the manuscript? Where and when did Thomas Peck acquire this rare book? Calvin’s manuscript contains still some unsolved mysteries. But meanwhile, we should be grateful and humble to have such a first-class art treasure entrusted to us.

Frans van Liere is Professor of History and director of the Medieval Studies program at Calvin. He teaches world history, medieval history, and history of the book. He grew up in the Netherlands and studied theology and medieval studies at the University of Groningen. His research interests are medieval biblical exegesis, twelfth-century intellectual history, and the late medieval papacy. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI with his wife, two teenage sons, and a cat named Lancelot.

One thought on “Calvin’s Unknown Rare Art Treasure

  1. Pingback: Ærra Gēola | Old English Wordhord

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