The Prayer Book of Jehan Bernachier

The Prayer Book of Jehan Bernachier

04/22/2024     General, Books & Autographs

NEW YORK, NY -- The illuminated manuscripts of the late medieval and early Renaissance period are a window into the culture of a period that is at once familiar and utterly alien. This was a time of rapid urbanization, as towns and cities became hubs of commerce. With the growth of urban centers came the growth of a class of wealthy guild craftsmen, merchants, and officials, who were generally able to read and write. This striving urban elite (the first true bourgeoisie, an emerging middle class situated between peasants and aristocracy), was fond of the trappings of wealth.

Such trappings for the first time included books, the beautifully written and illuminated products of the scriptoria that sprung up in major population centers to serve this growing market. These were not monastic undertakings, but thoroughly commercial ventures, often employing a bevy of artisans under one roof, including scribes, rubricators, and illuminators. There would be specialists who pounced the vellum, pricked the rulings, and all the other skills necessary to prepare a manuscript, and using methods of distributed production, including multiple scribes working simultaneously on different sections of the same work, substantial efficiencies of production were possible. This was a still a very laborious process, but by the standards of monastic book production quite swift.

The society in which they lived was intensely, devoutly religious, and fundamentally theocratic in nature. This was an age of faith (and in that regard, was very different from our own). At a time when the average lifespan was fifty years or so, where illness was rampant and sanitation and medicine were limited and largely ineffective, and where childhood mortality was high, religion provided a framework in which to interpret the inevitable adversities, and it offered a constant consolation. Secular and religious life were then so closely interwoven as to be inseparable.

A prayer-book (or a formal Book of Hours with calendar, a still more expensive production) could be afforded by a merchant or official in this burgeoning middle class. Such works were not only a luxury good (they unquestionably had a certain prestige as something that had previously been a perquisite of the priesthood or aristocracy), but they also enabled their owners to better seek divine intercession and comfort. The act of worship, with its complex sequences of prayers keyed to specific saints and days, was made much easier by the possession of a written guide.

A fine example of just such a work is the Prayer Book of Jehan Bernachier, lot 38 in the May 1 sale. Prepared in central France (likely Tours) in the late fifteenth century, perhaps for an earlier member of the Bernachier family, it contains a variety of prayers addressed to the Virgin Mary, Christ, and numerous saints. Elaborately illuminated, it was acquired in the sixteenth century by Jehan Bernachier, who was a "notaire royal,” in Moulins, in which office he would have recorded and certified a vast range of commercial transactions from sales of real property on down, a very profitable profession.

Presumably, it was he who commissioned the lovely binding of brown calf gilt of circa 1575, in which it is still housed today. He certainly recorded the births and baptisms of his seven children (1576-1594) on the flyleaves at the beginning, a tradition that his family continued (at the end of the work) until 1796. Remarkably, the manuscript remained in the possession of his descendants until then, with thirty-nine Bernachier births, marriages and deaths recorded upon the flyleaves.

The first part of the manuscript, written in French in a beautiful batarde script, contains eight handsome arch-topped miniatures. Most of these are of routine subjects for a work of this nature, including the Annunciation, Christ as the Man of Sorrows, Christ in Majesty, the Coronation of the Virgin, the Trinity, the Resurrection, and the Crucifixion. An eighth miniature represents the Celebration of the Mass of Saint Gregory, in which an apparition of Christ appears over the altar. This is a little more unusual, and likely it represents a special devotion to that saint on the part of whoever commissioned the manuscript. The charming borders on these leaves are full of grotesques (mermaids, a cockatrice, and a variety of wonderfully bizarre chimaeras), as well as more predictable decorations: birds, strawberries (a symbol of, among other things, the Virgin Mary), snails, a fox or dog catching a bird etc.

The second section, written in Latin, lists saints, with prayers specific to them and has small depictions with the characteristics of their martyrdoms. Here is the unfortunate St. Apollonia, patron saint of dentistry, depicted with the tongs with which she was tormented. Here too is St. Catherine, with a series of small miniatures decorating the Hours in her honor. Most of the saints shown, including the relatively obscure ones such as Adrian, Claude, and Eustace, are those whose cult was then popular in France. A final section of unilluminated section of prayers concludes the devotional portion of the work.

A testament to the enduring utility and pleasure that this beautiful little volume provided its owners is that it was used and retained by the family over so many generations. The Bernachiers achieved great worldly success, in time owning two chateaux, but that they were still recording their family history in this book after three hundred years indicates just how central a part religion played in their lives.

Rare Books, Autographs & Maps

Auction Wednesday, May 1, 2024 at 10am
Exhibition April 27 - 29

A highlight of the May 1 auction is The Prayer Book of Jehan Bernachier.


Edward Ripley-Duggan

Edward Ripley-Duggan

VP/Director, Rare Books, Autographs & Photographs