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The Hours of the Duchess: Restoring an Illuminated Manuscript from the Middle Ages


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The book of hours of Marie d'Harcourt is one of the most beautiful manuscripts held by the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. Since 2015, conservators have been comprehensively examining and restoring the richly decorated medieval manuscript as part of a major research project involving the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, the Rathgen Forschungslabor and Radboud University in the Netherlands.

When a duchess commissioned something in the fifteenth century, those around her moved heaven and earth to guarantee the most exquisite product. So it is no surprise that the book of hours of Marie d'Harcourt, Duchess of Guelders, is one of the most beautiful medieval manuscripts held in the collection of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Berlin State Library). The monk and scribe Helmich de Lewe worked on the book at the Augustinian monastery of Marienborn, near Arnhem, and completed the project in 1415. He had the assistance of at least five artists, who created a multitude of colorful miniatures and drolleries to adorn the 482 vellum pages of the book. The finished work is a magnificent volume, with 92 miniatures of outstanding artistic quality interspersed with the text, along with numerous historiated initials and decorated margins. The book contains personalized prayers and verses, some of which were composed exclusively for the duchess in the local dialect of East Middle Dutch. The prayer book of Marie d'Harcourt has long been considered a showpiece of the Dutch manuscript illumination of the Middle Ages.

Detail aus einer Miniatur mit dünner Schrift über zwei abgebildeten Köpfen

Recognizable writing under the blue layer of paint: "paus " (left) and "coninc " (right). This is a painting instruction for the miniature painters, who were to draw a pope on the left and a king on the right, each with a sword. © Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Unfortunately, however, this proud 600-year-old work is in a pitiful condition. An inventory of the deterioration includes cracks in the vellum, worn and flaking paint, rubbed-off gold leaf, chalking paint surfaces and the fine pattern of dense cracking known as "craquelure," all of which have made the prayer book so fragile that no routine handling of it has been possible since the early 1990s. To a great extent, the damage to the paint surfaces is due both to the age of the materials used and the climatic influences of storage environments that have sometimes varied dramatically. The damage to the vellum can very likely be attributed to mechanical forces caused by different bindings applied to the manuscript, in combination with fluctuations in climatic conditions.

In 2015, scholars and scientists at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, the Rathgen Forschungslabor (Rathgen Research Laboratory) of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin) and Radboud University of Nijmegen launched an interdisciplinary research project titled "The Prayer Book of Marie d'Harcourt (Ms. Germ. qu. 42) from a Materials Science and Codicological Perspective" in order to unravel the mysteries of the manuscript. Additional participants in the project, which is sponsored by the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation, include the Helmholtz Center for Materials and Energy, the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces, and the Valkhof Museum in Nijmegen. Some pages of the prayer book that have already been restored have been presented to the public in the museum’s exhibition I, Mary of Guelders (the name under which she is better known in the Netherlands). Stabilizing the paint surfaces on almost five hundred pages is very time-consuming work, and the restoration process is still under way.

Seite der illuminierten Handschrift mit der Abbildung einer Frau
Depiction of Marie d'Harcourt from the illuminated manuscript, p. 19. © Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, M. Hundertmark
Seite einer bunt illuminierter Handschrift
The transformation of Saint Paul (miniature) - front side of sheet 161 with colored ornamental frame, leaf ornament and drolerie. © Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

The interdisciplinary team of art historians, philologists, restorers, and scientists analyzed the damage and developed a strategy to preserve the valuable book over the long term. Parallel to the physical aspect, the manuscript was analyzed from the art historian’s perspective. Among the most interesting findings was that at least five different artists had worked on the book. They were distinguishable primarily by the size of the illustrations and their level of precision. Whereas the faces and details like the hair are elaborated with great care in some of the illustrations, they are rendered rather as a general impression in others.

Using non-destructive methods of analysis such as X-ray fluorescence or Raman and VIS spectroscopy, the scientists – working under Johan Oosterman (Radboud University), Everardus Overgaauw (Manuscript Department of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin) and Ina Reiche (Rathgen Forschungslabor) – have also been able to gain important insights into technical aspects of the book’s artwork. Some of the pigments have been identified and the researchers have been able to detect underdrawings and notes that were made during the production of the book and which are now hidden beneath the paint layer.

One central element of the project involved appraising the condition of the book. Why and how did the unusual tears in the vellum appear, and how could the pages be restored?

To find out why the prayer book of Marie d'Harcourt has suffered this particular form of damage, the experts first had to determine where the tears occur most frequently. The number, location and length of the tears were recorded for each individual page. The assessment shows that the number of tears increases dramatically after approximately sixty pages, and that the tears are at the fold, in the area of the decorative frame. The restorers also found important clues as to the cause of the tears. They are very likely due in part to mechanical forces exerted during various pressing operations that are performed as part of the bookbinding process. Tensions that have existed for centuries as a byproduct of the rigid bonding of the gathered pages to the spine probably also played a role. It was these factors, exacerbated by the turning of the pages in the bound book (during which the greatest strain is always in the vicinity of the fold) that led to the tears.

The restorers have now developed a preservation strategy that should help stabilize the condition of the prayer book and prevent further damage. After the individual pages have been preserved, they will be bound section by section and then stored in specially constructed boxes under stable climatic conditions at an air humidity of 50 percent in the strong room stacks of Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. Since the manuscript as a whole will remain unbound, it should be possible to avoid the circumstances that have led to the damage, such as the tight fastening of the vellum in the binding, or the bending of pages when they are turned.

The research project devoted to the prayer book of Marie d'Harcourt makes it clear that working on and with manuscripts involves not just their written or artistic content, but also the physical material that serves as the medium. The composition and condition of the medium on which text is written plays an important role, and not just with respect to restoration efforts – it also has an impact on the way the writing is passed on to others and how it is received. The study of the book of hours can be thought of as belonging to the field of textual materiality research, as can other projects of a similar character, such as the interdisciplinary German Research Foundation (DFG) project "Manuscripta Americana – Material-Analytic and Historico-Cultural Studies of Colonial-Era Manuscripts from Mexico in Berlin and Krakow," which involves the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, the Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut and the Federal Institute of Materials Research and Testing (BAM). This transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary field of research is increasing cooperation among the branches of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation) as well as between these branches and external partner institutions. Textual materiality research, which has been expanding rapidly for several years in the wake of the material turn in the humanities and the field of cultural studies, aims to examine written artifacts with special regard to their physical manifestation while transcending the dichotomy between the material substrate and the semiotic level. In this context, the lecture series "The Materiality of Text – A Dialog between Library and Research“ has become an established, high-profile point of reference and an incubator for new project ideas. The series was originally organized in 2014 by the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin in conjunction with members of the "Temporal Communities" cluster of excellence at the Free University as well as participants from Humboldt University and the University of Copenhagen. It remains active, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, the lectures are currently being held online on the third Tuesday of every month.

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