IDLE SPECULATIONS: The Birth of the Virgin

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Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Birth of the Virgin


Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci (Italian, 1339–1399)
Initial G with the Birth of the Virgin, ca. 1375
From a gradual created for the Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Florence
Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment; 11 1/2 x 11 3/4 in. (29.2 x 29.8 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York



This initial G was the first letter of the Introit to the Mass for the feast commemorating the Birth of the Virgin.

As a Camaldolese monastery, it would be expected that the inspiration was similar books from the mother house. The iconography is not Florentine but Siennese.

Note the walls and ceiling, the delicacy of the details in each figure, the lilies in the border, and the figure leaving the room.

The leaf comes from a series of choir books made for the use of the monks of Santa Maria degli Angeli, a Camaldolese monastery in Florence, of which Don Silvestro was a member. He later became prior in 1398

The importance of the scriptorium was noted by Vasari in his Vita of Lorenzo Monaco

Vasari praises twenty choir books produced in the Florentine monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli:
"I, who have seen them many times, am lost in astonishment that they should have been executed with such good design and with so much diligence at a time when all the arts of design were little better than lost…”

He singles out for particular praise a scribe, Don Jacopo, and an illuminator, Don Silvestro, whose right hands were venerated as relics in the monastery after their deaths.

Don Silvestro, the scribe Don Jacopo, and their choir books are also mentioned in Vasari’s Lives of the Painters but under Lorenzo Monaco, the most famous artist at the monastery during the first quarter of the fifteenth century.

According to Vasari, Jacopo was the “best writer of initials who has ever existed,” and Don Silvestro “illuminated the same books with no less excellence.” They were greatly admired by Pope Leo X, who had recalled the high praise given to them by his father, Lorenzo de’Medici.

The illumination here is thought to be the work of Don Silvestro’s revered fingers.

Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci was a refined illuminator, but he was also known to paint large altarpieces

Many of the pages of Italian choirbooks came to the marketplace when Italian monasteries were secularized by Napoleon in the early nineteenth century. The books were cut up and the pages sold separately.

Choir books are of course meant for communal prayer not individual prayer. The image is meant to complement the text. Choir books were large and a single copy could be viewed by a group of singers

Choral manuscripts were created in large numbers and were also frequently removed from use, for a variety of reasons. When the liturgy changed, the old books became obsolete and were often replaced with new ones

The works were quickly bought up in the nineteenth century. Why ? The English art collector William Young Ottley (1771–ca. 1836) admired medieval Italian manuscript illumination because it survives:
“in a more perfect state of preservation than the frescoes and other large works of paintings remaining to us of the same period.”
The story of Mary's Nativity is known only from apocryphal sources.

The octave was instituted by Innocent IV (a. 1243) in accordance with a vow made by the cardinals in the conclave of the autumn of 1241, when they were kept prisoners by Frederick II for three months.

The earliest document commemorating this feast comes from the sixth century. St.Romanus, (St. Romanos the Melodist) the great ecclesiastical lyrist of the Greek Church, composed for it a hymn

Pope Benedict XV in a homily at the Esplanade in front of the Shrine of Our Lady of Bonaria on Sunday, 7 September 2008 said:
"[T]he Liturgy of the Word has proposed to us the Readings for the celebrations dedicated to the Blessed Virgin.

These are in particular texts planned for the Feast of the Birth of Mary which for centuries has been fixed on 8 September, the date of the consecration of the basilica built in Jerusalem above the house of St Anne, Mother of Our Lady.

They are Readings which effectively always contain the reference to the mystery of her birth.

First of all there is the Prophet Micah's marvellous oracle concerning Bethlehem, in which the birth of the Messiah is announced. The Messiah, the oracle says, was to be a descendant of King David, like him a native of Bethlehem but a figure who would exceed human limitations: his "origin", it says, are "from ancient times", lost in the most remote ages, at the frontier of eternity. His greatness would reach "to the ends of the earth", as would also be his peace (cf. Mi 5: 1-4a).

The coming of the "Lord's anointed", who was to mark the beginning of the people's liberation was described by the Prophet with an enigmatic expression: "until the time when she who is in travail has brought forth" (Mi 5: 3).

Thus the Liturgy - which is a privileged school of the faith - teaches us to see in Mary's birth a direct connection with that of the Messiah, Son of David."

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