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In Full Bloom

By Henry Handley

Whether you’re planning a Mary Garden or just admiring the blooms popping up on campus, there are plenty of reasons to stop and smell the flowers. One recent acquisition from bookseller Justin Croft is another opportunity. The French prayer book — known in French as a missel — produced circa 1900, features an uncommon combination of Gothic-inspired printed text and illustrated, illuminated floral abundance.

Yes — illuminated! Powdered gold suspended in ink and applied by hand shimmers on the page, but this is still a relatively recent example of illumination in the Marian Library. Although it lacks a clear date of origin (a postcard tucked inside dates from 1903) the book is undoubtedly a product of the turn of the 20th century. Its medieval sensibility is filtered through new lithograph printing technology and art nouveau watercolor aesthetics — and very likely for a female audience. A scroll reading “Marie” on one page may reference the portraits of the Virgin Mary elsewhere in the book; more likely, however, it names the owner. Marie’s name also appears on one of three gilded bells painted on a blank leaf near the end of the book, next to bells inscribed for Jacques and Magdalain. While their identities and relationships are unclear, a Nativity scene on the facing page with an affectionate Holy Family may have been a reflection of familial love to these three.

Although clearly inspired by medieval books of hours in both style and format, the oversized initials and negative spaces printed at the ends of some lines of text make this mass-printed, hand-illustrated devotional resemble a coloring book, inviting amateur creative customization. The ample margins offered the artist even more room to experiment. Flowers bloom throughout; creatures, including birds, elephants, beetles, a unicorn, and even a few faces appear in pastel wash or navy blue ink. 

Medieval-inspired, Marian, and not without a few mysteries, the illustrations in this devotional book are as lively as they were over a century ago. What’s more, you don’t need a sunny day or allergy medications to enjoy them.

Further reading

For more on women, class, creativity and medievalism, read about two French journals that encouraged women to re-create illuminated manuscripts in Laura Morowitz’s “A Home is a Woman’s Castle: Ladies’ Journals and Do-It-Yourself Medievalism in Fin-de-Siècle France,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 5, no. 2 (Autumn 2006),

— Henry Handley is a collections librarian in the Marian Library.

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