Black manuscripts, written and illuminated on parchment that has been stained, present a figure-ground reversal so that the images and texts seem to step out of darkness. Whereas medieval scribes and illuminators normally began with a luminescent creamy off-white parchment substrate and applied ink and pigments, thereby conceptualizing the image as dark-on-light, makers of these manuscripts began with a dark, opaque substrate and built up light and bright colors, thereby conceptualizing the image and script as light-on-dark. Black books of hours were produced around 1458-1485 for the Burgundian nobility, whose bibliophiles appreciated their exquisite craftsmanship and unusual technique. In three of the most celebrated surviving examples—books of hours now in Vienna and New York —the reversed figure-ground painting is executed in a jolting palette, including a shade of lime green that seems to phosphoresce. While Marie Hartmann is currently studying these and related Burgundian black books of hours in their courtly and material contexts, the subject of the current essay is more narrow and treats a relatively unknown black manuscript now in the Brussels Royal Library under the shelf number Solvay FS IX 7A. In this essay I will describe the manuscript, its recent history, and its content, and then speculate on its possible audience, and—as far as is possible without a technical examination—its mode of production. To do this, I will present an overview of its contents, and then situate its script and imagery by comparing it to related examples. This manuscript was produced two decades later than the Burgundian black books of hours, was probably not made in a courtly ambit, and departs from the other black manuscripts in its representational strategies. It could be described as a later imitation. Because of the division of labor in the object’s production, its script has a different relationship to tradition and innovation than does its imagery.
|The Walters Art Museum Journal
|Published - 4 Mar 2023