A Great Book of Hours and a Bible moralisée
The Rohan Hours is one of the most astounding books of hours that was ever created in the history of French illumination. It was the first book of hours in the world to feature full-page miniatures and broke with the strict rules of composition for medieval books of hours. It was produced in Paris sometime between 1430 and 1435. The unbelievably talented Rohan Master was responsible for its precious design, along with other no-less-talented assistants from his art studio. The Grandes Heures de Rohan is astounding not only because of its incredible variety and revolutionary image program, but equally so because of its dynamic and mysterious history of ownership.
Rohan Hours: The Lamentation - Fol. 135r
With the Rohan Hours in their possession, the French National Library in Paris has one of the greatest treasures of 15th century French illumination. Elegant, impressive, and unforgettable miniatures adorn the pages of the manuscript. The manuscript’s outstanding miniature – from the hand of the Rohan Master himself – depicts the biblical scene of the Lamentation: a portrayal of the deepest sorrow and simultaneously a miniature page of the greatest mastery!
Compassion and Elegance
The full-page miniature (Folio 135) of the Rohan Hours is probably the most famous miniature of the entire history of book illumination. One of the most moving depictions in all of Christian art, strongly expressive and full of emotion! And yet, it is a wonderfully scaled-back, elegant depiction, a compositional tour de force! Only four people and the cross make up the entire staffage of the impressive and unforgettable composition. The scene appears completely enraptured, alluding to an unreal, placeless, timeless space. However, in spite of all the reduction, it is clear that it is dealing with the Lamentation of Christ at the site of the Crucifixion.
Classic Motif, Rethought
A narrow golden frame surrounds the miniature, adorned on the lower margin by a three-lined text with gorgeous initials. The luminous, dark-blue background of the miniature is littered with golden ornamentation, which the silhouettes of numerous angels make apparent. The light-colored bodies of the four human figures appear even brighter against the background. All four figures are depicted as saints with a splendid halo of glimmering gold leaf – further adorned artistically – and make up the typical pictorial figures of the Lamentation: the grieving Mary, the caring John the Baptist, the body of the dead Christ, and finally God.
A Grieving God?
God watches the scene from the upper-right corner of the depiction. He is presented as a grey, bearded man dressed in classical festive robes. In his left hand he bears the globe as a sign of his dominion, the right he has placed against his head – a gesture of despair? John the Baptist stands in the middle of the composition in accordance with the classical lineup of the Lamentation scene and stands behind the stunningly sorrowful Mary. His head with its youthful blond hair is turned and looking up over his shoulder towards God – reproachfully? He intercepts the falling body of Mary and holds her tight with his strong arms.
The Mother of God mourns her son and is profoundly exhausted by this deep feeling of loss. She herself almost appears to be dead with her wilted body. Her pale face is almost as white as the scarf that covers her hair. Her body hangs in the arms of John the Baptist almost like a heavy sack. Mary is clad in a long, brownish-white cloak, which flashes out the yellow insides on the hemming. The long arms of the Mother of God hang over the waist, where she is held by John, sagging downwards – or stretched out towards Christ? – with her fingertips nearly touching the body of her dead son. Her entire form is an expression of the most profound sorrow and deepest pain!
Christ Before the Cross
The body of Christ lies on the ground at the feet of Mary and John, outstretched transversely towards the beholder. The body of the Savior is completely emaciated, pale-grey, and marked by the wounds of his martyrdom. Luminously red blood is to be seen where the lance and the nails wounded his body. Additionally, Christ wears the green crown of thorns on his bearded head. This exceptionally drastic method of depicting the dead body, the dead body of Christ, became a characteristic of the Rohan workshop. The cross in the center of the background appears almost incidental and yet is still very present. This is successful because, among other reasons, the vertical strut of the cross with the INRI logo overlaps the golden frame of the miniature. So do God’s halo and the halo of Jesus lying on the ground. Numerous hidden, yet well-thought-out and refined parallelisms can be found in the composition of the masterful miniature.
The Masterful Composition
The miniature of the Lamentation originates from the hand of the Rohan master himself! He realized an elegant overall impression, partially through the reduced color palette: only blue, gold, white, and brownish-yellow in the most varied gradations were used. His style additionally distinguished itself through a realistic depiction of the human form. This naturalism was particularly recognizable in the figure of the deceased Christ and in the face of God the Father. The miniature of the Lamentation of Christ from the Rohan Hours is an all-around perfect attestation of French illumination and has not lost its enchantment to this day!