By Marie-Thérèse Gousset and Marianne Besseyre
Signed and dated in 1313 by its illuminator, Colin Chadewe, this manuscript is a one-of-a-kind creation. It contains a cycle of illustrations (one of the most extensive ones) that is unprecedented in its richness and eccentric iconography, designed exclusively to suit the demands of its patron.
Among the features that make the codex a unique treasure are its format, the luminosity of its colors, the contrasting effect of the golden tones and the richness of the illustrations on the Apocalypse and Hell. A contemporary reader may now have a glimpse of the heartless punishments inflicted upon those condemned to Hell, thanks to the artist’s attention to detail when depicting the most terrible and surprising means of torture: sinners were skinned, split into halves, dipped in boiling oil. This manuscript stands out for the meticulous manner in which Hell is represented, including all of its horrors and tortures; it really is a catalogue of the artist’s broad imagination and fantasy, while other manuscripts only treat this theme as single element amongst many others.
The book’s illuminations, homogeneous in style throughout the whole manuscript, show the vivacity of an extraordinary dramatic power, as is seen on all the characters’ faces and the dynamic quality of the different scenes, but also thanks to the variety of colors and the abundant use of gold.
What makes the Apocalypse so exceptional is the fact that it is indeed a rarity among French manuscripts from the beginning of the 14th century, since it shows little traces of the Parisian style. In fact, this Apocalypse stands out for its extraordinary quality and singularity, both in textual and iconographic terms, for it is apparently an unusual adaptation of different sources: on one hand the Liber Floridus and the Beatus tradition and, on the other hand, the well-established gothic English Apocalypse tradition.
The artist succeeds in orchestrating four different reading levels in a coherent and unprecedented manner; he combines the text of the Apocalypse with traditional iconographic models, different commentaries and his own interpretation of these texts, all of which enables us to perceive a whole new series of meanings in his work.
The locusts (Ap. 9, 5-7), f.26r
Set against a gold ground whose unreal luminosity confirms the fulfillment of the divine project, the drama unleashed by opening the pit of the abyss carries on inexorably. The thirsty sun and the mournful moon are bystanders to the massacre inflicted by the hellish locusts with stings on their tails in close formation trampling down humans with bleeding wounds. Their mission is to torment heretics and evil believers for five months by inflicting stings like those of scorpions but whose pain is insufficient to bring about a fervently desired death. Two groups of men at prayer flank these horse-like monsters in brown or ash-grey fleecy gowns, with winged knees, as described in the text: their hair braided in two long plaits frames their grimacing human traits with lion-like jaws, beneath heavy, sparkling crowns.
The angel standing upon the land and the sea (Revelation 10: 1-7), f.28v
John is portrayed again sitting at his desk in the left corner of the painting. A heavenly messenger orders him to keep the words uttered by the seven thunderbolts sealed until the seventh trumpet sounds. His presence on this page also balances the composition.
This was a excerpt from the commentary volume of Apocalypse 1313 by Marie-Thérèse Gousset and Marianne Besseyre (Illuminated Manuscripts Research Center, Bibliothèque nationale de France).