Hidden Heraldry

IMG_8848Smith College’s MS. 255 Book of Hours houses a truly beautiful gem, a clue to whom it might have once belonged. This early French manuscript (1410- 1420) is a prime example of personal Books of Hours that were beginning to be mass produced. Standing apart from the other illustrations,  a unique image is nestled just below one of the seven illuminated miniatures. A distinctive heraldic shield is painted into the bottom margin of fol. 32v, IMG_8852resting just below the illuminated scene depicting the Annunciation. The fascinating part is that it depicts two different heraldic colors and designs. Being halved horizontally, or party per pale, we see the combination of two different families. The reasons for joining arms can be for various alliances, but I believe this instance to be that of a marriage alliance. If so, then we see here the husband’s crest impaled upon the dexter side of the sinister wife’s crest. The husband’s crest of three silver crescents on a red fess against a gold background; the wife’s a blue fess across silver and red bendy background. Often younger sons would add to their family’s crest in order to make it their own; could it be possible the three silver crescents mean this husband was the third son of a noble family?

Party per pale; dexter: or on a fess gules three crescents argent, impaled on sinister: bendy gules and argent on a fess azure

Party per pale; dexter: or on a fess gules three crescents argent, impaled on sinister: bendy gules and argent on a fess azure

I believe that this impaled crest is a signal of this particular book’s origins and purpose. Books of Hours were generally owned by women and were a popular gift. With the books being mass produced, signs of personalization on behalf of the commissioner are common. This is obviously a customized job, not only can we tell by the personal heraldry, but also that the shield was added after the rinceaux  border. The gesso of the illuminated vine’s leaves show through the the paint of the shield. IMG_8862Perhaps this book was also a gift, perhaps a wedding gift from the groom to the bride? This guess is based on the strong suggestion of a marriage due to the halved shield, the fact that it was almost certainly specially commissioned, and also by the presence of a ring on the same page. This silver ring can be seen on the right hand margin, looped through the vines of the border decoration. It appears four more times in such a manner. The reoccurrence of this decoration draws even more importance to it, and if the book was indeed a wedding gift, maybe the appearance of the wedding ring next to daily prayers served as a constant reminder. So far I have been unable to identify the heraldry of the two houses represented on the shield; if anyone can help shed some light on this mystery, we might very well be able to track the provenance of this beautiful manuscript. Suggestions and ideas are more than welcome in the comment box below.

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