Friday, April 28th, 2017...9:30 am

The Houghton Gradual and the Choir Books in Malta

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Dr Theresa Zammit Lupi, Katharine F. Pantzer Jr Fellowship in Descriptive Bibliography 2016-2017, Houghton Library

MS Lat 186, f182v. MS Lat 186 at the Houghton Library is one of a set of four surviving French graduals that were illuminated by Jean Pichore (d. 1521) and his workshop in the first quarter of the 16th century. The manuscript was recently returned to Houghton after being exhibited at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art as part of the multi-venue exhibition Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections.

The Houghton manuscript contains 200 folios and measures 470 x 675mm (including the binding). The manuscript is a Common of Saints and includes the sung Catholic mass in Gregorian chant for eight masses to commemorate the lives of apostles, martyrs, confessors and virgins. It includes ten historiated initials with decorated borders that extend beyond the initial on all sides of the folio. The gradual is made of parchment and bound in leather over oak boards. Its binding is embellished with metal furnishings including bosses, clasps and corner pieces.

Like the other three graduals now dispersed in Berlin, Baltimore and California)[1], the Houghton gradual is a finely-produced choir book that reflects an expensive commission. We do not know the identity of its first owner because there are no coat of arms or names to indicate who may have been the patron. What we know for certain is that its quality is top notch. The calf skins are flawless and uniformly prepared, the distribution of text, music and decoration is consistent throughout and the illuminations are of remarkable sophistication suggesting a well-coordinated assignment with a team of illuminators from the same atelier.

About 4,000 miles from Cambridge MA, the Co-Cathedral of St John in Valletta, Malta, houses an outstanding set of ten French music manuscripts dated 1533. These graduals include the complete liturgical cycle of sung masses (the Temporale, the Sanctorale and the Common of Saints). The set was commissioned by the French Grand Master Philippe Villiers de L’Isle Adam for the Order of the Knights of St John during its stay in Malta.  The Grand Master’s coats of arms appear on all the folios containing historiated initials. Some 15 to 20 years later in production than the Houghton gradual, the L’Isle Adam choir books were also produced in a French scriptorium and were probably decorated by followers of Jean Pichore. Art historical and codiclogical analyses suggest that the hands that produced the L’Isle Adam set were familiar with Pichore’s work as well as the decorations in the earlier gradual set.

MS Lat 186, f182v.

The Education of St Anne
MS Lat 186, f182v. Houghton Library, Harvard University

While studying in detail the Houghton gradual as a Visiting Fellow at the library, it has become more evident to me that this manuscript together with its three siblings mentioned above, were influential in the making of the set in Malta. A number of comparisons may be drawn in the style and techniques used. Of particular interest are the historiated initials on f17r (The Martyrdom of St Stephen), f174r (Offering of St Joachim) and f182v (The Education of St Anne). Together with several codicological features, these folios show distinct features that are convincingly comparable to the L’Isle Adam graduals making this a most fascinating research project to work on.

Courtesy of St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation

Courtesy of St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation

Theresa Zammit Lupi is a book conservator and codicologist and works as Conservation Consultant for the Notarial Archives in Valletta, Malta. She studied art history and conservation in Malta, Florence and London obtaining her PhD in the conservation of manuscripts from the University of the Arts London. She is the author of “Cantate Domino – Early Choir Books for the Knights in Malta”.

For information on how to apply for a Visiting Fellowship at Houghton Library, please go here:…

[1] Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (MS Lat Fol 830), Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (MA W460) and Denison Library, Claremont College, California (Perkins 4).

1 Comment

  • I love when ancient things are discovered, especially something that adds a lot to the museum collections. The choir books so artistic. I am a bibliophile and would definitely want to visit Houghton Library someday.