31 Days of Medieval Manuscripts · Italian

A Fourteenth-Century Italian Choir Book – Day Three of Medieval Manuscripts

Today, I decided to feature a larger-scale manuscript to contrast yesterday’s pint-sized Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux. I recently read a past issue of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin about illustrated Italian choir books and thought that it would make a perfect subject for today’s post.

Manuscript Leaf with the Assumption of the Virgin in an Initial V, from an Antiphonary by Niccolò di ser Sozzo c. 1340. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Choir Books

Choir books are exactly what they sound like – books of musical notation and lyrics meant to be used by church choirs. Accordingly, they were commissioned and used by religious institutions like churches and monasteries. Choir books tend to be fairly large, since their contents have to be easily visible to numerous singers at once. The page shown above measures 22 5/8″ x 15 7/8″, or more than five times the size of the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux.

There are multiple types of possible medieval Christian choir books, and the page shown above comes from an antiphonary, which includes songs to be sung during the daily cycle of prayers (the Divine Office). Although the cycle kept by the monks or nuns who would have used this book was much more extensive than that of the lay people who owned books of hours, both types of manuscripts do contain components of the Divine Office. Thus, they include related content and are illustrated with similar subject matter. This page depicts the Assumption of the Virgin (when the Virgin Mary went up into Heaven after her death), a popular subject for religious art and illustrations of every variety. You can see it in more detail below.

Assumption of the Virgin from a 14th-century Italian choir book
Manuscript Leaf with the Assumption of the Virgin in an Initial V, from an Antiphonary by Niccolò di ser Sozzo c. 1340. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Because choir books and their illustrations are so large, they have been really vulnerable to being cut up. In past centuries, it’s been fashionable to cut the illustrations out of medieval manuscripts and sell them off piece by piece. I guess art dealers could make more profit this way than from selling the complete book one time, since most collectors primarily wanted pretty illuminations they could frame or put into albums. It’s sad that so many of these illustrations have been separated from their original context and entire books broken up, though the fragments are still beautiful to look at. Fortunately, this one is at least still a complete page.

As a fun side note, the artist of this illumination, Niccolo di Ser Sozzo, was the same painter responsible for my favorite Grumpy Angel at The Hyde Collection!

  • Boehm, Barbara Drake. “Choirs of Angels: Painting in Italian Choir Books 1300-1500”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin Vol. LXVI, No. 3 (Winter 2009).
  • Boehm, Barbara Drake, and Alison Manges Nogueira. “Painting in Italian Choir Books, 1300–1500.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (March 2009). Accessed September 28, 2023.

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The Grumpy Angel

In this tempera painting by 14th-century Italian artist Niccolo di ser Sozzo, the angel looks impatient and irritated. This is something you don’t see very often, so why does it look like this?

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