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Book of the Month

December 2009

Ludolph of Saxony


Vita Christi
Translated by Guillaume le Ménard
Miniatures attributed to Jacques de Besançon
Paris: 1490s
Sp Coll MSS Hunter 36-39

For December 2009, Special Collections - in conjunction with the University's History of Art Department - would like to present a jewel in the crown of illuminated manuscripts: Ludolph of Saxony's Vita Christi (or Life of Christ). A devotional account of Christ's life, this substantial French manuscript is comprised of four volumes containing 140 illuminated illustrations.

Jesus teaches not to fear death (Vol. 2, folio 40v)

Our copy of Ludolf of Saxony's Vita Christi is a prime example of a high-quality 15th century manuscript.

A detailed exploration of the manuscript and its skilled craftsmanship may help us to understand the past. As an artefact of immense cultural importance, it provides evidence of the basic beliefs and artistic values of late medieval society.

When we first look at a page in an illuminated manuscript, however, its layout may appear confusing and difficult to understand. Therefore, before beginning our examination of this book, let us alleviate any anxieties by analysing a typical page to clarify the standard sections and explain the terminology.

The miraculous catch of fish
(Vol. 1, folio 134v)

As our example, we will use a page from volume one of our copy of the Vita Christi. This is folio 20r. Folio (fol. or f.) is Latin for 'leaf'; it is the sheet of material for writing on. Medieval manuscripts were commonly made by gathering together folded sheets of animal skin (vellum or parchment) to form individual quires that were stitched together to make a book, protected by a covering (binding). Many manuscripts are numbered according to the 'leaf' and not individual pages, hence the term foliation. A folio consists of two sides (or pages): the recto (r) is the front side of a folio and the verso (v) is the back side of a folio.

In this manuscript layout, most pages have been divided into two columns (col.). To help in referring to specific lines of text, the columns are differentiated by designating the left-side of the leaf as column a and the right-side of the leaf as column b.

A miniature is a drawing or illustration in a manuscript. Contrary to our usual understanding of the term 'miniature' relating to something small, these illustrations do not follow specific size guidelines. For example, a miniature might be a section of one column as seen in the Annunciation scene here, but it can also be a full page or half page illustration as seen in examples below (for example, the Nativity miniature). The word 'miniature' in relation to manuscripts comes from the Latin 'miniare' meaning to colour with red. An illuminated illustration is when metal (usually gold or silver) is used as part of the colouring scheme.

The main features of this page include:

A: a miniature depicting the Annunciation (folio 20r, col. B)
B: a decorated bar known as a line filler
C: a rubric (ie. in red) or rubricated text; the titles, chapter headings, and other instruction are usually written in red to make them stand out
D: a decorated initial 'O' that helps to signal the start of a new section of text
E: the standard script (in this case, a French Bastard hand)
F: Heraldic border decoration, using the Fleur-de-lys, the symbol of the French Monarchy
G: a foliate border, incorporating flowers and fruit

The Annunciation (Vol. 1, folio 20r)

Jesus teaches patience (miniature detail from Vol. 2, folio 34v)

Throughout the medieval period, the desire to live a spiritual life was a basic belief of paramount importance. A personal connection with God could be formed by prayer and devotional study. The Vita Christi text was one of many works that could be used as an instructional manual for religious devotion. Its aim was to stimulate thoughtful reflection. Through prayer and meditation, it teaches how to lead an ideal and pious life. 

The title 'Life of Christ' can therefore be misleading. Although the work does document the chronological life of Christ as a whole, it is not a simple biography from his birth to his ascension; rather, it is an historical commentary woven with theological insight, life instructions, meditations and prayers.

The good samaritan (miniature detail from Vol. 2, folio 72r)

The Nativity
(miniature from Vol. 1, folio 44

The Epiphany
(miniature from Vol. 1, folio 55v)

(miniature from Vol. 4, folio 1r)

A well-rounded piece of spiritual literature, the Vita Christi draws heavily upon the Gospels, but also incorporates other writings from ecclesiastical authors such as Augustine, to secular philosophers such as Cicero. Appropriately for this time of year, the Christmas story is given prominence in series of half page miniatures.

The author with Christ (Vol. 1, folio 1r)

The Vita Christi was a very popular work in the 15th century. There are many versions of the text, in a variety of languages, adapted by different authors. Numerous manuscript (and early printed book) copies of it from the late medieval period survive.

Our manuscript is a version of the work by Ludolf of Saxony (d.1378). Also known as Ludolphus of Saxonia or Ludolf the Carthusian, Ludolf was a 14th century ecclesiastical scholar and writer. He first entered the Dominican order before becoming a Carthusian thirty years later. Despite the addition of "Saxony" to his name, it would be remiss to make the assumption that this was his native land.

Often referred to as a summa evangelica (summa from the Latin 'highest' and 'evangelica' pertaining to the Gospels), Ludolf's version of the Vita Christi text is one of the most comprehensive; it brings together the writings of approximately sixty authors.

It was deliberately written in a straight forward style that is easy to comprehend. It was essential for the reader to understand the text in order to achieve its aim of increasing spiritual understanding on the road to piety. As Bodenstedt states, the "wholesome means for spiritual progress offered to the readers of the Vita is a clue to its popularity; Ludolphus taught them the fundamental principles of the ascetical life in concrete and appealing fashion"1.

Ludolf also added prayers to the text to assist the reader with spiritual devotion. These are positioned at the conclusion of each section or chapter to encourage the reader to reflect on the previous passage. 

The Pentecost (Vol. 4, folio 219r)

The Last Judgement (miniature detail from Vol. 3, folio 169r)

Monk in white robes
(Vol. 3, folio 47v)

Ludolf's profound belief in the power of prayer is particularly commented on by Bodenstedt: "His treatment of it [prayer] includes mental, vocal, public, and private prayer. He believed that meditation on the Life of Christ is the real foundation of Christian perfection... The prayers which represent a résumé of the meditations in the Vita are appropriate for the many varying circumstances of the spiritual life. Consonant with the objective of the Vita, they entreat the grace to imitate Christ"2.


This version of Ludolf's text was translated from Latin into French in Paris during the 1490s by Guillaume le Ménard, a Franciscan cleric.


Our manuscript is a de-luxe production of the highest class. Written on good quality vellum, it comprises of four weighty volumes. A book of such a size would have been time consuming and expensive to produce.


Detail of monk writing a manuscript
(Vol. 3, folio 47v)

Detail of script (Vol. 1, folio 134v)

It is carefully written out in the hand of one scribe who uses a French Bastard script, typical of the late 15th century.
There are 140 miniatures in total throughout the four volumes of the manuscript. While many represent traditional biblical renditions such as The Transfiguration (below), much of their appeal lies in those that depict intimate, domestic scenes such as Mary Weaving with Jesus at her Feet (to the right). They are attributed to the artist Jacques de Besançon, who was Chief Associate of the royal painter Maître François.

The transfiguration
(detail of miniature from Vol. 3, folio 10v)

Mary weaving with Jesus at her feet
(detail of miniature from Vol. 1, folio 80v)

There has been some dispute in the past regarding Besançon's contribution to the manuscript and whether or not he was exclusively responsible for the miniatures and (possibly) border art. However, the height of his career activity - between 1485 through to the 1490s - corresponds with the approximate date of its production. The alternate idea is that Maître François himself had an artistic hand in the miniature painting. Besançon took over the François workshop in 1480, leaving both artists active when our manuscript was created. François and Besançon worked with similar composition and formatting styles; their similarities leave us questioning if they both worked on our Vita Christi.

Certainly, the illustrations are of exceptional quality. The colours are vibrant to this day and gold has been used extensively to illuminate the scenes.

The miniature of the Annunciation is a good example of the varied use of gold illumination. In this scene, Mary is being informed by the Angel Gabriel that she is to give birth to Christ. The gold is found in finite detail on the tapestry background behind Mary. Her halo, meanwhile, is an example of a larger filled area of gold. Gold is also used to pick out the folds of the Angel Gabriel's garment and his speech, while heavenly golden rays of glory convey a sense of the privilege being bestowed upon Mary.

Detail from the Nativity (miniature from Vol. 1, folio 44

The miniatures are finely detailed. A good example of the level of detail found may be seen in the illustration of the Nativity. Hovering above the humble stable where Christ has been born are two angels. They carry a sheet upon which can clearly be seen both musical notes and the Latin inscription "Gloria in altissimis deo et in ter ...".

The Annunication (detail of miniature from Vol. 1, folio 20r)

Border art example
(Vol.1,folio 144)

Many of the illustrations are surrounded by intricate decorated borders. Such a border on all four sides of a miniature stresses the importance of the image in the manuscript. This floriated (flower-like) border art found has a beautiful vibrancy that adds to the quality and distinction of the manuscript.

Border art example (Vol.3,folio 47v)

Most of the borders are formulated in geometric patterning with clearly defined outlines. There are some borders that break the mould, with free-form organic shapes as opposed to geometric. A prime example is the fleur-de-lys outline placed inside a geometrically formed margin. In our manuscript the golden fleurs-de-lys motif changes structurally throughout the volumes.

Border art example (Vol.1,folio 20)

Christ's genealogy from Adam (Vol. 1, folio 36?)

Perhaps sometimes overlooked in favour of miniatures, borders used in illuminated manuscripts may provide historical information as well as artistic beauty. In some instances, their analysis can help to date a manuscript or provide clues about its place of origin.

Borders could be executed via a template or free hand, and if the artist changed throughout production this could be an explanation for any stylistic differences found.

The exquisite detail and luxurious quality of work found throughout this manuscript indicates that it must have been created for a wealthy and important patron. In fact, our manuscript is a presentation copy that was made for Charles VIII (1470-1498), the King of France. There is even an inscription at the beginning of each volume that states "por le roy" or "for the king." In some of the illustrations, Saint John is made prominent, and his youthful features resemble those of Charles VIII.
The lower border of the dedication contains a detailed image of the modern (after 1376) royal French heraldic crest. It consists of three golden (or) fleurs-de-lys upon a blue (azure) shield. The French crown rests on top of the shield that is being supported by two kneeling angels.

Detail of heraldic crest in the border of  the dedication page

Charles VIII, 'the affable', reigned from 1483 to 1498. The young king was crowned at a time of instability in French history. At the same time, religious devotion was of the highest importance. As Knecht states, "Charles became king at a time of intense religious fervour prompted by the approach of the 'millennium', which prophets and astrologers were proclaiming to be imminent. At the close of the 15th century religious faith remained one of the most effective 'media' of political action"3. At such a time of significant religious fath, ownership of a devotional work such as the Vita Christi was entirely fitting. For Charles to have such a fine copy of the book dedicated to him emphasizes his importance as an individual as well as his desire to uphold his faith.

The first illustration in volume one of our manuscript copy of the Vita Christi depicts the dedication of the book to Charles VIII. This scene shows the spiritual devotion of Charles. He is depicted kneeling reverently at his prie-Dieu; French for "Pray [to] God", a prie-Dieu is a small wooden prayer desk that incorporates a shelf for books and a kneeler. The king is about to take confession from the ecclesiastic kneeling on the opposite side of the prie-Dieu. The attendant behind Charles has placed his hat behind him to show reverence for both King Charles and Christ; he is holding a bound book to be presented to Charles - possibly one of the volumes of the Vita Christi.

The devotion of Charles is witnessed by several onlookers, including three cardinals dressed in their traditional red robes. Public figures witnessing Charles' devotion to God promote the understanding that he is a deserving and righteous leader whose decisions will be governed by God. The private act of prayer and devotion takes on public appeal.


 Detail of dedication miniature (preliminary page)

Christ appearing to Charles VIII (Vol. 4 folio 97r)


Charles VIII's reign was blighted by certain negative events that would have initiated a need in him to proclaim his devotion and a commitment towards pious living. For instance, he was condemned as an adulterer by Maximilian I of Hapsburg after a marriage contract concerning his daughter, Margaret of Austria, fell through. Margaret was only three at the time of the accusations, so the consummation of the marriage was inconceivable. A papal dispensation and subsequent annulment were granted.

If this manuscript was created after the rumours of adultery came out, our Vita Christi would have been an asset in showing the French court and the public Charles' reformed and piteous ways.

Another illustration that emphasises Charles' piety is his vision of the Crucified Saviour in volume 4 of our manuscript.

Of interest is a figure in the upper right of the picture. Holding a crimson bound volume, he is thought to be the French translator Guillaume le Ménard.

The fine detailing in many of the illustrations has already been mentioned. The clothing and textiles in particular are executed with such precision that the folds and drapery of the cloth appear true to life. The patterning and texture of the clothes also help the reader to identify key persons through the richness of their garments; in the illustration here, for example, Charles VIII is easily recognisable both from the crown he wears and from the opulence of his ermine lined mantle. While Charles does not have a sceptre, Christ does (albeit fashioned out of reed). Charles connects with Christ just as Christ connects with the King.


Detail from miniature of Christ
appearing to Charles VIII,
possibly depicting the translator
Guillaume le Ménard
(Vol. 4 folio 97r)

Detail showing Charles VIII (Vol. 4 folio 97r)

King Charles is portrayed kneeling in pious reverence at his prie-Dieu. It is draped in the same blue cloth with the royal fleur-de-lys as seen in the Dedication image. The heraldic crest also continues to manifest itself in the wardrobe of Charles; it appears on his robe. At the base of King Charles' attire is a slate and gold sleeved mantle with pronounced white cuffs. The slate and gold mantle is also worn by Christ and Guillaume le Ménard. This unifying garment linking Charles and Ménard with Christ portrays them as spiritual individuals.

Detail showing Charles VIII's robe
(Vol. 4 folio 97r)

Detail of King's robe from Dedication

Detail of the King's Confessor's  robe from Dedication

Detail of bystanders robes from Dedication

Charles' wealth is demonstrated via the expense of his fabrics; in the Dedication image, he wears a crimson doublet and black velvet slash-sleeved mantle trimmed with sable - another highly-valued fur. His confessor, meanwhile, is dressed in a surplice with a cloth of gold draped over his left shoulder.

Detail of miniature of Judas betrayed (Vol. 4, folio 29v)

Our copy of the Vita Christi may be interpreted as a concrete manifestation of Charles' quest for religious devotion. It is a manuscript with physical and spiritual density that is both a tool and showpiece. The Vita Christi is timeless. As Bodenstedt states, Ludolf's prayers "have been used by many in the past and they are fresh even today. Through them the Vita still yields its unction."4

As a manuscript for all seasons, we are privileged to have such a precious copy in our collection. It is now part of the Library's Hunterian Collection. It was purchased for William Hunter at the sale of the library of Louis-Jean Giagnat in Paris 1769 and transported to London. It subsequently came to the University of Glasgow with the rest of Hunterian bequest in 1807. 

Two volumes of this exquisite book will be on display in the Special Collections foyer from December 2009 to February 2010.

Detail of Christ from miniature of Christ appearing
to Charles VIII (Vol. 4, folio 97r)

Other 15th century decorated French manuscripts in Special Collections:

Boccaccio De Casibus Virorum Illustrium (The Fall of Princes) Paris: 1467. Sp Coll MSS Hunterian 371-372. See February 2009 book of the month.

Paolo  Emilio (Aemilio) In Franciae Antiquitatem Libri Tres (Treatise on French Antiquities) France: 1490s. MS Hunter 98 (T.4.15)

Paolo Emilio (Aemilio) Galliae Antiquitates (Antiquities of France) France: 1480s-1490s. MS Hunter 11 (S.2.1)

Albertus Magnus (pseudo) Liber Lapidarius (Lapidary) France: mid 15th century. MS Hunter 468 (V.6.18)

Guillaume de Nangis Chroniques de Saint-Denys (Chronicles of Saint-Denis) France: 3rd quarter of the 15th century. MS Hunter 203 (U.1.7)

Seneca Tragoediae (Tragedies) France: 1490s. MS Hunter 322 (U.7.16)

Guillaume Tardif Fauconnerie (The Art of Falconry and The Art of Hunting) France: c. 1494 MS Hunter 269 (U.5.9)

The following have been useful in creating this article:

Avril, François and Reynaud, Nicole Les Manuscrits Peintures en France Paris: Flammarion-Bibliothèque nationale de France, 1995. Level 11 Fine Arts : Bibliography qB162:24 1995-A

Bodenstedt, Sr. Mary The Vita Christi of Ludolphus the Carthusian Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1944 Library Research Annexe Store C8-Kll

British Library 'The style of the Master of Jacques de Besançon' ( Page accessed 15 March 2009

Brown, Michelle P. Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms California: Getty Publications, 1994.

Clarke, Michael The Concise Dictionary of Art Terms Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003

Knecht, Robert Jean The Valois: Kings of France 1328-1589 London: Hambleton and London, 2004. History LC 100. V3 - KNE

Linder, Amnon 'An Unpublished "Pronosticatio" on the Return of Charles VIII to Italy' Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 47 (1984), pp. 200-203.

Marrow, James H., 'Symbol and Meaning in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance' Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, Vol. 16, no. 2/3 (1986), pp.150-169.

Parkes, M. B., Scribes Scripts and Readers: Studies in the Communication, Presentation and Dissemination of Medieval Texts London: The Hambledon Press, 1991. Level 11 Fine Arts: Bibliography B144 1991-P

Plummer, John The Last Flowering: French Painting in Manuscripts 1420-1530 New York: The Pierpont Morgan Library, 1982. Level 11 Bibliog B 162:24 1982-P

Randall, Lilian M. C. Images in the Margins of Gothic Manuscripts California: University of California Press, 1966. Level 11 Fine Arts: Bibliography (QUARTOS) B 162 1966-R

Rorimer, James T. 'The Glorification of Charles VIII' The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin New Series, Vol. 12, no. 10 (June 1954), pp. 281-299.

Sainty, Guy Stair World Orders of Knighthood and Merit United Kingdom: Burke's Peerage & Gentry, 2006.

Sandler, Lucy Freeman The Psalter of Robert de Lisle in the British Library London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 1982. Level 11 Fine Arts: Bibliography qB 162:10 1982-S

Scott, Kathleen L. Dated & Datable English Manuscript Borders c. 1395-1499 London: The Bibliographical Society, 2002. Level 11 Fine Arts: Bibliography B 162:10 2002-S

Scheller, Robert W. 'Imperial Themes in Art and Literature of the Early French Renaissance: The Period of Charles VIII' Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art Vol. 12, no. 1 (1981-1982), pp.5-69.

Shailor, Barbara The Medieval Book Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. Level 11 Fine Arts: Bibliog B140 1991-S

Thorp, Nigel The Glory of the Page: Medieval and Renaissance Illuminated Manuscripts From Glasgow University Library London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 1987 Level 11 Fine Arts: Bibliography B 162 1987-U

University of Glasgow Library Special Collections manuscripts catalogue entry for MS Hunter 36-39 ( Page accessed, 14 March 2009.

Valentine, Lucia, Ornament in Medieval Manuscripts (London: Faber and Faber, 1965). Level 11 Fine Arts: Bibliography B 160 1965-V. 

References cited in text

1. Bodenstedt, p. 148
2. Bodenstedt, p. 148
3. Knecht, p. 121
4. Bodenstedt, p.148


Return to main Special Collections Exhibition Page
Go to previous Books of the Month

Kelly Le Blanc December 2009 [article originally written in 2009 as part of a work placement in Special Collections arranged as part of an M Litt course in the History of Art]