Solomon Enthroned, Surrounded by Three Women, from Book of Hours (MS H.5), Unknown French artists [Paris]

Unknown French artists [Paris]

Solomon Enthroned, Surrounded by Three Women, from Book of Hours (MS H.5), c.1500, Tempera on vellum, 172 x 117 mm, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York; Gift of the Heineman Foundation, 1977, MS H.5, fol. 92v, Photo: The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

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Nobody’s Perfect

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A team of artists given the task of making over 500 illustrations in a single manuscript is likely to have only limited time and space to devote to any single image. The results risk becoming bland. But the demands of pictorial economy might occasionally focus the minds of illuminators to identify the real ethical kernel of a narrative.

Arguably both outcomes can be seen in this page in a Book of Hours created in Paris around 1500. The page (fol. 92v) occurs within the cycle of the Penitential Psalms. Here we can see text from Psalm 51:

Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (vv.6–7)

This section of the book is illustrated with episodes from the lives of David and Solomon.

In the topmost illumination on this page we can see Solomon being pampered by some of his ‘many foreign women’ (1 Kings 11:1) or ‘concubines’ as the French text in blue has it. The illustration cuts straight to the root cause of Solomon’s failure: soon these same women will lead him into the unforgivable sin of idolatry.

In the illumination at the bottom of the page are two men showing how, according to the French gloss, the prophets gave signs that the King’s behaviour was not at all pleasing to God. The man on the left is probably the prophet Ahijah, addressing Jeroboam on the right, who would parcel out the formerly united kingdom of Israel with Solomon’s son Rehoboam:

Then Ahijah laid hold of the new garment that was on him, and tore it into twelve pieces. And he said to Jeroboam, ‘Take for yourself ten pieces; for thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Behold, I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon…’ (1 Kings 11:30–31)

The condensed format of this illumination helps us grasp Solomon’s downfall, but its small scale means that it struggles to do justice to Ahijah’s sartorial allegory—a scene rarely treated in visual art.

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