Published: July 11, 2000
LONDON, ENGLAND – A previously unknown Book of Hours, illuminated by the most celebrated Flemish illuminator of the Renaissance, Simon Bening (1483-1561) discovered recently in a private collection in the Netherlands, sold at Sotheby’s July 6 for $3.93 million. The book, which measures a mere 87mm by 63mm, roughly the size of a pack of cigarettes, had been estimated to fetch £800/1,200,000. It was bought by an anonymous buyer bidding over the telephone. The sale of Western Manuscripts and Miniatures totaled $8.7 million and was more than 99 percent sold by value.
Bening was born in Antwerp or Ghent in 1483, and during his lifetime was feted throughout Europe. He was employed by the Elector of Mainz and the King of Portugal, and was the only northern illuminator mentioned in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, in which Vasari praised him for his ability to paint landscapes on the smallest scale. Bening’s miniatures are like microscopic panel paintings set in the daily world of Sixteenth Century Flanders.
This newly discovered manuscript was illuminated in Bruges probably around 1530 and was known in the Dutch consignor’s family as the “Capricorn Hours,” from the emblem of a goat carved in its original binding. Its 18 miniatures show Simon Bening’s work at its finest.
Christopher de Hamel, senior director and head of Sotheby’s Western Manuscript department, commented, “This manuscript demonstrates the genius of Simon Bening. Bening was admired in the Sixteenth Century and today’s sale proved that he can still command great admiration in the Twenty-First Century.
“Bening has a delicacy of touch and an extraordinary ability to conjure the very smallest detail without losing the balance of the picture as a whole,” de Hamel continued. “He can evoke heat and cold, day and night, texture and emotion, all within a picture no larger than the palm of one’s hand.”
Another manuscript that attracted similarly aggressive bidding in the same sale was one of the finest Dutch illuminated Book of Hours remaining in private hands. It sold for £1,609,500, more than four times above the low estimate and establishing a new world auction record for any Dutch manuscript.
The Book of Hours was made in the northern Netherlands, probably in Utrecht, around 1425 – within a generation of the earliest surviving northern Dutch pictorial art of any kind. The Book of Hours was illuminated by an artist known as the Master of Zweder van Culemborg, who takes his name from a great missal made for the Bishop of Utrecht, Zweder van Culemborg.
The Book of Hours is in fabulous condition and has 22 miniatures in which biblical scenes are transformed into medieval Dutch settings. Each is painted in a manner similar to Old Master paintings from the Netherlands which are famous for their engaging domesticity and scenes from the Netherlands which are famous for their engaging domesticity and scenes from the everyday life of ordinary people.
The extreme detail and elaborate composition, together with their color and mirror finish of the gold make them exceptional for their early date in any part of Europe. Only three manuscripts in the close style of the Master of Zweder van Culemborg have appeared on the market in recent decades.
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