The Musée Condé’s cabinet of fine books holds fifty of the six hundred illuminated manuscripts assembled by the dukes and duchesses of Bourbon between 1337 and 1523, many of which are on display in “The Manuscripts of the Dukes of Bourbon” (through January 7). The Bourbon family ruled France from the end of the sixteenth century, beginning with the ascension of Henry IV, until Louis Philippe took the throne in the nineteenth century. But the museum’s manuscripts come from the first Bourbon–Vendôme line, a junior house that ruled at Moulins and whose last member, Duke Charles III (1490–1527), dubbed the Constable of Bourbon, was the last of France’s feudal lords to challenge a monarch—François I (1494–1547), in his case.

Charles III distinguished himself in 1515 during one of François’s wars in Italy, and the king made him the constable of France as a result. But François was nevertheless uneasy about the constable’s ambition and refused to pay his debts or name him as governor of the Netherlands, which Charles III had been expecting. François’s mother, Louise de Savoie, was next of kin to Charles III’s wife, Suzanne, and when Suzanne died, Louise claimed her estate. She offered to relinquish it to Charles III if he married her. This deal the constable refused—he said that Louise (fourteen years his senior) was too old for him.

Maître de la Mort, Page from Éthiques of King Charles V, 1398, Manuscript, Bibliothèque de Musée Condé, Chanitlly, France.

To avenge his mother’s honor and put the constable in his place, François seized most of the Bourbon estate in 1523, including the majority of the family’s collection of illuminated manuscripts, which had been accumulated over two centuries and which François—who knew a good book when he saw one—had admired when he attended the baptism of the constable’s son at Moulins in 1517. François’s actions drove Charles III to the side of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, with whom he made a secret pact to partition France. But the plot was discovered, the constable was stripped of his office, and he fled to Italy where he was killed in 1527, purportedly by the artist Benvenuto Cellini, during the emperor’s sack of Rome.

François left a small number of books at Moulins, and these were recouped in 1661 by le Grand Condé, Prince Louis de Bourbon (1621–86). Henri d’Orléans (1822–97) eventually inherited these books in 1830 upon the death the last prince in the Bourbon–Condé line. He added to the collection several related manuscripts and paintings that had formerly belonged to the Bourbons, including the Book of Hours of Jeanne de France (fifteenth century) and The Diptych of Jeanne de France (1452–70) from Rogier van der Weyden’s workshop.

Angers et Tours, Page from Horae ad usum Parisiensem dites Heures de Jeanne de Franceca. 1452, Manuscript on parchment, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

The seigneury of Bourbon was first granted to Louis I in 1327. The family’s territories included the counties of Auvergne, Forez, and Beaujolais, as well as a castle in Moulins. Louis II, called Louis the Good (ca. 1337–1410), created a library in the Moulins castle and cherished books in the same way as his contemporary, King Charles V of France (1338–80)—the king even gave Louis II the manuscript Teachings from Saint Louis to His Son (1374). Subsequent dukes and duchesses added to the library in the coming centuries, and John II (1426–88) created a brilliant court at Moulins where writers were protected from the wars with England. The court at Moulins was thus filled with avid readers for hundreds of years. (They enjoyed reading aloud especially—Louis II loved to do so at the dinner table.)

The Bourbons favored books of hours and works on governing well, though they also collected lighter works, including Arthurian romances. The surviving works leave no doubt that the Bourbons took their faith and their ducal duties seriously. In the frontispiece to a copy of De regimine principum (1460–70), for example, Jean II is shown in prayer as he is presented to Saint Dominic and Saint Louis. The picture shows the three figures in front of a dazzling landscape opening to the sea.

Antoine de la Sale, Pages from Le paradis de la reine Sibylle et au autre récitsca. 1440, Manuscript on parchment, Bibliothèque de Chantilly, France.

One of this line’s bookworms was Agnes de Burgundy (1407–76), sister to King Philippe the Good—also the keeper of a famous library—whose manuscript of Antoine de la Sale’s Le paradis de la reine Sibylle et au autre récits (ca. 1440) (Queen Sybil’s paradise and other tales) is one of the highlights of the exhibition. Reine Sibylle is a medieval fiction set in the Apennine Mountains recounting the legend of the sybil of Norcia, the queen of a subterranean paradise.

Also on display is Jeanne de France’s book of hours, Horae ad usem Parisiensem (ca. 1452). Though very small, it is richly illustrated. The book was illuminated by the Master de Jouvenel, an anonymous artist who worked in Angers and Tours whose workshop may have included the painter Jean Fouquet (ca. 1420–81). As is typical in illustrations of the time, there are luscious and dreamy landscapes as backgrounds, and the interiors are elegant and more luxurious than they are likely to have actually been. It is believed Jeanne gave the manuscript to her cousin Marie of Brittany, the abbess of Fontevraud.

Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden, The Diptych of Jeanne de France, 1452–70, Oil on panel, Musée Condé, Chantilly, France. 

Jeanne de France also commissioned or was gifted the diptych of her made in Van Der Weyden’s studio. It is the exhibition’s highlight. The left panel portrays Jeanne herself reading a book as she kneels at an altar. Above her, Christ and Mary bear witness to the latter’s Immaculate Conception. The right panel shows the moment of the crucifixion at which the centurion pierces Christ’s side with a spear and Mary faints. It is a scene of deep emotion, and that a manuscript should appear therein speaks to the reverence the Bourbons attached to the form.

“The Manuscripts of the Dukes of Bourbon” is a treat for lovers of illuminated manuscripts. A respect for books like that of the Bourbons is refreshing; perhaps the beauties of these pages could help get the world off the screen and back on the page.

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