January 25, 2013

Ad Completorium

        Today I share with you a woodcut from my own [small] collection of relief prints.  I bought this piece about fifteen years ago in a small shop in Boston's Beacon Hill, where it was labelled simply as "17th c woodcut."  You can see, obviously, that it's a page from a book.  My Vulgate Latin is not exactly fluent, but I can make out the "Nunc dimittis" and some "Kyriel"s.  A little googling reveals that I've also got the hymn "Loving Mother of our Savior."  So I believe that what I have here is a page from the compline section of a breviary or book of hours.  Without taking it to an expert, I don't know its date any more exactly, nor its country of origin.
        This is no medieval illuminated manuscript - I imagine that it's not a particularly high-end production - but I think it's attractive in its own right.  I particularly like the wonderfully detailed border, with its plants and animals.  There's a marvelous rabbit at the lower right, a nice selection of birds, and the very odd wyvern with a face in its chest in the center of the bottom.  Many of the plants are detailed enough to be distinctly identifiable: strawberries, rose, columbine, violas…  I think they're absolutely lovely.
        Another thing I find really interesting about this piece is its construction.  If you look closely, you can see that each border is printed from a separate strip of wood.
The reverse of the page is printed with four more separate borders.  I don't know how many different borders there were, but I imagine that throughout the entire book borders were reused in various combinations to make each page look unique without having to design an entirely new border.  As for the text, I am not an expert to be able to recognize whether it was printed with a wood block or movable metal type, although I assume the latter.  Certainly you can see the offsetting where the page was printed a second time with the red ink.
        All in all, I love both the graphic look of the text and the contrast with the organic forms of the border.  I find this small piece very pleasing - I might even say calming and contemplative, which is entirely appropriate for the office of compline.

[Pictures: Compline page from book of hours, woodcut, 17th century (two sides of the page).]

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