Codex Rotundus: the proof that greatness lies in small things

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The Codex Rotundus is a very peculiar Book of Hours in Latin and French unique for form and size: extremely small but also extremely precious.

The book culture from Medieval and early Modern times has produced time and time again outstanding and extraordinary manuscripts: luxury bindings, illustrations or codices generously endowed with gold and silver, written on magenta colored parchment. Often however, greatness lies in small things and so is the case with this manuscript: it fascinates one not only with its small size, but moreover by its form.

Inside the Codex Rotundus lays a 266 page book of hours in Latin and French. The manuscript is unique in form and size: the pages are cut approximately circular in shape and measure a little over 9cm in diameter. The book binding feat here is enormous: since the layers are bound together on a mere 3cm book spine, the body of the book must be held together by 3 clasps. The original clasps were re-used when the book was rebound in the 17th century; each clasp an artful monogram shaped in the form of different gothic alphabetic letters.

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The Codex Rotundus in all its small glory

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A count from Cleves: originator of the manuscript?

Evidence for whom this opulent and entertaining book was originally intended can be found in initial “D” in folio 24r, which introduces the Divine Office to the Holy Cross: the first text after the French calendar. This initial “D” contains a coat of arms in its interior, which apparently the next owner of the book had attempted to erase. However one can still make out small pieces of reddish Cleves carbuncle and golden flecks from the chequered balk of the county of Mark, as well as a blue heart-shaped shield. Therefore, it can only be assumed that the first owner of this manuscript was most likely also its originator: the Count of Cleves and Mark.

Adolf of Cleves and the dukes of Burgundy

Adolf of Cleves and Mark and Lord to Ravenstein and Winnendahl, represented a nobility with the strongest of ties to the Burgundian Dukes court. He was the nephew of Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy and having been raised in this court; he eventually took part in one of the largest “taking up of arms” of his uncle’s reign.

Charles the Bold, son and successor of Phillip the Good, later named Adolf viceroy of Arras and finally appointed him to General Governor of the Netherlands in 1475. The connection between Adolf and the Burgundian court would be yet further strengthened through his marriage with Anna of Burgundy, one of the illegitimate daughters of Philipp the Good and Governess to Maria of Burgundy (1457-1482, granddaughter of Phillip the Good). Maria herself became so fond of Adolf that she chose him as Godfather of her first born child, Philipp I in 1478. After Marias’ death, her husband Maximilian I appointed the Cleves Duke Adolf as Regency Council for his son.

When one considers all these royal ties which strongly influenced Adolf, it becomes clear not only why Adolf chose to have his book of hours made in the Bruges workshop, but also his desire to possess such an extravagant and extraordinary book. In the Burgundian court he had already come in contact with the most highly developed book culture whose innovation was admired by all.

Read more about Codex Rotundus, facsimile edition

Codex Rotundus, facsimile edition

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Reference to Adolf is also found in the monogrammed clasps which fasten the book. The extraordinarily stylized letters remain illegible up until today: the same decorative letters adorn the borders of another book of hours from Adolf’s collection in Baltimore (Walters Art Gallery, W439). In folio 13v/14r of this book one finds the fully preserved painting of the coat of arms from Adolf of Cleves, distinguishing any doubt as to the identity of the coat of arms in the Codex Rotundus.

The “painter of the Codex Rotundus”: Flemish school with an individual character

Not only are the individual pages in a round format but as well are the text and three full-page miniatures. These unique features, as well as the 30 historicized initials come from one of the most highly regarded original book painters who has gone down in art history following the Hildsheim manuscript as the “painter of the Codex Rotundus”. Stylistic parallels tie the painter of the Codex Rotundus to yet another great Bruges book painter, the “Master of the Dresden Prayer Book” whom we know our painter worked with on at least one occasion. More than likely, the Rotundus painter had also worked for some time in the Bruges workshop of the Dresden masters and was therefore inspired by many different stylistic perspectives.