Christmas in the Sistine Chapel: the Missal of the Nativity

Christmas is coming, and we would like to celebrate it with the history of the extraordinary Missal of the Nativity.

Cardinal Antoniotto Pallavicini’s Missal of the Nativity is surely one of the most prestigious illuminated manuscripts of the Papal Curia’s liturgical books.

Now conserved in the Biblioteca Nacional de España in Madrid, it survived intact and remained perfectly preserved through the “maxima in Urbis direptione”, the tragic occupation of Rome by Napoleon’s troops, which, in the late eighteenth century, led to the sacking of the liturgical objects and the complete dispersion and dismembering of the codices used for the liturgy in the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Missal of the Nativity was commissioned by Cardinal Antoniotto Pallavicini between 1503 and 1507, the year he died, at the age of 66, still in the prime of his ecclesiastic career.

Conserved for centuries in the Vatican, the Missal was part of the collection of liturgical codices used by popes, cardinals and other religious dignitaries to celebrate the liturgical functions in the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Basilica.

When the French occupied Rome in the late eighteenth century, the cardinal and archbishop of Toledo, Francisco Antonio de Lorenzana y Buitrón (1722–1804), an extraordinary legate to Charles IV at the Holy See, managed to acquire fortyone of the liturgical codices from the Sacristy of the Sistine Chapel – including the Pallavicini Missal – and send them to Spain to protect them from the plunder of Napoleon’s troops.

In 1798, thirty of these Sistine codices retrieved by the Spanish prelate were donated to the Catedral Primada of Toledo, where twentyseven of them are now conserved. The others are at the Biblioteca Nacional de España.

The decorative apparatus of the Missal, made by an artist known as the Master of Cardinal Antoniotto Pallavicini, consists of a fullpage miniature with the Crucifixion (f. 65v) and two figurative initials (ff. 10r, 66r), as well as numerous borders illuminated on one, two or fours sides, with plant and floral motifs on a gold background, decorated by tondi with animals and putti, coins, medallions and cameos with busts of Roman emperors.

The manuscript’s decoration is completed by numerous initials ornamented and adorned by pearls and semiprecious stones.

What is so extraordinary about this codex – which only contains the one most important mass, that of Christmas – lies in the attention paid to the decoration of every single page and to the way the text is written.

An elegant Italian gothic book script describes a column of ten lines, each one of which has only two or three words.

The columns themselves are written, alternatively, in blue and gold instead of the traditional red.

These exceptional characteristics confer a tone of considerable refinement and value to the entire work, which has the character of a deluxe manuscript, a status symbol worthy of its commissioner.

Article written by Elena De Laurentiis for Alumina – Pagine Miniate.
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