As clearly suggested by its name, the Book Altar of Philip the Good was originally owned by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (1419-1467). He commissioned this unique work of art – the fusion of a book of prayers with a small diptych altar for devotional use – in order not to give up his prayers while traveling from residence to residence to impose his authority on his vast dominion.
A Unique Combination of a Book and an Altar
While the diptych dates back to around 1430, the book of prayers and its luxurious miniatures were crafted about 20 years later. It can be assumed that the two beautiful pictures in the diptych were so dear to the duke that he wished to have them always before his eyes while praying. So, he probably asked to have them integrated in his personal prayer book, thus bringing into life this almost unique object in the history of art.
The significance of this manuscript lies in the fact that, besides being intended as a wonderful work of art for devotional use, it was also a personal document of a prince whose court was considered among the most luxurious of his time.
The private character of this book altar is revealed both in the text and in the iconographic apparatus of the codex. As for the contents of the texts, the manuscript includes prayers to Christ the Redeemer, psalm verses extracted from the Devotions of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and the Passion of Christ according to St. John.
The book also features prayers and devotional texts dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who appears in this manuscript as Madonna of the Ears of Wheat, a symbol standing for the liberation of Jerusalem from the Muslims. The selection of themes mirrors the duke’s very personal interests, thus offering a fascinating glimpse into the life and personality of a late medieval prince.
The subject of the Trinity displayed on one side of the diptych is also important. Indeed, it seems to recall Champmol Abbey in France, the burial place of the Dukes of Burgundy dedicated to the Trinity.
The Decoration of the Book Altar
When opening the little book altar, the spectator's eye immediately grasps the two miniatures of the diptych, integrated in an extension of the two wood panels containing the book. While the front cover shows the Trinity, the back cover displays the Coronation of Mary. Both paintings were made in the International Gothic style.
The miniatures of the codex itself are to be attributed to a painter of a later generation, whose name and identity are unknown. The book features numerous references to its user and owner. Many of the illuminations depict the duke in prayer on his own or with his son Charles, either in a Gregorian Mass or in veneration of different Saints.
The emblems of the House of Burgundy and the personal arms of Duke Philip are also represented, a further reference to the personal nature of the codex. Two angels carrying banderoles with inscriptions to the Trinity are also to be noted.
The codex was written in magnificent Gothic Textura. Initials of various size and embellished endings provide a most rich ornamental decoration.
A Portable Altar
The codex shows some evidence of the far-reaching travels of its owner. Indeed, traces of pilgrim badges can still be detected on the first and last folios of the manuscript. Besides being sewn into the hat or clothing of the pilgrims, in the Late Middle Ages it was common to find these curious objects also stitched onto the pages of devotional books.
As for the binding of the codex, it is lavishly decorated with magnificent blind tooling and sumptuous ornaments, such as brocade patterns and interlacings.
We have 2 facsimiles of the manuscript "Book Altar of Philip the Good":
- Buchaltärchen Philipps des Guten facsimile edition published by Faksimile Verlag, 1991
- Libro Altar de Felipe III, Duque de Borgoña facsimile edition published by Club Bibliófilo Versol, 2016