Created in Catalonia, likely Girona or Lleida, at the end of the fourteenth century, this manuscript of the Breviari d’amor is a stunning example of book production on the cusp between Gothic and Renaissance art. This densely illustrated encyclopedia of knowledge was a popular book for edification and entertainment, appreciated across the culturally connected regions of Southern France and Northern Spain. Its more than 150 images have been executed in grisaille, a technique that was on trend in the late Middle Ages for its ability to express great artistic skill through an economy of form.
The Breviari d’amor, or “brief summa of love,” is in fact a lengthy compendium of all available contemporaneous knowledge, divided into three branches of thought: natural philosophy, Christian doctrine, and fin’amor (courtly love) ethics. These diverse topics are drawn together through intertwining concepts of love in medieval thought, namely cosmic, theological, and courtly love. Created in response to the Latin encyclopedias produced in Paris, Oxford, and elsewhere during the late-medieval period, this book shows regional character through its defense of courtly love and troubadour lyric. Originally written in verse by Matfre Ermengaud of Beziers in the dialect of southern France ca. 1288-92, this translated copy in Catalan prose (one of five Catalan copies) is a testament to the broad appeal of this intriguing piece of literature and its exceptional artistic program.
A Picture Encyclopedia
Unlike most encyclopedic literature of its time, Breviari manuscripts are extensively illustrated by a visual program that includes not only a series of approximately fifteen stunning diagrams pertaining to natural philosophy, but also more than 150 miniatures of Old and New Testament scenes.
Its most well-known image, the “Tree of Love,” features a female personification of “Love” presenting a schematic tree of knowledge divided into “branches.”
Its other diagrammatic images, depicting astronomy, astrology, meteorology, gemology, and more, frequently include creative details such as angels using cranks to spin the cosmos, or personifications of the four seasons dressed in weather-appropriate garb.
Also notable is the comprehensive approach to picturing Biblical history, and the inclusion of scenes often omitted from less capacious works. The use of grisaille throughout the manuscript conveys a convincing three-dimensionality, connecting it to Renaissance arts.
Navigating 15th-century Knowledge Through a Reader-Friendly Text
Written in a Hybrida script featuring dramatic ascenders and descenders with frequent abbreviations, the text is at once compact and legible. Certain features of the layout aid consultation of the encyclopedia as a reference book, such as: large initials with long trails of decorative pen flourishes, section headings and illustration titles in red, and line markers in alternating red and blue.
The Mysterious Origin of a Popular Codex
The ownership of the manuscript, now held by the National Library of Spain in Madrid, is unknown until the seventeenth century. According to an ex libris, the manuscript was purchased in 1635 by Gaspar Galcerán, Count of Count of Guimerá, after it had already changed hands several times, with the first known occurrence taking place in Valencia in 1426.
Because the language of the ex libris is somewhat vague and no corroborating documentation exists, scholars have relied upon stylistic analysis to estimate a date and region of origin, with some consensus around the very end of the fourteenth century in Girona or Lleida.