The Christmas Missal of Alexander VI is a manuscript with the text for a single mass, Christmas Mass. The codex, preserved in the Vatican Library, was indeed designed for Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503) for the celebration of Christmas Day. The extraordinary value of this manuscript relies on the fact that every year the magnificent Christmas Missal is used for the papal celebration of the nativity of Christ in St. Peter’s basilica in Rome.
Christmas Missal of Alexander VI: The Codex for the Papal Celebration of the Brith of Christ
The missal contains instructions for the Pope to celebrate the Mass, the vestments he should wear, the passages he should read. Additionally to the performance and the verbal recitations of the celebrant, the codex includes musical notation and rubrics for the accompanying chants.
The elegant layout of the manuscript depends on the scribe who wrote large letters in a refined Gothic textura. Just a few lines are written in each page. Gold color ink is used for the musical notations of important liturgical passages enhancing the luxurious aspect of the manuscript.
This codex has been at the center of the Papal celebration for centuries. The practice of using this manuscript for Christmas Mass in St. Peter is documented in a manuscript of Pope Alexander VI dated to the year 1495. The content of Christmas Missal is therefore especially important for understanding the celebration of a central Christian festivity during the Renaissance and afterwards.
Antonio da Monza Illuminator of the Crucifixion and the Historiated Initials
The Milanese artist Antonio da Monza was probably the author of the decoration of the manuscript. He was active between 1490 and 1528, and his style was highly influenced by Leonardo da Vinci’s sfumato and open landscapes.
For the Christmas Missal of Alexander VI, Antonio da Monza painted a full-page illumination representing the Crucifixion at the opening of the Canon of the Mass, the consecration of the Eucharist. For the Canon of the Mass, also a historiated initial features the Pope before the altar while celebrating the liturgical moment.
Thus, at the actual opening of the large pages of the manuscript, the images reflect the liturgy that the Pope celebrates in the real space of the basilica. Antonio da Monza painted the portrait of Pope Alexander VI in the lower margin of the page containing the procession of the Mass.
Historiated initials display scenes related to the celebration of the birth of Christ; the Nativity, for instance, is featured within the opening words of the Mass announcing the birth of Christ by writing: “A child is born” (“Puer natus est”).