The Missal of Saint-Nicaise is one of the most exquisite examples of Gothic illumination from northeast France. The codex was written and illuminated in three different periods of time and it features twenty-four medallions, twenty beautifully illuminated full-page miniatures and thirty-two historiated initials. It is justly considered one of the most valuable manuscripts of the collection of the National Library of Russia due to its extraordinary illustrations and its immense artistic value.
The missal is a book comprising the texts required to celebrate the Christian mass presented in an annual cycle beginning with the first Sunday in Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas, and ending with votive masses. Its historiated initials introduce the individual mass formularies, their subjects illustrating the event commemorated on the day.
Lavish Use of Illustrations and Variety of Initials
The historiated initials are usually painted on gold leaf, depicting sinuous elongated branches that culminate in flowers and fruits. The artist favors vivid colors such as blue and burgundy for the initials and, in general, he applies blazing red and orange granting a festive aspect to the illustrations. They are evenly spread throughout the text representing scenes from the Old and New Testament (ex. fol.42v.) and, at times, the life of the saints (ex. 49v.).
Iconographically speaking, the Missal of Saint-Nicaise represents the unity of the religious thought and the artistic miniatures, which express the foundations of Christian religion and the artist's personal interpretation.
The miniatures are placed so that when opening the book they face each other, however, they were divided into three different groups and rearranged at the beginning of the nineteenth century, so the original state probably varied from the current one.
Jean de Joinville's Influence on the Missal of Saint-Nicaise
The Credo miniature is worth noticing for it was inspired by Jean de Joinville, who took part to the Seventh Crusade, in which 100 french soldiers were captured, and among them king Louis IX. In captivity, Jean de Joinville wrote a treaty explaining the reasons behind his belief in God.
Despite the elevated artistic value of the theological deliberation on the Credo prayer, Jean de Joinville's manuscript (roughly dated to 1287) is iconographically inferior to the Missal of Saint-Nicaise. It did function, however, as a model from which the superbly painted miniatures of the Missal were created.
The miniaturist of the Missal of Saint-Nicaise faithfully followed Joinsville's manuscript and evidence of this is the miniature depicting the Saracens visiting the French in captivity and the use in the scene of a French inscription (fol. 63v.). In general, the miniatures show grid patterns or gold leaf grounds, and they are depicted within gilded frames, that often contain a sequence of miniatures.
The script of the Missal of Saint-Nicaise is a superb example of Gothic script, namely littera gothica textualis formata, typical of liturgical books of the thirteenth century. The script features tall, narrow letters formed by sharp and angular lines.
Three hands can be identified in the text, and additionally the presence of a corrector can be stated as evidenced by the annotations in the margins (ex. fol. 40, 112v., 181 etc.). Rather than actual annotation they are parts missing from the text that the scribe while copying had mistakenly missed.