The manuscript known as the Oxford Bible Pictures comprises twenty-seven full-page miniatures with French captions. The twenty-seven folios were originally part of a picture cycle of nearly one hundred images that preceded a psalter (Stockholm, National Museum MS B.2010). Seven additional leaves are held in the Musée Marmottan in Paris. It is the work of William de Brailes, a scribe and illuminator based in Oxford, England in the middle of the thirteenth century. Unlike most artists of his time, he signed some of his work. Stylistic comparison to at least eight other manuscripts suggests he was a prolific maker of small books for private devotion.
Each miniature is captioned in a small, rounded Gothic hand in French. The text presented in the scrolls within the images is in Latin. The pages have been slightly trimmed with some losses. The use of informal vernacular captions and the manuscript’s small proportions creates an intimate experience for the purposes of private devotion. This effective formula would see great success across Europe in the following centuries in the form of Books of Hours and the Oxford Bible Pictures is one of the earliest in this new trend.
A Luxurious Picture Cycle from a Psalter
The twenty-seven images now known as the Oxford Bible Pictures were once part of an extensive prefatory cycle for a psalter. The pages have been individually mounted with the original foliation lost.
The majority of those collected here are images depicting Old Testament scenes. One, the Expulsion of the Fallen Angels, shows that popular apocryphal texts were illustrated alongside biblical events. Highly burnished or tooled gilded backgrounds and an earthy palette of rich oranges, blues, and browns create a luxurious warmth.
William de Brailes’s Gothic Masterpieces
William de Brailes was probably born in Brailes, Warwickshire in the early thirteenth century. By around 1250, he was producing luxury manuscripts from his workshop in Oxford. The De Brailes Hours (London, British Library Add MS 49999) bears his self-portrait with the inscription “W.DeBrail q[ui]. me depeint” — “William de Brailes, who painted me”.
His distinctive Gothic style includes long faces with aquiline noses and small upper lips and a flair for individual expression. He employed the frame to demarcate internal and external action and extended his compositions into the margins and across pages. Eleven manuscripts in all have been attributed to him.
An Exquisite Work for Private Devotion
The book’s small format was typical of manuscripts intended for personal devotion, however, the liberal use of gold, extended pictorial cycle utilizing only one side of the page, and complex compositions indicate it was an expensive piece.
The original patron is unknown. The earliest known owner, Edith Corf, Prioress of Tarent Kaines, Dorset, in the fourteenth century, is known from an inscription on the first folio in the Stockholm psalter. Henry Walters purchased the folios from Léon Gruel in 1906 and in 1931 bequeathed it to the Walters Art Museum.
The current binding dates to the early twentieth century during Léon Gruel’s ownership. Well-worn red velvet covers the boards, which can be secured with two clasps. The front is inset with a rather crudely carved double-sided fourteenth-century Rhenish ivory panel. On the exterior is shown the Nativity and the interior shows the Crucifixion.