An extraordinary work by the Sarum Master, the Paris Apocalypse is a stunning work of the early English Gothic. Its forty-five folios contain ninety pictures. Nine comprise an illustrated Life of John presented in two registers over the full page. The remaining occupy the top half of each page with the text of the Apocalypse glossed in French below, generally presented in two columns of late Protogothic. However, the layout is variable with long lines. The illuminations are Gothic in style with exquisite details and pronounced gestures, however the colored pen drawing technique recalls Anglo-Saxon methods. The pen flourishing embellishing the gold initials is an early example of this quintessential Gothic decorative technique.
The Paris Apocalypse is a bridge between earlier native English Apocalypse manuscripts and imported French Gothic. Its traditional layout and style may reflect the conservative tastes of its wealthy patron or it may have been conceived as a union of an essentially English style with the new Gothic with the intent of serving as a unique gift for a royal recipient. Regardless, the result is a spectacular example of the best of English manuscript production in the mid-thirteenth century.
Exquisite Work of the Sarum Master
The Master of Sarum worked in the years around 1250 in or near Salisbury, England. His hand is seen in several manuscripts including the Amesbury Psalter (Oxford, All Souls College, ms. 6), the Henry Chichester Missal (Manchester, John Rylands Library, ms. 24), and the Bible of William of Hales (London, British Library, Royal 1 B XII).
The hand of the skilled colorist compares to that of the Evesham Psalter (London, British Library, Add. MS 44874). This manuscript preserves the highest level of early Gothic artistic achievement and may be the result of the best practitioners being brought together on a special commission rather than being the work of a singular workshop.
The Far-Reaching Tradition of the English Apocalypse
At least fifty English Apocalypse manuscripts survive from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Paris Apocalypse is among the earliest and exists within a trio of similar contemporary manuscripts, the others being New York, Pierpont Morgan MS M. 524, and Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Auct. D. 4. 17. All three have a nearly identical pictorial cycle and traditional style.
The creation of a notable work often creates a trend among the elite. A remarkable work such as the Paris Apocalypse is instrumental in inspiring derivative versions. The detailed and engaging iconography created for these manuscripts also inspired medieval artists beyond the books themselves, appearing in the tapestries, sculptures, and wall paintings of the time.
A Book Bound for Royalty
Although the original patron of the Paris Apocalypse is unknown, the fact that it entered the possession of Charles V of France by the early fourteenth century suggests that it was created for the highest echelons of English society. The volume is listed in the Louvre inventories from 1380 to 1424.
It was repatriated to England as part of John, Duke of Bedford’s collection and later purchased by Louis de Bruges. It entered the Royal Library at Blois through his son, Jean, where it remained from 1544 to 1682. It was displayed at the Bibliothèque Nationale in 1881.
As described in 1411, the manuscript was “covered with plain red leather and two small latten clasps”, however the present binding dates to the seventeenth century: red Moroccan leather featuring gilded tooling with a central wreath containing the French royal crest. “Apoc Avec Figur” is impressed on the spine.