The Tabula of Cebes in the British Library is an illuminated manuscript copy of a description of an imagined allegorical painting charting the progress to a virtuous life. The author of the Latin hexameter text, the Mantuan humanist Filippo Alberici, was the manuscript's scribe, and Jean Coene IV provided six full-page miniatures, densely populated by personifications of vices, virtues, and other abstract concepts. The bulk of the manuscript, written and illuminated in Paris around 1506-1507, was initially intended for presentation to Henry VII, King of England, but was subsequently amplified in Cambridge for presentation to Joachim Bretoner.
Alberici's text is a versification of a Greek-language text composed in the first or second century CE that was falsely attributed to Cebes of Thebes, one of the protagonists of Plato's Phaedo. A dedication to Henry VII prefaces it.
A Parisian Artist of Flemish Descent
Jean (Jos) Coene IV, formerly identified as the Master of the Parisian Entries, was active in Paris in the years around 1500, including commissions for French royalty. He is the fourth of a family of painters originally from Bruges, all of whom made their careers in Paris. His work in this manuscript is characterized by stout, lively figures and the generous use of gold in highlighting drapery.
A Painting in a Pagan Temple
The conceit for the original Greek text and its Latin verse adaptation is the detailed explanation of an enigmatic painting in a temple of Saturn (Greek: Cronos) offered to an assembled group of people by an elderly sage. The opening miniature of the manuscript sets the scene (fol. 2v): a man with a long white beard points with a stick to a painting above the temple's entrance. The details of the image are obscure except for three concentric wall enclosures, described in the text as circles of human life.
The Dangerous Path to Virtue
The text describes many temptations that can impede one's success on the path to virtue, and Coene's miniatures reflect this with representations of allegorical figures—mostly vices and virtues—and sinful activity. These are sometimes combined: for example, in Cebes's walled circle of "false education," the personifications of Night and Poverty are pictured attacking a man (fol. 13v).
A Manuscript Modified
Alberici almost certainly carried his illuminated autograph manuscript of the Tabula from Paris to Cambridge in 1506 or 1507, hoping to present it to Henry VII (1491-1547). Once in England, he composed a poem honoring Henry and added it on pages following the illuminated Tabula (fol. 24).
Alberici seems never to have presented the manuscript to the king but instead amplified it once again, this time with a poem on the inevitability of death (fols. 25-28) and a dedication to Joachim Bretoner, seneschal of King's Hall (fol. 24v). Coene employed a Cambridge-based illuminator to provide a frontispiece to the new poem (fol. 25r) and presented the entire codex to Bretoner.
Owned by a Princess
Although the manuscript never reached its intended royal recipient, it was subsequently owned by Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662), daughter of James I, King of England. An inscription records that she gave the book to George Carew (1555-1629), Earl of Totnes, in 1608, and signed it "with her owne fayre hand," which she did (fol. 29v).
The manuscript came into the hands of Thomas Howard (1585-1646), Earl of Arundel. His nephew, Henry Howard (1628-1684), Duke of Norfolk, presented it to the Royal Society in 1667. The British Museum purchased the Tabula of Cebes among hundreds of manuscripts in the Arundel collection from the society in 1831. The manuscript holdings of the British Museum were transferred to the British Library in 1973.
We have 2 facsimiles of the manuscript "Tabula of Cebes":
- Tabula Cebetis facsimile edition published by Mueller & Schindler, 2023
- Le Tavole della Saggezza e della Virtù facsimile edition published by Istituto dell'Enciclopedia Italiana - Treccani, 2023