Dog and Huntsman Tracking in Copse, Gaston Phoebus (1331-1391), Le Livre de la chasse, in French, France, Paris, ca. 1407, The Morgan Library & Museum; MS M.1044 (fol. 54v), Bequest of Clara S. Peck, 1983, Image courtesy of Faksimile Verlag Luzern, www.faksimile.ch.
Seated Nobleman Holding a Pink Flower with Hunting Scenes in Borders, Leaf from the Read Albums, India, Deccan, during the years of Mughal rule (1687-1724), The Morgan Library & Museum; MS M. 458.4 (fol. 4), Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1911, Photography by Joseph Zehavi, 2008.
Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street
Illuminating the Medieval Hunt
April 18-August 10, 2008
Illuminating the Medieval Hunt, featuring 50 miniatures from the Morgan's hunting manuscript by Gaston Phoebus (1331-1391), Le Livre de la chasse (Paris, ca. 1407), presents an opportunity for the public to see a large number of these miniatures displayed together because this manuscript has been unbound for conservation and preparation of a facsimile. Visitors can leaf through a copy of the facsimile and compare these images with those in other original manuscripts and early printed editions that demonstrate how hunting themes made their way into a broader cultural context in religious literature and secular texts. Ttwo dozen manuscripts and printed books, from the 11th to the 16th century, are on display.
Considered the sport of kings and noblemen, hunting was a popular aristocratic pastime during the medieval period. Many manuscripts were written on the subject, and these treatises, made for wealthy patrons, were lavishly decorated. Among the most famous and earliest medieval texts on hunting, Le Livre de la chasse was written by Phoebus between 1387 and 1389 and dedicated to Philip the Bold (1342-1404), Duke of Burgundy. Although the dedication manuscript is lost, numerous copies were customarily commissioned by noblemen.
The Morgan's Le Livre de la chasse is thought to have been commissioned by Philip the Bold's son, John the Fearless (1371-1419), who presumably inherited his father's manuscript and had copies made. During the late 15th century, it was owned by King Ferdinand II of Aragón and Queen Isabella of Castile, who added to it their full-page coat of arms. Of the 46 known surviving copies of the manuscript, the Morgan's is one of the two finest extant examples; the other, in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, was made at the same time and contains the same cycle of eighty-seven miniatures.
Le Livre de la chasse is divided into four books: on gentle and wild beasts; on the nature of dogs and their care; on hunting in general and hunting with dogs; and on hunting with traps, snares, and cross bow. Written in French, the work was popular in Europe and England, where it was translated under the title, Master of Game.
The miniatures of the Morgan manuscript are shown in their proper sequence, revealing the characteristics and habits of the animals, the various devices and strategies involved in the hunt, and the costumes of both the aristocratic hunters and their servants. A large number of miniatures are devoted to the hound, which Phoebus called the "noblest and most reasonable beast that God ever created." Phoebus bred hunting dogs and, according to the famous chronicler Jean Froissart, kept kennels for some 1,600 hounds.
The exhibition includes extremely rare first and second printed editions of Le Livre de la chasse (both issued in Paris around 1507) along with the first printed book on hunting (Chambéry, 1486), also based on a fourteenth-century text. Also on view are the first and second editions of the Book of St. Albans, the first English book on hunting, with additional sections on heraldry and falconry. The printed editions tapped a newly emerging middle class market with cheaper versions of a text originally intended for an aristocratic audience. Nonetheless, the noble origins of the sport are apparent in editions of George Gascoigne's The Noble Art of Venerie or Hunting (London, 1575 and 1611), which contain portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I in their capacity as heads of state and leaders of the chase.
The medieval hunt was often used as a metaphor in both profane and sacred texts. In a sixteenth-century Flemish miniature, the object of the falconer's hunt is the young lady peering out of a window. Another Flemish miniature of about 1500 depicts the hunt of the unicorn annunciation. The archangel Gabriel's hunting dogs chase the unicorn into the lap of the Virgin Mary.
The exhibition concludes with a few examples of Islamic and Indian paintings, demonstrating that the noble hunt was not limited to Europe. In an Indian manuscript of Nizami's Khamsa of ca. 1618, King Bahrum Gur fells an onager with an arrow that pins its hoof to its ear, and a seventeenth-century album leaf shows a seated nobleman framed by various hunting scenes.