Mystery Monday: A Manuscript Mona Lisa From the Huntington Library

When most people think of Renaissance portraits they picture a painting like Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa hanging in a frame on the wall of a museum.  We might expect to encounter the faces of people from the 15th and 16th staring at us from the walls of art galleries or the paneling of old family houses.  The portrait shown above sits in a frame, but a frame painted on the page of a book, not hung on wall.  Furthermore, it is a portrait from a book that fits easily into the palm of one’s hand:

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This enigmatic early modern lady was likely the original owner of the small manuscript codex her portrait appears in.  The manuscript is a 16th century Flemish book of prayers from the collection at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, CA.  (HM 1727).  The book itself measures just 3.9 x 2.75 inches. The small portrait of the unknown woman appears on the first leaf of the manuscript, with the words “Etatis 32”, likely refering to the woman’s age at the time the portrait was painted.  The pigment has worn away completely in the lower right hand corner (possibly because this would also be the part of the parchment most commonly handled as people turned the tiny pages).  However her face still shows clearly and is painted with such realism that it seems probable that someone who had seen this portrait could easily recognize the woman it was based on if she were still living.

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The reverse of the leaf with the portrait is another full page painting of a colorfully illuminated entwined monogram with two letters C and an I (or J), possibly the initials of the woman in the portrait or some other monogram associated with her or her family:

It is possible that the manuscript was a wedding gift, and the notes for the extensive record for this manuscript available at the Digital Scriptorium suggest that the fact that the woman holds a flower in her hand is a common sign of such a wedding portrait.

The manuscript is beautifully decorated throughout with an unusually ornate set of manicules.  Manicules are little drawings of pointing hands.  They are usually pen and ink drawings in the margins of a book that a former note taker drew to indicate a particularly interesting or important part of the text.  They often have exageratedly long pointing fingers, as in this example of a manicule from a book at Princeton University Libraries:

The manicules in the Huntington manuscript are unusually fancy.  For example, there are three on this page, ranging from a hand emerging from a cloud on the left-hand side to one with a fancy fur cuff near the bottom:


Another example of the elaborately painted pointing hands, which appear on nearly every other page of the manuscript:

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While there are plenty of hands pointing to interesting places in the text, there are very few clues pointing to the identity of the woman whose portrait appears at the start of the text.  An extensive inscription in a 16th century hand appears at the end of the manuscript, which the record for the manuscript identifies as additional prayers:

And the inscription “Anno 1478” appears on both the front and back endleaf, but it is unclear what the significance of the year is, given that the manuscript itself is identified as having been produced in the second quarter of the 16th century, well after 1478:

Do you have thoughts on who the mystery woman in the portrait might be?  Or thoughts about the other marks in this manuscript?  Comment here or on one of the pictures from this book on the POP Flickr Feed.

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1 Response to Mystery Monday: A Manuscript Mona Lisa From the Huntington Library

  1. Manny says:

    Oh I missed this. I haven’t been too diligent lately at looking at Friend’s blogs. Fascinating as usual. I do like the little portrait. Why do you think they would list her age? That seems like an odd thing to print. Have you seen that elsewhere? You would think they would provide a name over an age.


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