This beautiful initial ‘H’, depicts one of the most important moments in the Christian tradition, and opens the Responsory for Matins on Christmas Day. The Nativity is presented in a modest wooden shed where the Christ Child and his parents are accompanied by a rather playful ox and donkey. The humble abode is contrasted with the rich and glistening golden background and the intricate bow of the letter ‘H’ acting as a sliver of dark blue night sky above the scene. Joseph kneeling in prayer is placed somewhat to the back, but his red garments draw the eye. With long hair and beard, his face is delicately drawn and shows the hand of an accomplished artist.
This captivating scene is painted on a leaf that was originally a part of an Antiphonal, presumably made in Tournai, a flourishing town between Ghent and Valenciennes, c. 1400-10 according to the style of its decoration. The striking borders and the bold initial with delicately tooled gold ground are paralleled in other manuscripts made in Tournai, c. 1385-1415.
The striking bar borders, the bold initials with delicately pounced gold, and the beaded flourishing are all paralleled in manuscripts illuminated by Jean Semont, active in Tournai from c. 1385 until his death in 1414. However, this narrative scene reveals a distinct and more talented artistic personality. Compared to Semont, the artist of the present miniature has a more detailed, painterly technique, carefully modelling the faces and drapery of his elegant figures to a more expressive, three-dimensional effect, reinforced by his greater mastery of perspective.