This beautiful leaf comes from a mid-12th-century Psalter-Breviary. The text consists of brief passages about the lives of saints, followed by collects, antiphons, and psalm recitations with stave-less neumes, indicating the melody to the singer. This fascinating leaf shares the same origin as a series of leaves now at the Pierpont Morgan Library (Ms. M. 505), and another leaf that is currently owned by a private collector in Switzerland.
The large colourful initial L is formed by dynamic plant foliage, in which small red headed figures appear. The stave of the L is topped by a braided field, which has foliate extensions below, and two somewhat hybrid red-heads above. The leaf is likely of Cistercian origin, presumably from the north-eastern part of France (perhaps Saint-Quentin).
The Cistercian rules officially banned the use of multi-coloured initials later in the 12th century, but this letter still presents a bold palette with fine juxtapositions of colour. Although no comparable manuscript survives, such decoration is found in Cistercian manuscripts now preserved in the libraries of Dijon and Troyes, which are today recognised as UNESCO World Heritage.
The illumination style of Cistercian manuscripts from the first half of the 12th century varies. The style of Cîteaux is rather naturalist with English influence, due to the leadership of Stephen Harding, one of the founders of the Cistercian Order (d. 1134). It is characterized by movement and vitality, with majestic foliate scrolls, characters, and animals, real or imaginary. Fighting figures are often softened by their small, nude bodies and similarly, terrifying dragons are mitigated by delicate colours. The beginning of a new style of monochrome letters – painted in a single colour and presented as an expression of St. Bernard’s more sober aesthetic ideals – was adopted between 1140-1160. Thus, later in the 12th century animated décor, such as on our leaf, is no longer found.
Plant scrolls and foliage, as presented here, are among the most common motifs of medieval art. As vegetation and animals are often considered to be an allusion to fields and wilderness, such elements are particularly suitable expressions for a monastic order whose followers aimed at reforming life and returning to manual labour. The Cistercians were considered the most innovative and inspiring monastic order in Europe. In all corners of the continent, they contributed to cultivation, building, and technology and acted as the main force of renewal in agriculture, architecture, and industry. This leaf is an outstanding example of Cistercian style.