This historiated initial H was made to open the first response of the first nocturn of Matins for the feast of the Epiphany (Jan. 6): Hodie in Jordane baptizato domino aperti sunt caeli... (Today when the Lord had been baptized in the Jordan, heavens opened...).
The initial is divided into two parts. The upper part shows John baptising the undressed Christ in the river Jordan. An angel assists, holding a cloth or a towel. The dove of the Holy Spirit hovers directly above Christ’s head, while God the Father blesses the scene from a celestial semicircle at top right. In the lower register, the Three Magi have assembled before the enthroned Virgin and the divine Child, who is dressed in a little red tunic. The eldest king has humbly placed his crown on the ground and offers a precious chalice to the Christ child. The second king, straight behind, points up to the star of Bethlehem, which hovers above Mary’s head, linking the upper with lower section of the miniature. The youngest king holds up a golden vessel, as if to attract the attention of the adored child.
In the lower left of the composition, the entourage of the Three Magi is gathered. A squire holds three horses by the reins, behind him another rider approaches on a camel, while a second camel is just visible behind it. Below, a man bends over a chest, taking out small bowls. Possibly more gifts for the holy family, or drinking vessels for the mounts?
The body of the letter H is painted in a pale greyish rose. The curve of the letter’s arch is traced by a string of white pearls, interrupted by a lion’s head (also painted in white camaïeu) with leaves emanating from its mouth – decoration that is distinctly Renaissance in style, even if the overall air of the composition remains medieval. The right background of the letter is designed in gold leaf, while the left side is deep blue with delicate white ornamentation.
The combination of the two scenes, Christ’s Baptism and the Adoration of the Magi, is relatively rare in the 14th century. The relationship between the events is based on an archaic conjecture that God the Father recognized Jesus as his son only in the moment of his baptism, so that this event was regarded as the real Epiphany, or revelation of Christ’s divine nature, rather than the traditional celebration of the Epiphany as the feast of the Magi. However, these two feasts as well as the Wedding of Cana were once celebrated on the same day and therefore the 6th of January was called tria mysteria (three mysteries). An early example in which all three events are united is found in the Göttingen Sacramentary from Fulda, made around 975- 980.1 Another famous example where the Baptism and the Adoration of the Magi are united in one composition is Nicholas of Verdun’s Dreikönigsschrein (Shrine of the Three Magi; 1190- 1225) in the Cologne Cathedral. Three pagans from the Orient setting out for Jerusalem to worship the Saviour was an event of enormous import for Christianity, so much so that an entire collection of sagas and legends revolves around the adventurous journeys of the three wise men. Each of the three kings independently followed abnormal, mysterious celestial phenomena, starting from vastly different places in the world to inevitably meet in Jerusalem at the same time. The significance of this event is also reflected in the complex narrative quality of our miniature.
Unfortunately, we do not know anything about the environment for which this lively and fascinating miniature was created. So far, we have been able to identify neither sister leaves nor a convent or other institution for which the piece was meant. The artist of this outstanding composition can only be very generally localised in the northern Italy, maybe Veneto or Emilia Romagna. He (or she, of course!) shows a keen interest for textile patterns, demonstrated in the various ornate garment designs. Also, he delights in portraying genre-like details, for instance the young man bending down to fetch vessels from a wooden casket, which is zealously ornamented with blue blossoms and a golden lock. The illuminator’s capacity for plausibly depicting animals is quite remarkable, although his manner of squeezing them together, due to the lack of space, is somewhat amusing. One wonders, where has the rear half of the brown horse in front disappeared?
The artist’s palette is dominated by subdued earth tones, orange-red being the liveliest colour in the composition, guiding the beholder’s eye in a reversed S-curve, from the red acanthus leaf on the upper left, touching the cross nimbus of the adult Christ and leading the gaze down the body of the letter H, then to the lower left over Mary, the Christ Child, on to the tunic of the middle king, and finally down to the entourage at the lower left. Large parts of the background are painted in dark blue, the prevailing colour of the arrangement. Faces are rather graphically rendered with delicate brush strokes to characterise facial features; eyebrows start with a tiny dot at the root of the nose and stretch in a wide, delicate arc to the outer corner of the eye. The greenish-grey incarnates are altered by red shades on the cheeks. The artist has a tendency towards hooked noses, evident in the faces of the eldest king and John the Baptist.
All in all, this peculiar artist presents an enigma, because his style is firmly rooted in the tradition of the early 14th century, but some of his ornamental choices, especially the above- described Renaissance decoration of the initial H, with its lion’s head and string of pearls, betray later elements that make us think that this illuminator likely worked into the mid-14th century.