The manuscripts created for Charles V of France offer scholars of medieval Europe an extraordinarily rich archive for study. In a tower in the Louvre the king amassed a library of more than a thousand volumes, in a desire to create a vast compendium of knowledge in all those fields studied by intellectuals in the medieval West (theology, philosophy, history, science, law - to name a few). Many of these manuscripts contained editions of texts newly translated into the vernacular. Often, Charles had his books richly illuminated with images of remarkable quality and sophisticated design. What emerges in all of this is a remarkable example of medieval self-fashioning -- an example of a ruler surrounding himself with scholars and artists in an attempt to create the image of a wise king ruling over a land notable for its moral and cultural achievements. In Monarchy and Consent Carra Ferguson O'Meara offers us a rich examination of one of the greatest of Charles's manuscripts, his so-called Coronation Book (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius B. viii).
The manuscript itself measures 278 x 194 mm and runs to only 46 folios, but contains a wealth of information about notions of monarchy in Valois France. (Because the book was later re-bound with an English pontifical, from which it is now separated, the modern foliation of the manuscript runs from 35 to 80.) In a colophon, written by Charles himself, we learn that the book was commissioned in 1365, the year after the king's actual coronation at Reims on May 19. Several texts are brought together in the manuscript. First, there is a French translation of the so-called Directory of ca. 1230. This text, composed perhaps late in the reign of Louis IX, offers a set of stage directions for the coronation of the French king and queen. The manuscript then contains a Latin text of the king's oath and a list of the peers of France. The bulk of the manuscript is taken up by the ordo of Charles V and the ordo of Jeanne de Bourbon, which gives the actual liturgies of coronation for the king and queen. The manuscript concludes with a blessing for the French oriflamme, a litany, the king's colophon, and a collection of oaths.
The book is, of course, well known for its miniatures, which currently number thirty-eight. Of these one is devoted to the blessing of the oriflamme with the remainder illustrating the coronation of the king (28 images) and the queen (9 images). O'Meara notes, however, that there are two leaves missing from the manuscript and that two other leaves have been mutilated. She concludes that the original book probably contained 34 images of the king's sacre and 11 for the queen's.
One of the great virtues of this publication is that all of the surviving images are reproduced in excellent color. Coupled with O'Meara's detailed descriptions (located in a catalogue at the end of her study), the reader is treated to a virtual coronation ceremony, which may or may not reproduce the actual event that took place the year before. As a kind of 14th-century art of describing, these miniatures are extraordinary for their detailed exposition of people, settings, and objects. In addition, to Charles V and Jeanne de Bourbon, we meet a host of individuals recognizable by the roles that they play, the costumes they wear, and the repetition of distinct facial types. Most prominent is the archbishop of Reims, Jean de Craon, who is often shown accompanied by his clergy. Two of the episcopal peers, the bishop of Laon (Geoffrey Le Meingre) and the bishop of Beauvais (Jean de Dormans) also appear regularly. In addition, we see the monks and the abbot of St.-Remi (dressed surprisingly as a bishop) delivering the holy ampulla to the archbishop. Among the laity, prominence is given over to the king's brothers, Louis of Anjou, who acts as the king's seneschal, and Philip the Bold of Burgundy. The Duke of Bourbon acts as chamberlain in certain images. In the images of the queen's coronation, laywomen are regularly shown acting as the equivalent of the lay peers in the king's ceremony. Perhaps most prominent is Margaret of Artois, who is easily recognizable in her widow's garb throughout the sub-cycle.
The artist of these great miniatures gives equal attention to settings and props. The manuscript begins with a beautifully realized image of the king being blessed by the archbishop. Followed by a large number of clergy, Jean de Craon emerges from a miniature gothic cathedral with the walls and windows removed for visibility. Elsewhere, we see schematic renderings of the archbishop's palace and the temporary raised platform (or solium) erected within the cathedral for the sublimation of the king and queen. Beyond this, all of the props required for a coronation ceremony are here. The Holy Balm is applied to the king using a golden needle or stylus. Various images depict the king being given the many attributes of rule -- the crown, scepter, rod, main-de-justice, sword, ring, gloves, and spurs. The queen is shrouded by a veil while being anointed. She is shown receiving a crown, scepter, rod, and ring.
O'Meara uses the Coronation Book as a springboard for the discussion of a number of issues relating to art and politics in 14th-century France. She begins her study with a consideration of historical context (chapter 1), noting that Charles's succession was anything but guaranteed in a country torn by the Hundred Years' War. She then considers the history of the coronation rite in the medieval West, with a special emphasis on the liturgical texts (chapter 2). Chapters 3 through 5 consider the Coronation Book itself, reading both its text and imagery in light of the previous contextual discussions. The book then concludes with a consideration of the book's illuminator, the so-called Master of the Coronation Book (chapter 6) and a broad final chapter on painters and painting at the Valois Court (chapter 7). An Epilogue considers the manuscript's history to the present, and the important Catalogue offers individual analyses of the surviving miniatures.
Because the book ranges widely and touches on so many issues, different readers will use the study in different ways. Readers whose primary interest is in the miniatures may wish to begin with the Catalogue, at the end of the book, and with the codicological information provided (somewhat inconveniently) in chapter 5. Liturgists and those interested in the actual coronation rite will find the background in chapter 2 and the textual analysis in chapters 3 and 4 most important. Those interested in fourteenth-century art more generally may wish to turn to the broader discussions of chapters 6 and 7, where the Master of the Coronation book is discussed in connection with his closest artistic colleagues the Master of the Bible of Jean de Sy, the Master of the Coronation of Charles VI, the Master of the Parement de Narbonne (here identified as Jean d'Orléans, following recent scholarship), and Girard d'Orléans (father of Jean).
At heart, O'Meara sees the Coronation Book as a work of statecraft as much as a work of art. As far as is known, this was the first illuminated manuscript commissioned by Charles after becoming king of France. It is argued that the "images and the text delineate a means by which a monarchical constitution is constructed through the consensual participation of a constituency in a sacred and binding ritual process" (page 43). In this sense the images are designed to override the historical record, to silence the very real dissenting voices that opposed Charles's accession. In their place is offered a picture of harmony, of aristocracy and clergy coming together to raise a man and a woman to Europe's most sacred monarchy. Throughout, O'Meara stresses the notion that the coronation constitutes the king and queen's entry into a royal religion. The king, for example, is said to be endowed with an "episcopal character." Yet, it is hard to determine exactly what this means. O'Meara does not really consider how the priestly status of the king and queen carries over into their rule. But this is a small quibble.
In the end what emerges for this reader most strongly from O'Meara's excellent study is a deep respect for the artistic achievements of the Coronation Master. Along with his fellow court artists, the Coronation Master helped to move northern European art in a new direction, creating a mode of figuration that combined a high degree of stylistic sophistication, an uncompromising attention to detail, and a rooting of painterly visuality in the details of court life. Art may be at the service of political ideology in the Coronation Book, but in the end the images may very well succeed in loosing themselves from this bond.