THE LARGEST ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPT IN ART HISTORY TOGETHER WITH THE GENEALOGY OF THE ROYAL HOUSES OF EUROPE
The Sicilian poet Guido delle Colonne (1210-1287), among other works, wrote in Latin “The History of the Destruction of Troy the Great” from Dares Phrygian and the last chapter of Dictis Cretense. It begins with the legend of Jason and the Argonauts and ends with the return of the Greek heroes after the destruction of Troy, and the death of Odysseus. In the 15th century, Colonne’s work was translated into French by an anonymous writer, and the result was this spectacular manuscript. Thus, at the beginning we see Jason and Medea (f. 1v), Priam, King of Troy (f. 7r), the Shipwreck of Antenor (f. 8v), Paris and Helen (f. 11r), Castor and Pollux (f. 13r), Achilles and Patroclus at Delphi (f. 14r), Hercules, Ajax, Ulysses, Hector, Menelaus, Agamemnon, etc. The death of Achilles, which does not appear in the Iliad (f. 33v), is an example that this manuscript follows traditions other than the Homeric one.
This manuscript was composed for Aymar de Poitiers, and after his death (1510) it was kept by his heirs. It passed into the possession of Pierre Séguier, but his heirs donated it to the Abbey of Saint-Germaindes-Prés, from where it was stolen with other codices during the French Revolution.
The trail of Jean Colombe had not disappeared, for after his death (1493) the workshop continued to compose extensive historical manuscripts illuminated by his son Philibert and his grandson François, who inherited the master’s compositional style, technique, colour and decoration. On this occasion the Colombe’s put faces, landscapes, buildings, battles, shipwrecks and a host of other elements before our eyes, and they do so in spectacular fashion; with full-page paintings, without borders or borders, measuring more than half a metre, brightly coloured, illuminated with gold, and decorated with Renaissance motifs, typical of the flamboyant Gothic style. Nothing like this had ever been depicted in the Middle Ages (François Avril).
Once in Colchis, Jason had to rescue the fleece, which was guarded by wild bulls and a dragon. He told Medea that he would take her with him to his kingdom in Achaia, and she asked him to swear it before Apollo (f. 1v). Having done so, he confessed to her how he could obtain the golden fleece. But on the outward journey they landed in the vicinity of Troy and were expelled from their land by King Laomedon. Hercules, who vowed revenge for the affront, returned to Troy, killed Laomedon and destroyed the city. Priam, who was absent, rebuilt the city with new walls, houses and palaces.
NOTHING LIKE THIS HAD EVER BEEN PERFORMED IN THE MIDDLE AGES.
François Avril General Curator Emeritus of the National Library of France
Priam lamented that the Greeks had abducted his sister Hesione, and sent an ambassador to Greece to have her returned to him, which they did not do. He had several sons who were valiant warriors: Hector, Paris, Deciphobus and Troilus, who could defend the city from any attack. He had also asked for help from his allies in distant countries, who were arriving. He was sure of himself, and in response to the Greeks he sent Paris, who plundered the temple of Venus on the island of Cythera and abducted Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta (f. 12r). Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, gathered all the Greek kings and declared war on Troy, where they landed (f. 18r).
The Greeks bore the brunt because of the bravery of Hector, who had killed Patroclus, and Achilles vowed to kill him, which he did (f. 25r). During a truce for Hector’s funeral, Achilles fell in love with his sister Polyxena and vowed not to make war on the Trojans. Troilus, Priam’s youngest son, was another sting like Hector. He killed many Greeks and decimated the Myrmidons, Achilles’ warriors. Achilles, who could not bear the massacre made on his men, went into battle again, killed Troilus (f. 31v) and Mennon, king of Ethiopia, one of Priam’s most valuable allies. During the truce for Troilus’ funeral, his mother Hecuba, in collusion with Paris, set a trap for Achilles by a messenger. She told him that she was waiting for him in the temple of Apollo to discuss his marriage to Polyxena. Achilles appeared confident and unarmed, and Paris, who was hiding inside, thrust a spear through his belly, killing him.
ILLUSTRATED BY THE WORKSHOP OF COLOMBE, ARTISTS WHO COMPLETED THE VERY RICH HOURS OF THE DUKE OF BERRY
If the Trojans had lost Hector, the Greeks were left without Achilles, their best warrior. They thought of retreating, but the oracle at Delphi had predicted victory in the tenth year of the war, which had not yet come. After Hector’s death, Deciphobus died at the hands of Palamedes (f. 28v). But Priam still had capable generals like Antenor and Aeneas, as well as the valiant warriors who had come to his aid. Some had already died in battle, such as a fearsome Centaur archer who had fallen at the hands of Diomedes (f. 20v); but the queen of the Amazons called Penthesilea, who was Hector’s friend, though she had come to the end did not lose a single battle. There also remained Paris, Helen’s new husband, who killed at a distance with poisoned arrows.
Agamemnon sent Menelaus in search of Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles (also called Pyrrhus), who immediately took over his father’s arms and his army of Myrmidons. Agamemnon knighted him and Ajax put the golden spurs on him. From then on he began to kill Trojans, and was only defeated by Penthesilea.
Paris shot a poisoned arrow at Ajax which stuck him in the belly. Believing he had moments to live, he rushed at him at full gallop and slashed his head open with his sword (f. 35r). Penthesilea confronted Pyrrhus and wounded him in the chest with her spear; but the Greeks blocked their Amazons and the Myrmidons surrounded her, leaving her immobilised. Pyrrhus approached and cut off her arm at the shoulder, killing her on the spot (f. 38r). After the burning of Troy they returned to Greece.
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