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Guillaume de Machaut, The Boethian Poems: Art History Introduction

1 For a full description of the five artists who worked on MS A, see Leo, “Machaut Manuscript A (BnF ms. fr. 1584): An Art-Historical Overview,” pp. 38–41; and in expanded format, ?q=node2171.

2 No matter the artistic quality, creating this amount of illumination was a time-consuming and costly process.

3 Grisaille is a typically French Gothic painting style, usually associated with illuminator Jean Pucelle — c. 1290–1334 — where the painter models in shades of gray, from translucent washes to fully opaque applications. See Charron, “Color, Grisaille and Pictorial Techniques.”

4 A prime example is Machaut’s earliest complete-works manuscript (BnF, ms. fr. 1586 — known as MS C), of c. 1350, which is also painted in grisaille, but with lush gardens and carefully-rendered palace interiors for settings.

5 See Leo, “Machaut Manuscript A (BnF ms. fr. 1584): An Art-Historical Overview,” p. 40 for this artist’s finest work on the Prise frontispiece image.

6 See, for example, the late Roman marble sculpture Jonah Cast Up, c. 280–90, in the Cleveland Museum of Art (John L. Severance Fund 1965.238). Photo available online at:

7 See, for example, Vatican Library, Codex Vaticanus Latinus 3868, a ninth-century illuminated manuscript of the Latin comedies of Publius Terentius Afer or the famous charivari scene in the c. 1320 copy of Gervais du Bus’ Roman du Fauvel in Paris, BnF, fr. 146, fol. 34r, available online at

8 See Coleman, Public Reading, and Cleaver, “Grammar and Her Children.”

9 The substitution of male for female allegories is also the case with the two men approaching Machaut in the Prologue miniatures (A2, A1), Sens and Amour. The frontispiece miniature for the Remede in the earlier MS C shows a noblewoman on the steps of a castle turning to gesture at the narrator and his companion. Here, the artist makes it clear that the subject of the text will be the ‘school of love.’

10 This garment appears frequently in A, perhaps as a signifier for the Old Testament (King Solomon?), which clashes with the contemporary style worn by the figure standing before him. There are a number of publications on medieval fashion, the most important being Buren and Wieck, Illuminating Fashion; Newton, Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince, remains one of the most helpful for fourteenth-century fashion; and O’Meara, Monarchy and Consent, uses ‘period’ terminology throughout her study, which she documents in full.

11 Unless otherwise noted, the French text and translation are this edition’s by R. Barton Palmer. See also the redaction and prose translation of the text by Wimsatt and Kibler.

12 New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection, MS 69.86, fol. 331. For a summary of scholarship on the side wound of Christ, see Leo, “The Pucellian School,” pp. 149–70, especially p. 156n29.

13 See Leo, “The Pucellian School,” p. 156.

14 In Bonne’s manuscript, a preceding miniature on fol. 329r shows the crucified Christ speaking to the princess and her husband, John, duke of Normandy, while pointing to his side wound.

15 Michael Camille, Medieval Art of Love, pp. 28–29, famously compared a woman and castle in the opening image for the Remede in the earlier Machaut MS C.

16 See A7 in the Vergier for another image of the narrator praying to Love, who is seated on a tree.

17 This contrasts with the illustrations in the (considerably shorter) Harpe in A, which are dense but evenly distributed.

18 The others are the Remede, Lyon, Harpe, and Voir Dit. Lawrence Earp writes on this subject matter in his dissertation of 1983, “Scribal Practice,” p. 390, and in Earp, A Guide to Research, pp. 131–32.

19 Leo, “Authorial Presence,” pp. 50–55.

20 The only illuminated Machaut manuscripts to have matching insertion points and subject matter for miniatures are A and the much later MS Pm. See Drobinsky, “Recyclage et Création.”

21 See Leo, “Authorial Presence,” pp. 53–55.

22 For work on Ovidian iconography, see Drobinsky, “La narration iconographique”; and Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Reading Myth, especially pp. 90–170. On the use of the Ovide moralisé in the Confort, see Wallen, “Biblical and Mythological Typology.”

23 For a study of Orpheus in Machaut’s work, see Holsinger, Music, Body and Desire, pp. 321–26.

24 Friedman, Orpheus in the Middle Ages, p. 148. Friedman also brought together the moralized commentaries of medieval thinkers on this myth. As early as the late eleventh century, a reawakening interest in the classics was put into the service of Catholic theology. Guillaume of Conches (c. 1080–c. 1154), commenting on Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, writes “What does Orpheus represent? He stands for wisdom and eloquence…; Eurydice… is that natural concupiscence which is part of every one of us.” In similar fashion, Arnoul of Orléans (c. 1125), writes in his Allegorized Ovid that Orpheus is virtue, Eurydice is vice. Continuing this tradition in the early thirteenth century (c. 1234), John of Garland, in his Integumenta Ovidii, reads Orpheus as reason and Eurydice as flesh (see Friedman, pp. 106, 119–20, 121–22, respectively). See Desmond and Sheingorn, “Queering Ovidian Myth.”

25 Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, 3.m12, trans. Green, p. 74.

26 L’Ovide moralisé, ed. de Boer, 10.196–220. On the illuminated manuscript tradition, see most recently, Possamaï and Besseyre, “L’Ovide Moralisé Illustré.”

27 “[After the loss of Eurydice] Orpheus…shrank from loving any woman, either because of his unhappy experience, or because he had pledged himself not to do so. In spite of this there were many who were fired with a desire to marry the poet, many were indignant to find themselves repulsed. However, Orpheus preferred to center his affections on boys of tender years, and to enjoy the brief spring and early flowering of their youth: he was the first to introduce this custom among the people of Thrace” (Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Innes, 10:227–29).

28 Rabel, “L’Illustration de L’Ovide Moralisé,” p. 40; for a recent text-image study with an emphasis on narratology and structuralism, see Drobinsky, “Le cycle d’Orphée.”


The iconographic programs of the Remede and Confort in MS A are critical testimony to the talent, industriousness, and stylistic idiosyncrasies of the Machaut Master, who painted nearly all the images in this manuscript.1 Although this artist’s skill in depicting the human body and using foreshortening is modest and his approach can sometimes seem whimsical to the modern-day viewer, his knowledge of, heavy reliance on, and sometimes witty deviations from traditional iconographic sources are remarkable.2 There are incidences of genius in his graphic experimentations with three-dimensionality, and he has produced some highly-finished drawings and carefully articulated, complex scenes, even with a rare image of female nudes (A54). The type of painting in A is known as grisaille (literally, painting in shades of gray), and has a preponderance of monochromatic line drawing with washes of varying intensities in grays, sienna, and ochre.3 The artist does, however, have an arsenal of decorative highlight colors, with sky blue, scarlet, and an acid orange among them. They contrast significantly with the pastel, jewel-like tones of earlier and contemporary Parisian-school painting.4 The Machaut Master extends his palette beyond the grisaille to enliven the figures and settings. There is gilding on crowns and sartorial details, and he sparingly applies varying densities of brilliant, colorful ink (sometimes referred to as portraits à l’encre) to pick out details. He uses washes of peach for flesh and daubs of scarlet for lips, and shading and modeling in lavender and periwinkle-blue — the image of Christ in Majesty, surrounded by tinted clouds is an excellent example (A53). In some areas he uses color dramatically: bright orange flames lick the sides of a furnace, fanned by men pumping bellows in the two images of the Three Jews in the Fiery Furnace (A63, A64).5

The Machaut Master in A was looking at both the naturalizing trends of French Gothic painting, and the cutting-edge use of perspective in trecento Italian painting. His use of foreshortening for the head of an angel in mid-flight (A69) and experiments with shadows and volume for a furnace — as first polygonal, then round (A63, A64) — are examples. Although the Machaut Master’s compositions can be dry and minimalist, with few to no background settings, they are consistently lively due to his penchant for dramatizing interaction between figures by using animated and flamboyant gestures and giving them oversized hands. This works in tandem with his detailed treatment of textiles and draperies, which he oftentimes charges with rhythmic value via an abundance of dense, asymmetrical drapery folds and varies with different linear textures. The Machaut Master’s style is very recognizable. Figures almost always have high, broad foreheads and mentons fuyants. He takes great pleasure in his attention to sartorial details, from the dagged tippets (lengths of fabric with decoratively cut borders trailing from the elbows) and very short, tightly fitted pourpoints (a type of quilted doublet with buttons running down the center and from wrist to elbow) with heavily padded chests. He also used a variety of pointed caps as signifiers of Jews (see, for example, A55). Spiky leaves decorated with washes of gray sprout within initials and cascade from them down the margins. He uses the bare minimum of ‘props’ such as architectural details or the occasional tree and walled in garden with no diaper-work backgrounds. At his worst, he uses generic figures and terse compositions. In the Remede, when Hope speaks to the narrator in a series of three miniatures, the expanse of the framed, compositional space — of unpainted parchment — dwarfs the two figures (A18–A20). At times the figures stand on the bottom of the frame or a simple ground-line. The scenes where two figures are in discussion are repetitive and bland; a possible indication that the artist was following a list of written instructions or highly simplified sketches such as “two figures talk.” This artist is shrewd, and he optimizes stock compositional schemes which he relies upon throughout A. One example is the use of coulisses or projecting segments of land that when touching or overlapping can imply depth. An effective implementation of it is the depiction of the ‘den’ of lions where Daniel awaits his death. Two grassy land masses and disproportionately small lions frame the biblical prophet in this symmetrical image (A67).

But the Machaut Master is also capable of more substantive image-making, and a gruesome, action-packed image of death follows (A71). In this asymmetrical composition, the artist depicts lions in various stages of devouring a group of men, while the king and courtiers look on, aghast. At left, in this image, a man’s head projects from a lion’s maw, a motif the artist derived from a prototype where the prophet Jonah is spewed from the whale’s mouth!6 In another instance, to illustrate the Rape of Proserpina, the artist demonstrates his unique attention to detail. Not only does he show Pluto galloping off with the young goddess astride the horse, but also the dispersed flowers she had been gathering moments before. They lie scattered on the grass and in a stream. Pluto is depicted as a hirsute, half-human creature wearing a crown. His contorted face is based on a charivari mask type worthy of an illuminated manuscript with the Comedies of Terence.7 It has globular, protruding eyes and an exaggerated, toothy grimace.


The Remede has the most engaging image-text dialogue of the dits which the Machaut Master painted in A. Isolating the miniatures from the text of the Remede for study reveals this artist’s use of emblematic, symbolic, and non-narrative — in short, iconic — modes to foster interest and create memorable impact. The unorthodox, eccentric variants on traditional iconographic representations begin with the frontispiece miniature (A13). In it, an elderly, togate man with a heavy white beard and unkempt hair sits on a bench with elaborate, cusped carving, a visual abbreviation for a seat of authority or even a throne in this and other medieval manuscripts. The iconography meshes perfectly with the opening lines of this poem. It derives from and plays on a well-established visual topos: the classroom.8 The artist-iconographer departed from traditional representations of a teacher to shape the viewer’s perception of the following lines. As the liberal arts are in the feminine case in Latin, the allegorical figures are most often depicted as women.9 In this case one would expect to see Lady Grammatica, who was considered to count among the liberal arts. In A, however, we see the embodiment of the narrator, the source of all the wisdom in this poem, as a grizzled, old and bearded man, a signifier of his experience in the subject matter of his teaching. Clothing and gestures are important factors in reconstructing contemporary reception here. The teacher/magister-figure is wrapped in a voluminous, toga-like robe, denoting a figure who exists in a far-removed period of time.10 A magister, however, is usually identifiable in contemporary and later manuscript painting by a skull cap and long robe, which is usually red, and an ermine-lined capelet that opens at the neck with lappets falling to each side. As would Lady Grammatica, this figure wields a disciplinary switch in one hand. It is notable that in this forum it takes the place of a sword on the battlefield, representing instead the mental effort necessary to train the mind and control emotions. In lieu of holding an open book, another common iconographic attribute of Grammatica, he gestures with his free hand. This is an active call to heed the “maistre et son mestrier” (his master as well as his craft, line 9). His words of wisdom here read as advice from a miroir des princes; a clear indication of the didactic tone which targets a child “de juene aage” (in youth, line 23), still in his “estat d’innocence” (state of innocence, line 26):

Cils qui vuet aucun art aprendre The man who thinks to master any art
A .xij. choses doit entendre: Must attend to twelve matters.
La premiere est qu’il doit eslire First, he must choose something
Celui ou ses cuers miex se tire Toward which his heart most draws
(Remede, lines 1–4)11

In the miniature, a young gentleman stands before the teacher. He too holds up his hand, an element denoting that both he and the teacher are engaged in discussion. His stature — short in comparison to the teacher — his clean-shaven face, and his role as student are strong indicators of his youth. He is dressed according to the fashion of the time, but the clasps over the shoulder of his cloak probably mark him as noble. It is unusual to see a single figure before a teacher, especially one who is standing. He takes no notes, nor does he read from any book. The teacher is directly imparting knowledge to a fledgling lover. This becomes significant because Machaut may have written the Remede for Bonne de Luxembourg (1315–49); and her son, the future Charles V (b. 1338, r. 1364–80), may have owned A.

Following are two ‘iconic’ images devoid of narrative: the statue from Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (A15), which stands directly over the line of text which names him, and the Arms of Love (A16). Both have been painted differently than most of the miniatures in A. The statue, following the biblical text, has parts in gold, silver, bronze, iron, and iron mixed with clay. The artist makes a strong statement with extreme attention to detail. The statue of a nude man with a monstrously large head has meticulously-drawn, unkempt hair and deftly-applied different colors of gilding. This creature stands on a hillock. It holds its arms and disproportionately large hands away from its body in an uncourtly manner and it has one foot forward, as if it were moving about to engage the viewer in battle. The dark lines of ink used to define the collar bone and sternum emphasize its menacing nature.

The next image, the Arms of Love, is a shield which ‘hangs’ from the upper frame of the miniature and it is painted in contrasting tones of brilliant blue and pink. The Machaut Master did not apply the pigment in a portrait à l’encre wash, as with most other images; rather, the colors are dense and opaque. The tip of the arrow that has transpierced the heart is blood-drenched, as opposed to its black shaft and fletching. These two images contrast sharply with the images painted in grisaille. The wound in the heart bears a striking resemblance to earlier and contemporary images of the side wound of Christ, an iconographic norm in sacred painting. The most famous example is in the Prayer Book of Machaut’s early patroness Bonne de Luxembourg, which dates to the mid-1340s.12 The side wound of Christ is almost always painted as a vertical slit, leading some to compare it to female genitalia.13 It was not out of the ordinary to kiss and reverence it, as if it were a relic, in contemporary devotional practices.14 The religious overtones of the Arms of Love in A would not have been lost on the viewer.

The Machaut Master also makes good use of iconographic quotes from pre-existing moduli to infuse narrative scenes with overlays of meaning. Take, for example, Lady Hope, who places a ring on the finger of the sleeping narrator (A17). The composition recalls God creating Eve by taking out a rib from the sleeping Adam. The combination refers to the generation of a text dealing with love, and in the following three images the narrator is speaking about this with Hope (A18–A20). Unexpectedly, Hope does not wear a veil, her iconographic attribute, but instead wears her hair down as if she were a maiden. In another miniature, the narrator kneels in prayer before an empty castle whose open door gives way into a dark interior (A21). The image can refer to worshiping and the door may be the only means of ‘entering’ her. 15 Throughout the poem, the narrator/lover is dressed as a cleric until he rides away on horseback, clothed in the current fashion, in the penultimate miniature (A23). Here, the artist takes advantage of a difficult mise-en-page to underline the importance of music in this poem: although the narrator looks to the right, waving goodbye to his lady, the horse heads in the direction of the musical score at left. In the final miniature, the narrator resumes his persona as a cleric. This shift in identity creates visual dissonance because the prayers to the god of Love are useless: the lady is potentially out of reach for a celibate religious (A24).16


The density of illustration in the Confort is luxurious in parts, although the visual pacing is sporadic: there are lengthy sections with no miniatures.17 The Confort, in A, is one of the dits which has hairline Roman numerals next to some of the miniatures.18 The numbers correlate to a ‘master list’ for the iconographic program.19 They run sequentially and match the placement of the miniatures. In the Confort, however, there is a discrepancy (of one) between the Roman numeral and the actual position of three miniatures. There are also greater and uneven discrepancies (between four and six) for six of the miniatures that accompany the last poem — the Voir Dit. It appears that in both cases the disparity implicates the necessity for revisions of the choice of subject matter and placement of the images at the time of the manuscript’s creation.20 The possibility of a need to condense a lengthy set of images or to change their placement or order cannot be ruled out. Indeed, failed compositions and misplaced Latin inscriptions in the Voir Dit demonstrate that there were problems.21

The author’s array of biblical and mythological exempla, which the narrator uses to comfort his friend, Charles of Navarre, generated lengthy, sometimes long-winded pictorial programs. But the Machaut Master displays moments of great insight in the iconographic cycle in the Confort. He quotes from sources that include narrative strands in Bibles historiales (translated and annotated Bibles) and the Ovides moralisés (moralizations of Ovidian myths).22 In the biblical story of Susannah and the Elders (A54–A58), the Machaut Master expounds on the scene where the elders see her bathing. Susannah disrobes between two standing women and two nude women bathing in the water. In a surprising moment of artistic bravura, the Machaut Master depicts the nude women in various poses. By depicting her in the process of removing her dress, the artist creates a titillating prelude to an implied visual narrative. But it reduces her to anonymity, a half-nude figure with no visible face. (A54). She is thus objectified and defined in this miniature as ‘woman bathing’ rather than ‘Susannah bathing.’

In addition to the biblical exempla, Machaut cites mythological tales, including that of Orpheus and Eurydice (A74–A76). At the end of the Confort, he invokes Orpheus as a paradigm of musico-poetic excellence.23 Machaut maintains a sense of gravitas with this character, however, circumventing any possible association with his adoption of homosexuality in the aftermath of the oak nymph Eurydice’s death. In A, Orpheus is cast as a classical type of the biblical King David in the Confort and the Harpe. John Block Friedman’s Orpheus in the Middle Ages describes how Orpheus and David are typologically related: both are harpists of noble descent but of humble origins; they master music and create divinely inspired compositions which have power over evil.24 One of Machaut’s most important literary models, Boethius, used the tale of Orpheus as an exemplum in his Consolation of Philosophy:

This fable applies to all of you who seek to raise your minds to sovereign day. For whoever is conquered and turns his eyes to the pit of hell, looking into the inferno, loses all the excellence he has gained.25

But Machaut did not rely solely on Boethius. He borrowed heavily from the fourteenth-century, anonymous Ovide moralisé, which mirrors the scholastic tradition of emphasizing the sin associated with Orpheus’ homosexuality.26 Alain de Lille, in his De planctu naturae of c. 1171, wrote a searing critique of vices, primarily of sodomy. He used Orpheus along with Ganymede as examples of this vice which, in turning against nature, subsequently leads its practitioners to succumb to a total disorder of the senses.27 The story of Orpheus is moralized three times in the Ovide moralisé, where the author relates the admirable qualities of Orpheus’ love for Eurydice, his musicianship, and descent to hell and pits it against the loss of hope and its consequences in his change of sexual proclivity. But he also compares Orpheus to Christ, using his descent to Pluto in relation to the Harrowing of Hell, and the power of his music as the divine word of Christ, whose preaching attracted and converted people from a multitude of nations. Machaut abridged and reworked this source to serve his own devices, and in the Confort, he writes that the story is “vil matyre” (a disgusting story,Confort, line 2588).28 The accompanying image is brutal: five women use stones and cudgels to bludgeon an old man to death (A76). But Machaut’s discussion of Orpheus’ homosexuality is noteworthy for its brevity; his most pressing reason for recounting this myth is to console his friend Charles with the first part of the tale:

Cuides tu se Orpheüs sceüst Do you think that had Orpheus known
Que Erudice avoir ne deüst, He should not possess Eurydice,
Qu’il se fust mis en aventure He would have risked
D’entreprendre voie si dure? Following a path so arduous?
Nennil! Mais Espoirs l’i mena Not at all! But Hope led him on
Qu’i si bonnement s’en pena To struggle so nobly
Qu’il heüst son fait achevé He would have accomplished his aim
S’amours ne li heüst grevé. Had love not prevented him.
Si qu’amis fay, que qu’il avengne, And so, friend, whatever might happen
Qu’Esperence adés te compeingne, Make sure Hope is your constant companion,
Car c’est la milleur compaingnie For she is the friend best suited
Qu’a cuer puist estre acompaingnie. To accompany any heart.
(Confort, lines 2633–44)

Machaut uses his material with subtlety, sophistication, and an unflinching adherence to a courtly tenor. The poet’s Orpheus is part of a larger context where the poet leads the reader from sensual to spiritual love — a reflection, perhaps, of the dual nature of Machaut’s life: a cleric in the service of intellect; a poet-composer committed to aristocratic courtly love.

That Orpheus numbers among the Machaut Master’s grandiose panoply of elderly men in A, especially in the Confort — be they magisters, prophets, kings, or deities — is meaningful (A75, A76). Add to this the attention the artist lavishes on the signifier of male age: hair. These figures wear variation upon variation of coiffure. They have forked or bristling beards, and flowing, clipped, or unkempt locks. The artist executed them with aplomb and panache. The care he took to show the heaviness of the curls of King Manasseh’s hair, which lay askew to follow the curve of the old man’s head as it rests in his hand, is not out of the ordinary here (A72). Does this leitmotif reflect the septuagenarian Machaut’s possible involvement or the age of the patron? The poet is omni-present in the textual voices and the artist has not hesitated to emphasize this in the illumination.

For a full list of miniatures from A, see the “Description of Miniatures” in this edition, pp. 573–81.

Go To Le Remede de Fortune

Additional Information:

The miniatures (images) from MS A are not included in this digital edition, but are available in the print version. To view these images, see also the Bibliothèque nationale de France's digital edition on Gallica: