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BnF, fr. 1584: An Art Historical Overview

Guillaume de Machaut The Debate Series : BnF, fr. 1584: An Art Historical Overview: Notes

1 A fully expanded version of this essay with color images can be found on the website for The Works of Guillaume de Machaut: Music, Image, Text in the Middle Ages (

2 Henceforth, the Jean de Sy Master. Two other manuscripts were painted during Machaut’s lifetime. Manuscript C (BnF, ms. fr. 1586), of the mid to late 1340s, was in the collection of Charles, duke of Normandy, by 1363; Earp, Ferrell-Vogüé Machaut Manuscript, pp. 34–38, especially p. 31n20; Earp, A Guide to Research, 77–79; and Leo, “The Pucellian School,” pp. 153–63. The Ferrell-Vogüé manuscript (MS Vg), of the 1370s, was in the duc de Berry’s collection; on patronage see Earp, Ferrell-Vogüé Machaut Manuscript, especially pp. 38–44, and Leo, “Art-historical Commentary,” p. 126. Two other complete-work, heavily illustrated manuscripts were painted posthumously. MS F-G (BnF. ms. fr. 22545–22546), was painted in the early 1390s. See Earp, A Guide to Research, pp. 90–92; Earp, Ferrell-Vogüé Machaut Manuscript, p. 38n72; and the forthcoming research on patronage by Plumley and Smilansky, “A Courtier’s Quest.” Manuscript E (BnF, ms. fr. 9921), of the 1390s, was also in the duc de Berry’s collection; see Earp, A Guide to Research, pp. 92–94. The latest manuscript, Pm (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library M. 396), of c. 1425–30 is a partial complete-works manuscript; its iconographic program closely follows that of MS A. On MS Pm, see Earp, A Guide to Research, pp. 101–02; and Drobinsky, “Recyclage et création.”

3 On the Prologue, see Drobinsky, “Peindre, poutraiture, escrire,” pp. 553–69; Perkinson, The Likeness of the King, pp. 218–31; and for an expansive analysis devoted to these two miniatures, see Leo, “The Beginning is the End.” Leach, Secretary, Poet, Musician, pp. 87–103, has fused Leo and Perkinson’s interpretations in her own important discussions of the Prologue.

4 Avril, Manuscript Painting, p. 36.

5 Avril, Les Fastes du gothique, p. 329, writes that this style “présente un caractère plus spontané et certains traits provinciaux qui cadrent bien avec la production de l’Est de la France telle qu’elle nous est connue par les manuscrits messins du milieu et troisième quart du siècle.”

6 This does not, however, preclude the possibility that MS A was illustrated in this city by an artist trained elsewhere.

7 Montpellier, Bibliothèque de la Faculté de Médecine, MS H. 43. Notably Leach, Secretary, Poet, Musician, writes that “[the Montpellier manuscript] is a close match for the style of the rest of A” (original emphases, p. 96).

8 See Avril, L’Art au temps des rois maudits, pp. 313–24.

9 The Machaut Master uses this type of black line for Lady Fortune and the texts on the wheels she holds.

10 See, for example, the tale of Ceyx and Alcyone in the Fonteinne (fols. 157d–159v, A82–88) and the story of Susannah and the Elders in Confort (fols. 127v–129d, A54–60). For a discussion of Machaut’s use of Ovid in the Voir Dit, see Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Reading Myth, pp. 130–70; and Mühlethaler, “Entre amour et politique.” Drobinsky has worked extensively on the Ovide moralisé and its influence on illuminated Machaut manuscripts; see “Eros, Hypnos et Thanatos,” and “Amants péris en mer,”(for the latter, plates VI–IX are hors-texte).

11 Respectively: fol. 1r, A4; fol. 9c, A8; fol. 80v, A25.

12 I am very grateful to Meradith McMunn who gave invaluable insight, via private communication, into the visual rapports between opening images.

13 The convention for depicting a couple having intercourse shows them under the covers. Jacques Boogaart, private communication, points out that the artist is not following the text, in which Toute Belle is nude, wearing nothing “fors que les oeuvres de nature” [except what Nature had provided] (line 4022).

14 On this lay, see Earp, A Guide to Research, pp. 338–39.

15 This iconography is represented by a vassal or knight who kneels before a king or lord who, in turn, places his hands over the knight’s. See Ladner, Images and Ideas, who discusses “commendation”: “a sign of surrender connoting dependence, trust and fidelity” (pp. 220–21). For a detailed study of this iconography, see Carré, Le baiser sur la bouche, pp. 188–91.

16 See Earp, “Scribal Practice,” p. 171n129, who discusses this initial in terms of mise-en-page, stating that it was drawn too large to allow for the entry of music, and therefore the original line of text had to be erased and moved lower to accommodate a small staff. This error demonstrates that the decoration was done before the entry of music in this manuscript.

17 I thank Jacques Boogart, private communication, for his identification of the peacock and elderly man.

18 These images in the Prologue in MS A run “backward” because the folio was mistakenly inverted at one point in time, and it is still in that order. Hence, fols. E and D – A1 and A2 (in this order), are Earp’s numbers. On the foliation, see Earp, A Guide to Research, pp. 145–46, 203–05.

19 The Jean de Sy Master painted miniatures in another complete-works Machaut manuscript, MS Vg, where he headed a large and varied atelier. See Leo, “Art-historical Commentary,” pp. 98–101.

20 For a list of period manuscripts, including many painted by him, see Leo, “The Pucellian School,” especially pp. 167–68.

21 The Prologue will be discussed in detail in a subsequent volume.

22 On the foliation and placement of the Prologue, see Earp, “Scribal Practice,” p. 344; Earp, A Guide to Research, pp. 87–88; and Roccati, “Guillaume de Machaut.”

23 The title may not be his since its first and only appearance is in the later MS E; see Earp, A Guide to Research, p. 203.

24 The use of the term “portrait” here will be discussed in following volumes with the Prologue and the Voir Dit.

25 Lyon, 1342; Navarre, 1349; Alerion, before c. 1350; Confort, 1357; Fonteinne, 1360–61; Voir Dit, 1363–65; Marguerite, 1364–69; Lys, 1369; Prise, after 1369.

26 See Earp, A Guide to Research, p. 87, in his detailed description of MS A. On the “Index,” most recently, see Leach, Secretary, Poet, Musician, pp. 86–87n3–4 and McGrady, Controlling Readers, pp. 88–105.

27 Rouse and Rouse, Manuscripts and Their Makers, 1:261–84.

28 Robertson, Guillaume de Machaut and Reims, p. 143.

29 Huot, From Song to Book, p. 211 and especially p. 211n.

30 McGrady, Controlling Readers, p. 83.

31 McGrady, Controlling Readers, p. 82.

32 Although the king is shown seated on a throne in the miniature, the text reads: “[The king] Was seated / In very great contentment on a silk rug” (lines 1472–73). It is on line 1493 that we read that the king was “enthroned.”

33 For a full description of Le Dit de la Harpe with extensive bibliography, see Earp, A Guide to Research, p. 223.

By Domenic Leo 1

With 154 miniatures in partially tinted and gilded grisaille, an appended bifolium with two large miniatures by the renowned Master of the Bible of Jean de Sy, and an “original” index, manuscript A, BnF, fr. 1584, ranks as one of the three most luxurious, complete-work manuscripts of Guillaume de Machaut’s oeuvre, which were made in his lifetime.2 Beyond MS A’s importance to Machaut studies in general, however, it holds a special place in art historical scholarship. The first two images for the Prologue are deservingly recognized as masterpieces of late-fourteenth-century French manuscript illumination.3 They are as remarkable for the artist’s spectacular command of his medium as for his sophisticated and creative iconography.

The identification of the artists who painted in MS A is a critical issue. I believe there are five. Until now, it has been commonly accepted, based on the groundbreaking work of François Avril, that there are two artists: the well-known Jean de Sy Master who painted the two Prologue images; and the primary and otherwise unknown artist responsible for the main body of miniatures, the “Machaut Master.” The latter’s iconography is sometimes novel and nearly always inventive, making up for his maladroit style. Avril, foremost among the art historians to have analyzed MS A, wrote that, “[a]lthough this volume shows a strong stylistic kinship with other illuminated manuscripts executed for the court, it may have been illustrated in Reims . . . by a local illuminator who worked under the poet’s direction.”4 In the 1981 exhibition catalogue for Les fastes du gothique, Avril added that the Machaut Master’s style fits well within a group of manuscripts from the East of France, possibly Metz, that date to the third quarter of the fourteenth century.5 But, apart from the Parisian sartorial finesse, there is no indication that this was made for the court. The comparison of the Machaut Master’s style to that of Eastern France in general, or Reims in particular, remains highly problematic.6

Some scholars follow Avril’s comparison of MS A to a French translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy from Metz, though there is no substantial stylistic link between these manuscripts.7 The artist of the Boethius manuscript uses a bold palette with a preponderance of brick red and orange whereas the artists of the Machaut manuscript use an elegant grisaille. Moreover, the retardataire style in the Boethius manuscript is most obvious, relatively speaking, in the cursory treatment of the drapery folds, the crude execution of the faces, and the ubiquitous use of figures with the so-called Gothic sway, an exaggerated contrapposto. In addition, although it is possible to recognize styles in general from Lorraine and Champagne c. 1300, is there a style specific to Reims in the 1360s and 1370s?8

The foundation of the Machaut Master’s stylistic vocabulary is the adept use of grisaille for figures, buildings, plants, and animals. He uses contrasts between lighter and darker shades of gray for modeling but sharply defined grays and black to give the architectural components a three-dimensional appearance. The use of a heavy silhouette for the figures contrasts with the backgrounds, which are devoid of decoration (with the exception of the Prise frontispiece), and flattens the images. Certain elements of his style are fresh and spontaneous, as is his use of portait à l’encre tinting. He sparingly applies translucent washes of colored ink for more delicate modeling. To focus attention on the more important images, especially frontispiece images, he uses densely saturated colors; for example, the Prise and the highly detailed artwork of the opening image for the Dit de la Rose (The Tale of the Rose). In his more finished work, he relies on a sharp, fine black line to pick out details, most apparent in the strands of hair and the outlines of the eyes.9

The Machaut Master was proficient in his trade, and quite inventive. The iconographer, no matter if it was the painter or another person, was well-read, and the Roman de la rose, the Bible historiale, and the Ovide moralisé figure prominently in the images. As the Ovide moralisé was the visual source for mythological tales in, for example, Fonteinne, so too did the Bible historiale provide the iconographic programs for the lengthy biblical stories used as exempla in the Confort.10 Surprisingly, the artist demonstrates an intimate familiarity with Machaut’s texts. He used pre-existing iconographic moduli from well-known sources when Machaut did the same with citations which derive from pre-existing sources in the text. For example, Machaut and the Machaut Master mined the Roman de la rose. This is most obvious in the highly finished opening image for the Dit de la Rose, where a cleric leans over a wattle-and-daub fence to pluck a large rose in the midst of a thorny bush (fol. 365v, A150). In a more subtle fashion, the artist visually cites Rose miniatures in the opening images of three of the dits, thereby highlighting Machaut’s use of a dream vision construct. In the opening miniatures for the Vergier, Behaingne, and Lyon, the narrator discovers, enters, and enjoys a garden: the very heart of the Rose.11 Meradith McMunn writes that “[t]he artist of MS A clearly uses the same imagery, figure placement, and postures that appear frequently in Rose manuscripts and it is very plausible that he is deliberately referring to Rose images.”12

The Machaut Master created new imagery for Machaut’s ever-growing body of poetry and music. The Voir Dit, for example, a late work, appears for the first time in MS A and the artist produced a rich body of innovative iconography. For example, he transformed an image of God creating land from a cloud-like mass in the frontispiece of an Ovide moralisé (Lyon, BM MS 742, fol. 1), into an erotic scene where Venus uses a perfumed cloud to envelop the narrator and his beloved who lie next to each other on a bed (fol. 255r, A130).13

Another artist, Hand 2, whose work only appears once, painted a man courting a woman in a large initial L on fol. 367r (A152), the first folio of a quire with the lays (L1, Loyauté, que point ne delay).14 In keeping with the lyrics, a supplicating nobleman prepares to kneel, offering his folded hands in a sign of fealty and homage to his “liege.”15 He is dressed in a lovingly rendered depiction of period fashion. The woman coyly looks back at the nobleman, elegantly holding her right hand high in a gesture usually associated with conversation. At odds with the painting style used throughout MS A, this artist produced an extremely fine miniature painted in the Parisian style. The artist uses a distinctive, thin, red-brown line to render their faces and hair. These portions are delicately modeled rather than heavily silhouetted.16

Hand 3, whose work only appears in the Mass, paints with a heavy line, which is reminiscent of a woodblock print. Despite the strokes of gray washes used for modeling, the images remain quite flat. This artist’s most easily identifiable contribution comprises two historiated initials, both in the Agnus Dei of Machaut’s Mass (fol. 449v).

The Artists of the Prise Frontispiece

The Machaut Master was fully capable of painting in a relatively finer style than that which predominates in the body of MS A. The best example is the dense composition on the opening page for the Prise (fol. 309, A 149). It is an ambitious, two column miniature, complete with bar extenders and marginalia.

Another artist painted a peacock in the right margin. His use of brilliantly colored green and blue washes and refined style demonstrates a command of the medium which appears nowhere else in MS A. The peacock may represent Juno, to whom the bird is sacred. The elderly man with shoulder-length white hair and a long beard in the historiated initial may be the work of another artist, as is evidenced by his treatment of the mouth as a single line making a “frown” with a red line transecting it in the middle. Furthermore, the colors of the background in the historiated initial and surrounding frame are not used elsewhere in MS A. The man in the initial cannot be Pierre de Lusignan, who wears a crown and wields a hatchet in the miniature. He is most likely Saturn, who plays an important role in the Prise, overseeing and directing the pantheon of Roman deities in the text (lines 169–180).17 The lions on the lower bar extender and the butterfly above speckled with red, blue, and green, however, are the work of the Machaut Master. On the opening page of the Prise, the lion at left is a flip-side version of one on fol. 227, and the lion at right is a “finished” version of the sketch on the same folio. This treatment is a strong indicator that this quire was originally intended to stand on its own. Do the lions indicate a manuscript destined for royalty?

The Machaut Master took great care in painting this complex, crowded miniature. But who was responsible for the many roles necessary to create this manuscript? The sloppy application of the matte coral background may be a sign of hastiness. It is unique in MS A. Was it meant to be gilded? Perhaps, but a close observation reveals feathery, orange rinceaux. In sharp contrast to the amount of effort the Machaut Master expended to create the complex composition of the large miniature, the secondary decorative elements were finished hastily. The multi-colored sycamore leaves sprouting from the bar extenders do not relate in any manner to the sharply pointed leaves painted in grisaille on all other folios in the manuscript. This is a certain indication that the artist(s) responsible for this portion of the painting was pressed for time.

The Master of the Bible of Jean de Sy

The most refined work in MS A is by the well-known Jean de Sy Master, who painted on an appended bifolium at the head of the manuscript; perhaps his greatest and, surely, his most famous work of art (fols. E/A1 and D/A2).18 He was active c. 1355–c.1380, although his most demanding works were in the late 1360s and throughout the 1370s.19 He painted in at least fourteen major manuscripts during this period, and, based on the provenance of extant manuscripts, worked exclusively for the aristocracy.20 The Jean de Sy Master’s delicate creations and complex iconography are almost always fresh, unpredictable, and unique. His presence, in and of itself, and the superior quality of his work in MS A, are clearly signifiers of royal patronage.

The Prologue 21

Near the end of a very long life and career, Machaut wrote a narrative poem entitled the Prologue.22 It is now in two parts at the head of MS A; the first is a mistakenly inverted, appended bifolium on which there are two large miniatures painted by the Jean de Sy Master.23 They accompany the first, lyric section of this poem. The second part is the work of the Machaut Master. The Jean de Sy Master’s images create a visual counterpart to Machaut’s new text., exposing the breadth and complexity of his musico-literary creations and operating as “portraits” of him.24 For Charles V, these images would have preserved the face, accomplishments, and artistry of Machaut as a coveted possession of the patrimoine (and, no doubt, a cherished memory of his mother, Bonne de Luxembourg).

Dating MS A

Manuscript A was painted in the 1370s, ostensibly making it the last manuscript that Machaut himself may have supervised. Although Machaut’s Dit de la fleur de lis et de la marguerite (The Tale of the Lily and the Daisy) and the Prise provide a terminus post quem of c. 1370, the assembly of separate fascicles may have been executed before, during, or after this date (and Machaut’s death in 1377).25 Elements of fashion in the Prologue look forward to a new trend for men. Love’s child, Dous Penser (Sweet Thought), is wearing a tightly fitted, very short doublet (pourpoint) padded as was the style over the chest. This figure’s clothing has a subtle, surprising development. Normally the sleeve is fitted from shoulder to wrist with buttons to the elbow, as in the main body of MS A. But Dous Penser’s doublet is blousy from shoulder to elbow, at which point it is tight to the wrist. This looks forward to a new fashion trend — where sleeves are blousy up to the wrist (bombards) — for men that began in the second half of the 1380s.

Authorial Presence and Patronage

One of the most contested topics in Machaut studies is the possibility that the poet himself played a role in the creation of the manuscripts with his complete works, particularly manuscripts C and A. An inscription at the head of the index — Vesci l’ordenance que G. De Machau wet qu’il ait en son livre (This is the order that G. de Machaut wants to have in his book) — suggests authorial presence in the creation of MS A, whether or not it was finished according to Machaut’s instructions while he was alive or after his death in 1377.26 The complex image-text-music rapport in the earlier MS C (c. 1350–c. 1356), which has folios incorporating all three elements — as well as an exceptionally high quality of the illumination, flourishing, and script — all point toward Machaut’s guidance. Did Machaut play any role in making MS A? I believe he was involved, but to what degree I remain uncertain. Was the footwork involved in creating an illuminated manuscript in Paris, so well documented by Richard Rouse and Mary Rouse, reduced to production within one atelier in Reims, and eventually fueled by a single person’s mental negotiations, namely Machaut himself?27 It would certainly not be a new practice. And what precludes assigning the “compilation” to a date after Machaut’s death? There was surely an interaction with the Jean de Sy Master, ostensibly living and working in Paris, at a late date in MS A’s production. So why make Machaut’s death in 1377 a terminus ante quem?

Anne Walters Robertson 28 and Sylvia Huot are proponents of authorial presence in MS A, the latter writing that “[t]he codices of Machaut and Froissart were almost certainly organized by the authors themselves; Machaut may well also have designed, or at least influenced, programs of illumination for his works.”29 Using reception theory in part, Deborah McGrady, writes that “all lines of research point . . . to the vicinity of Reims where Machaut resided or . . . to an academic or cleric community.”30 For example, she writes that “the material quality of [MS A] points to the idea that [the codex] was produced for a reader like Machaut.”31 But McGrady does not take into account the Jean de Sy Master’s Prologue images, a certain stylistic signifier for royal ownership, thus precluding the possibility that MS A was ever intended for or kept in a cathedral library.

At present, I will have achieved my goal if this art-historical based study of MS A opens gateways for future scholars seeking out new interpretations of images, iconography, production, reception, patronage, and authorial presence. This in many ways defines the purpose and function of this project’s massive undertaking whereby new translations and editions of texts and music will become available to all. For now, many of my insights and theories must remain hypothetical, speculative, sometimes provocative, and purposely open-ended. Above all, they are meant to foster interdisciplinary work which will incorporate new findings and broaden our horizons.


Le Jugement dou roy de Behaingne

The opening image for this poem includes the key elements describing the locus amoenus in the text: an enclosed garden, a stream, a tower, and a bird atop a tree [A8]. The narrator’s identity, however, is blurred because he is dressed as a cleric and not a lover, as he describes himself in the text. The introduction to the crux of this poem begins on line 41. At this point the narrator first sees a knight approaching him on one side and a lady on the other, placing him in the area where they would converge. With his customary attention to detail, the artist has followed the text exactly in the second miniature [A9]. On the right, we see the knight, the lady, and her handmaid — even her small dog. At left, the artist has delicately painted three different types of trees. From an image-text perspective, the artist has captured the crucial moment when the narrator reveals himself (line 1215). The group, hands raised in astonishment, sees that the narrator is hiding amidst an area filled by leaves. The artist underscored the comedic element by showing only the narrator’s head popping out from the vantage point. This also comments more deeply on the hierarchy of roles here, as the emphasis will be on the narrator’s thoughts. His gendered body is obliterated by the forest, and his physical position is nearly as low as the dog’s. In fact, he uses the dog as a means of meeting the group, returning it to the lady.

This is a clear commentary on the role that the narrator will play in the poem. He will be an arbitrator of love, but only as a pale reflection of the king’s own role as magistrate. As the narrator defers judgment to the king, so too the king initially defers to the allegories Honor, Courtesy, Youth, Love, and Wealth. In the third miniature, the king is positioned frontally, a stiff figure seated on a throne [A10]. This symmetrical composition heightens the sense that the king is in perpetual stasis, a godlike figurehead, an eternally just persona, unlike the knight and the lady. This composition is unusual within this artist’s repertoire in MS A, and to some degree in contemporary manuscript illumination. It is meaningful, however, in relation to the image of Love in the Vergier [A5] and God in the Confort [A53]. In the first, Love sits on a tree in a frontal pose, holding an arrow and a torch; ladies and men flank him. This forefronts his power. The second miniature depicts God in his majesty. He sits on an invisible throne surrounded by clouds. His direct gaze engages the viewer. He is invested with regal and spiritual iconographic elements. As God, he has a cruciform nimbus and blesses (the viewer) with one hand. In the other, he holds an orb surmounted by a cross, a sign of his rule over heaven and earth. By creating compositional cross-references, the artist forefronts the king’s authority.32

The final miniature shows the moment where the king makes his judgment [A11]. His gesture of tapping his left index finger on the palm of his right hand clarifies this reading. The lady and knight, both with their right hands on their hips, make two different gestures, perhaps the artist’s way of portraying the outcome of the judgment in the knight’s favor. The knight holds his hand up as if in conversation and the lady holds her hand over her breast, a touching means of conveying the wound in her heart.

Le Jugement dou roy de Navarre

There is only one image for the Navarre. It shows a meditative man looking out from his window with his hands crossed on the sill [A12]. Instead of taking an enjoyable walk in a lovely garden on a fine spring day, the narrator has sequestered himself indoors. This inventive manner of “creating a mood” to reflect the narrator’s long-winded passages on the ills of the world attests to the artist’s skill.


This system follows the format in Earp, A Guide to Research.

1. Earp #
2. (fol. #)
3. Insertion point / line number — the image is above the line in question.
4. Rubrics, unless otherwise noted, are above the image.

For example: A35 (fol. 2r) line 290: “The narrator writes a ballade.”

To identify the placement of the miniature(s) on a single folio:
a: Column 1, recto
b: Column 2, recto
c: Column 3, verso
d: Column 4, verso


N.B.: All miniatures are from manuscript A, BnF, fr. 1584, and reproduced with permission of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Le Jugement dou Roy de Behaingne [4]
1. A8 (fol. 9r) Line 1; Ci aprés commence le Jugement dou Roy de Behaingne. The Narrator, dressed as a cleric, stands in a lovely garden close to a castle with a stream; his hand to his heart as he watches a songbird atop a tree.
2. A9 (fol. 9d) Line 41; The narrator, hidden in bushes, is seen by the lady, with her handmaiden and dog, and the knight.
3. A10 (fol. 16v) Line 1185; The lady and fashionably-attired knight flank the King of Bohemia. The king is bearded and has long hair; he is wearing a crown and his garment is vaguely reminiscent of a toga. As with the depiction of God in Majesty (fol. 127b) in Confort and the enthroned Lady in Le Dit de la Harpe (The Tale of the Harp) (fol. 176v), he is depicted frontally, sitting on a throne with lion-head terminals.33 The figures to each side gesture, denoting conversation, and the king raises his right hand as a priest would in blessing.
4. A11 (fol. 18v) Line 1509; The lady and knight stand at left with hands raised; the king, seated on a fabric-draped throne, taps his left finger in his right palm, as if meting out his decision.

Le Jugement dou Roy de Navarre [1]
5. A12 (fol. 22v) Line 1; Ci aprés commence le Jugement dou Roy de Navarre contre le Jugement dou Roy de Behaingne. Guillaume leans out the window of a castle.

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