'Pontifical' of Saint Mary

A beautiful mystery

Page from the Pontificale de Sainte Marie, Special Collections showpiece

One of the most famous illuminators of the late Middle Ages was the Master of Catherine of Cleves. Between 1430 and 1460 he worked in Utrecht where he illuminated dozens of manuscripts, mainly books of hours for rich patrons. The Pontifical of St. Mary was an exceptional commission, because this is a liturgical book and they were usually not so lavishly decorated. It was made in or just before 1450, but for whom?

A manual for the bishop

Detail of the Pontificale de Sinte Marie, Special Collections showpiece

The word 'pontifical' comes from the Latin pontifex '(high) priest'. The pontifical was used by the bishop. It contains the texts and acts belonging to the liturgy, and which were the prerogatives of the bishop: the preparations for Mass, administering the sacrament of confirmation, the ordination of clerics (bishops, priests, deacons, subdeacons), lower orders (ostiarius and acolyte) and nuns. In the second part of the book we find the description of ceremonies for consecrating altars and churches, the blessing of church objects and vestments, and the lifting of the excommunication. The Pontifical of St. Mary ends with the benedictiones, the episcopal blessings on fol. 113-134.

Several unsolved riddles surround the  Pontifical. It seems obvious to think that the Pontifical was made for a bishop, but the question is: for which one? In Utrecht around 1450 several men claimed to be bishop, and parties inside and outside the city, from the pope to foreign councils, tried to put their candidates forward. There is also a chance it was made for an auxiliary bishop, or maybe for an institution such as St. Mary's Church for a visiting bishop. However, it is not certain if the manuscript has always been housed there.

Detail uit de Pontificale de Sinte Marie, topstuk uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht

The bishop and the arch deacon

The decorations by the Master of Catherine of Cleves seem to have all kinds of references, that are often difficult to read. For instance, the bishop is depicted in fifteen historiated initials, and every time there is a man in an orange gown behind him, an arch deacon. Why does he play such a major role? The bishop of Utrecht had nine arch deacons to manage his diocese. Five of these arch deacons were the provosts of the five Utrecht collegiate churches who managed the goods and estates of the chapters. They were appointed by the canons themselves. So with the help of their provosts/arch deacons they could exercise major influence over the bishop. Are their interests reflected in the Pontifical?

There are also other visual and textual clues that could be followed to find out who commissioned the Pontifical and why. Or do we only think that the beautiful illustrations hide subtle hints, something that is suspected by researchers? Whoever wants to solve these mysteries could not wish for a more beautiful Utrecht manuscript.

Author: Bart Jaski, juli 2020