Exciting research into the Hours of Isabella Stuart – thought to be one of the most extensively illustrated Books of Hours from the medieval period – has shown that the pages appear to have been re-illuminated after it came to be owned by the Scottish princess.
Isabella (c.1427-1494) was the second daughter of James I of Scotland, and was given the manuscript by her husband, Duke Francis I of Brittany, on their marriage. But before it came into her possession, the prayer book had belonged to Francis’ first wife, Yolande of Anjou (1412-1440), who had received it from her mother. The book is elaborately decorated not only with Isabella’s coat of arms but also images of the princess. Given its previous ownership, though, it was thought that this was probably not the book’s first design. Indeed, it has now been revealed that an original depiction of Yolande was covered over by an image of Isabella.
To identify what changes had been made after the book changed hands, a team from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge used non-invasive analytical techniques, including infrared reflectography and near-infrared imaging to reveal the original drawings beneath the paintings, as well as XRF spectroscopy to identify the composition of pigments.
The infrared analyses visualised the original sketches and paint layers, showing that overpainting appears to have been done in two stages. The first changes included painting over Yolande with an image of Isabella in her heraldic dress and adding a figure of St Catherine behind her. In the second stage, the headdress of Isabella – at first the same as the one in the original depiction of Yolande – was painted over with a ducal coronet. This last alteration was most likely added once Francis succeeded to the duchy of Brittany and it became clear that Isabella would become a duchess on her marriage.
The use of different pigments provides evidence of these changes, too. The red used for Isabella’s ermine-lined coat is the same vermillion pigment used in her coat of arms, which decorates the border, but other red on the page, including the original floral border, was painted using red lead. It is thought that, while the original illuminations were done by artists in Angers, the changes were made by Breton artists working in Nantes.
The Hours of Isabella Stuart is currently on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum as part of the Human Touch exhibition, which runs until 1 August.