British Library acquires renaissance masterwork of manuscript illumination for the nation

An illuminated play text from the fifteenth century, has been acquired for the nation and allocated to the British Library by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax under the Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) Scheme which is administered by Arts Council England on behalf of the Department for Culture Media and Sport. The acquisition was supported by generous grants from the Art Fund, the Friends of the British Library, International Partners in memory of Melvin R. Seiden and from the Breslauer Bequest, as well as donations from other anonymous donors.

A page from the Mystère de la Vengeance, by Eustache Marcadé, recently acquired by the British Library.

A page from the Mystère de la Vengeance, by Eustache Marcadé, recently acquired by the British Library.

The manuscript was commissioned in around 1465 by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (1396-1467), who was one of the greatest book collectors and art patrons of his time. It contains the only surviving complete text for the play, the Mystère de la Vengeance, by Eustache Marcadé. The play, written in French, was intended for performance over four days and was a development of the traditional Christian ‘Mystery’ play. Duke Philip may have attended one of the performances in Burgundy in 1463 and this manuscript might be a luxurious and extravagant record of that event. The manuscript which is in exceptionally fine condition contains 20 superb large miniatures by Loyset Liédet.

Since its creation it has passed through the libraries of some of the greatest book collectors, and when sold in 1812 from the collection of the Duke of Roxburghe it was the most expensive illuminated manuscript ever sold in England, more than doubling the previous record. For the last two hundred years it has been part of the Devonshire Collection at Chatsworth in Derbyshire.

The Mystère de la Vengeance is the finest surviving illuminated manuscript of any medieval drama and is of particular importance both for the study of the theatre in the 15th century, for which few documents survive, and for the beauty of its illuminations, which are as fresh today as on the day they were painted over 500 years ago.