The manuscript is “an absolute masterpiece of illumination”LOUIS ASHWORTH

Staff at the Fitzwilliam Museum have made an “exciting discovery” within the pages of ‘The Hours of Isabella Stuart’, a 15th century illustrated prayer book. 

They found that an illustration depicting Isabella Stuart had been altered, as the illumination had originally depicted her husband’s first wife, the Duchess of Anjou, Yolande of Aragon.

The illumination depicts Isabella Stuart kneeling before the Virgin Mary, where before Yolande of Aragon was to be found depicted in the same position. This example of over-painting is “not unique but unusual”.

Dr Suzanne Reynolds, Assistant Keeper in the Department of Manuscripts and Printed Books at the Fitzwilliam Museum, recalled that staff noticed a “darker area” in one of the illuminations, “so it was decided to use infrared and see what was going on there”. This scan revealed the “under-drawing” of the first wife of Duke Francis I of Brittany.

The manuscript was a wedding gift to Yolande from her mother in 1431.  After Yolande died, the Duke remarried in 1442 and had the illustration modified by Breton artists to swap in his new wife, Isabella Stuart.

“These books in a way are sort of archaeological sites,” said Dr Reynolds, “and when you start to uncover what lies under these images it actually unlocks the human story of how these books were commissioned and then passed from one person to another as the story of these different marriages and different dynastic alliances evolved.”

She continued that the discovery “fleshed out the story” of the manuscript. They had previously known it had been commissioned by Yolande’s mother and passed to Isabella Stuart, but not how or why.


Mountain View

Cambridgeshire cultural institutions awarded over £3 million by government recovery fund

The alteration artists also replaced the coat of arms bordering the illumination with that of Stuart. “That’s not so unusual,” Dr Reynolds stated, “that happened quite a lot in manuscripts if they passed from one owner to another. The new person might add their coat of arms into the manuscript to demonstrate their ownership of it.”

Dr Reynolds called the book, left to the museum by founder Richard Fitzwilliam, an “absolute masterpiece of illumination”.

The book will be displayed in the upcoming exhibition The Human Touch at the Fitzwilliam Museum between 18 May and 1 August 2021.