Medieval Manuscripts: The Isabella Breviary

The Isabella Breviary (British Library, Add. MS. 18851) is a remarkable book. Within its pages lie some of the finest illuminations ever painted during the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Produced by some of the most accomplished artists of their day, these miniature masterpieces bear vivid testimony to the high achievement of early Netherlandish art outside of the tradition of larger scale painting in oil made familiar to modern audiences through the work of such great masters as Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling and Hugo van der Goes. Even within the distinguished tradition of Flemish illumination, the Isabella Breviary is arguably one of the most remarkable works ever produced.

Yet, the Breviary is much more. It is also one of the most outstanding works of art associated with the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, and Queen Isabella of Castile in particular. It certainly offers a most vivid manifestation of the confidence, power, opulence and fervent Christian faith of the queen who, with her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon, single-mindedly sought religious and nation unity in Spain, laid the foundations of Spain’s enrichment from the New World and established by inter-marriage with the Hapsburgs a dynasty whose power and wealth was second to none within Western Europe. Much later, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Breviary became one of the outstanding treasures of the British national collection of books and manuscripts. Within the British Library, it bears testimony to the significance of its vast collections for the preservation and understanding of the world’s cultural heritage.

February, f. 2r

isabella breviary 1

Pisces, the two fish; a landscape snow scene with men cutting down and pruning trees with an axe and sickle, whereas another is gathering sticks into bundles, and another is carrying a bundle away. The Aldenham Hours picture, by the same artist, has the same activities but with a very different iconographic composition, dominated by a large house in the foreground. Pruning, cutting down trees and gathering in wood, are common subjects for the February labour. This is particularly so in Flemish calendars of this period which sometimes also show the chopping up of the wood for firewood, or a group of people carrying bundles of branches back from the woods to their houses.

Apology of the coronation of Queen Isabella, f. 437r

isabella breviary 3

The crowning of Our Lady The image is the work of Gérard Horenbout. The most important aspect of this miniature is its symbolism because in addition to its appropriateness amongst the images of a breviary, Our Lady’s crowning is important as confirmation of the coronation of Isabella herself. When Isabella’s brother, Henry IV of Castile, died on December 11th 1474, she proclaimed herself queen that very day, setting her at loggerheads with her niece, Joanna the Beltraneja, in a civil war that was to last four years.

The painting shows the Holy Trinity crowning Our Lady. The Father and the Son, sharing the same throne and both with a sceptre, hold the crown. Between them, above the throne, is the Holy Ghost shown as a dove. Francisco de Rojas gives the queen the codex with the following words inscribed in gold upon the brown ground of the decorative border:

To Isabella the divine,
Queen of the Spains
and of Sicily, your
most Christian, powerful,
ever august and most clement
supreme lady,
I, Francisco de Rojas,
your humble servant
and creature of your majesty herself,
deserving of the very most,
do give you this breviary

The breviary was undeniably a splendid gift, the best possible, not only because of the first-rate technique and artistry of its images but also because of its political significance and because it is the best symbol of the culmination of a political project on a world scale. Miniatures like this one of the coronation demonstrate not only how important the events following the death of Henry IV were to Isabella (her efforts to obtain the crown and her yearning to be acknowledged by her subjects), but also the determined desire to unify the Iberian Peninsula that characterised her reign.

Coat of arms of the Catholic Monarchs and their children and children-in-law, f. 436v

isabella breviary 2

This impressive miniature features the coat of arms of the Catholic Monarchs upon a mauve ground. The imposing eagle of St John, the tetramorph eagle of the Apocalypse, is present not only because Isabella was crowned on this saint’s feast day but also because of her great devotion to St John the Evangelist. Whilst still an adolescent, Isabella said she wanted this eagle to be the support for her own coat of arms, as revealed by a drawing of hers dated May 15th 1473 (Madrid, RAH, Co. Salazar y Castro, K-37, f. 112v).

The fact that she called her only son John and her second daughter Joanna (the female version of John in Spanish) is also due to this devotion. In this miniature, the eagle’s head is flanked by two phylacteries inscribed with the words sub umbra alarum tuarum protege nos (in the shadow of your wings protect us). Undulating beneath the coat of arms are another three phylacteries with quotations from two psalms:

  • Pro patribus tuis nati sunt tibi filii. Constituisti eos principes super omnem terram – In the stead of your parents shall your children be born unto you, and you shall make them the princes of all the earth (Ps 44, 17)
  • Potens in terra erit semen eius: generatio rectorum benedicetur – Powerful is the lineage of this seed on the earth: blessed be the generation of the righteous (Ps III, 2)

Both quotations are particularly eloquent taking into account the Breviary’s enormous political significance. By marrying the children of Maximilian of Austria and Marie of Burgundy – at a time when America had just been discovered – these two children of the Catholic Monarchs did indeed become virtually “princes of all the earth”. In particular, this image of the coat of arms is a splendid tribute to the culmination of an extremely important political strategy achieved thanks to that double marriage.

The counter-quartered coats of arms underneath are those of the two pairs of spouses. The arms of the children of the Spanish monarchs are the same as those of their parents, and those of the Hapsburg dynasty are quartered with inescutcheon.

These were excerpts from the commentary volume of The Isabella Breviary, by Scot Mickendrick, Head of History and Classics at The British Library; Elisa Ruiz, Professor of Diplomacy and Paleography, Universidad Complutense de Madrid; and Nigel Morgan, Emeritus Honorary Professor of the History of Art, Cambridge University.

To learn more about the The Isabella Breviary and see more images from the manuscript, please visit


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