Three medieval artworks acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has announced three significant acquisitions of medieval art: a large, rare Hebrew codex, known as The Montefiore Mainz Mahzor (circa 1310-20); a rare surviving silver-gilt and enamel Spanish processional cross (circa 1400); and one of a handful of surviving architectural drawings for Rouen cathedral, attributed to its architect,

“These three remarkable objects, in tandem with our significant and growing holdings of art from Asia and the Islamic worlds, will enhance the Museum’s ability to tell the story of pre-modern art and culture across cultures and continents,” commented MFAH director Gary Tinterow. “I am delighted to announce these exceptional additions to the collections, from among the hundreds we acquired during the last fiscal year.”

The Montefiore Mainz Mahzor, c. 1310-1320, illuminated manuscript on parchment, the
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, museum purchase funded by the Brown Foundation Accessions Endowment Fund.

The Montefiore Mainz Mahzor (above, circa 1310-20)

During Medieval times, the Jewish communities of the cities of Mainz, Speyer, and Worms became centers of Jewish life in the Rhineland. Charlemagne and his successors invited Jews to settle in the Rhine Valley and they flourished in the ninth and tenth centuries. After suffering at the hands of Crusaders in 1096, they rebuilt their communities in trading towns along the Main and Rhine, commissioning luxurious illustrated manuscripts such as this one a century later.

The Mainz Mahzor is one of the rare Hebrew illuminated manuscripts still in existence, a festival prayer book used during the Jewish High Holidays. These books belonged to the entire congregation, and were publicly displayed and paged through. Measuring 16 by 11 inches, this codex has 299 leaves, each ruled in ink, pricked and written in black and red ink in Ashkenazic script. It was illuminated with hybrid animals, grotesques and human figures. Its worn pages, some long ago incised or cut away, are palimpsests of generations of congregants.

Processional Cross, c. 1400, silver-gilt, enamel and wood, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, museum purchase funded by the Brown Foundation Accessions Endowment Fund

Processional Cross (circa 1400)

An exquisite and rare surviving example of medieval Spanish goldsmithing, this imposing Catalan cross is an exceptional expression of the High Gothic style that flourished around 1400 in Barcelona and the surrounding region, a rich trading city known for its Gothic architecture, painting, and metalwork. It is especially well-preserved, the delicate low-relief enamels retaining their color, which in most objects has been lost. Here, the crucified Christ figure is framed by enamels that depict the Virgin Mary and Saint John to the left and right, and the resurrections of Christ and Adam (or possibly Lazarus), above and below. The four evangelists are depicted in enamels on the reverse. The surface of the cross is embellished with foliate silver gilt and framed by a crochet-patterned border of painted trefoils and fleurs de lis. The flourishing of independent Iberian courts in the Middle Ages created a rich climate of patronage led by the Catholic Church, with large numbers of goldsmiths and enamellers in Barcelona and Palma.


Attributed to Roulland le Roux, Design for the Rouen Cathedral Tower, 1516, pen and ink, gray
wash, stylus and compass marks, with traces of metalpoint on parchment attached to a later
wooden spool, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, museum purchase funded by the Agnes Cullen Arnold Endowment Fund

Design for the Rouen Cathedral Tower (1516)

Drafted under the creative direction of Roulland le Roux, the French architect who designed aspects of the Rouen Cathedral between 1509 and 1527, the Gothic drawing on parchment was likely the winning concept in the well-documented competition for the rebuilding of the transept tower. That tower then burned and was rebuilt, for the last time in the 19th century. One of only a handful such drawings in the world, this one is exceptional for its size, complexity, and state of preservation. The tower was conceived, here, in the “Flamboyant” Gothic style, the final expression of Gothic architecture, as developed in northern France around 1500.

These three items will help form the core selection for a new gallery of Medieval art. Other art works include a late-15th-century Flemish tapestry depicting Hercules slaying Laomedon, and a bifolio from a Qu’ran, dating to the 8th or 9th century.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is among the 10 largest art museums in the United States, with an encyclopedic collection of nearly 70,000 works dating from antiquity to the present. For more information, please visit their website.