Merry Christmas to All


Christmas is the one of the most joyful seasons for Christian communities worldwide. Even today, popular representations of these events are based on medieval images devised during The Middle Ages. The birth of Lord Jesus Christ is the most significant event in world history, both as a political and supernatural truth, through God’s Divine intervention and his birth has been depicted throughout many  years — but it was during the Middle Ages that illuminators began to present the fine details that we identify today with the manger scene.


Do you remember “The Name of the Rose” movie, based on the novel of the same name by Umberto Eco.  Sean Connery plays William of Baskerville with aplomb.  WOW!


Franciscan friar William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) and his novice Adso of Melk (Christian Slater)travel to a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy. As they arrive, the monastery is disturbed by a suicide. As the story unfolds, several other monks die under mysterious circumstances. William is tasked by the abbot of the monastery to investigate the deaths as fresh clues with each murder victim lead William to dead ends and new clues. The protagonists explore a labyrinthine medieval library, discuss the subversive power of laughter, and come face to face with the inquisition, a reaction to the Waldensians, a movement which was started in the 12th century and advocated an adherence to the Gospel as taught by Jesus and his disciples. William briefly encounters Peter Waldo, the founder of this movement, at the heart of the library. William’s innate curiosity and highly developed powers of logic and deduction provide the keys to unraveling the mysteries of the abbey.

Despite not making an Oscar bid, this film won numerous awards throughout Europe, including the BAFTA best actor award for Connery. It also was nominated for the Edgar Allen Poe award for mystery film.


The first thing in this movie for me it was a scene where they brought us to scriptorium – room devoted to the hand-lettered copying of manuscripts. In the monasteries, the scriptorium was a room, rarely a building, set apart for the professional copying of manuscripts. The director of a monastic scriptorium was the armarius or scrittori, who provided the scribes with their materials and directed the process.


Medieval Europe it was one of the darkest periods known to mankind: Pestilence and plague, darkness and fear, witch-hunts and illiteracy roam the land. It was a world where most people seldom leave their place of birth for any distance longer than 10 miles, where few people even live beyond the age of 30. In this inhospitable milieu, secluded in the scriptoria of cold monasteries, under the light of feeble oil lamps, created some of the most beautiful books the world has ever seen. We call these beautiful books Illuminated Manuscripts.

Illumination was a complex and frequently costly process. In the making of an illuminated manuscript, the text was usually written first. Sheets of parchment or vellum, animal hides specially prepared for writing, were cut down to the appropriate size. After the general layout of the page was planned (e.g., initial capital, borders), the page was lightly ruled with a pointed stick, and the scribe went to work with ink-pot and either sharpened quill feather or reed pen. When the text was complete, the illustrator set to work. Complex designs were planned out beforehand, probably on wax tablets, the sketch pad of the era. The design was then traced onto the vellum.


 Wealthy people often had richly illuminated “books of hours” made, which set down prayers appropriate for various times in the liturgical day.  In the early 16th century, Cardinal Patriarch Marco Cornaro commissioned one such illuminated manuscript, the famous Cornaro Missal.  A missal is a book containing all of the prayers and responses to celebrate the Roman Catholic Mass throughout the year.


In the early 1600s, the missal was bound in a Roman binding of elaborately tooled leather in a French fanfare-style design. Corrnaro Missal was bound in gold-tooled red morocco over thin beech boards, the covers richly decorated with fillets, gouges and borders formed of repetitions of small tools, the shaped compartments filled with leafy sprays, lions rampant, fleurons, roundels, dots and other small ornament, the central compartment left empty, flat spine similarly decorated, double fillet along the board edges, elaborate silver clasps (marked FZ) and catches added later, leaf edges gilt.  This is a masterpiece of Italian Renaissance art by an anonymous artist from northern Italy.


It was acquired by the Austrian branch of the Rothschild family.  This is of historical significance, since the Rothschild family is Jewish. The dynasty has been credited with “bailing out” the British government on more than one occasion.  The Rothschilds were influencing the national economy and politics of several European countries. In 1875, Lionel Rothschild – the first Jew to enter British parliament – was, with a few hours notice, able to lend the £4m that allowed the British government to take control of the Suez Canal.

The Nazis expropriated the Cornaro Missal in 1938 from the Rothschild. American soldiers recovered the art works and turned them over to the Austrian government. The Austrian government did not return the art works to the Rothschild until February 1999.

On July 8, 1999, was sold for $4,758,102 at a Christie’s auction in London.  This has been reported as the highest price ever paid for an Italian illuminated manuscript, now owned by an unidentified private collector.


Christie’s director, Elizabeth Lane, holds the early 16th century Cornaro Missal


It is ironic that the depiction of Lord’s Divine birth can command millions of dollars— according to an account in the Gospel of Matthew 26:15 in the New Testament : thirty pieces of silver was the price for which Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus. The phrase “30 pieces of silver” is used more generally to describe a price at which people sell out. In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, it is echoed in the 30 roubles which the character Sonia earns for selling herself. In the folk-song King John and the Bishop, the bishop’s answer to the riddle of how much the king is worth is 29 pieces of silver, as no king is worth more than Jesus. In Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Part 2, the mistress of Falstaff asks “and didst thou not kiss me, and bid me fetch thee thirty shillings?”


How much were the 30 pieces of silver which Judas received as payment for his betrayal worth, expressed in today’s currency?

It is difficult to translate value between different time periods. If one translates it by silver value one will likely find a different value than if one used wheat value. The silver pieces referred to in the New Testament is one we call “the shekel of Tyre”. As mentioned by someone else here, it had a value of 4 drachms or what’s called a tetradrachm.A drachma was a soldiers daily wage, and would be approximately $50 to $60 in today’s money. So we can estimate that each tetradrachm is about $200, and so we’re looking at about $6000 (though this is a pretty rough estimate), it’s close.

We need to remember that power and money can not deter us from making this world a better place and saying “Merry Christmas” does not need to cost a lot of money.

Merry Christmas





About conservationwithella

Hello, I'm Ella, Art on Paper Conservator & Preservation Manager at Glasgow University Archives and Special Collections. This blog is a walk through my daily life, work, arts & crafts history, my discovery that everything in my life is enough to be a continuous source of reflection. I started blogging to entertain myself but I hope you enjoy it too. I'm sure you agree, that Life without art is nothing. :)

2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Opinions Needed on The Lay of the Children of Hurin Illuminated Manuscript | The Leather Library

  2. Pingback: Fitzwilliam Book of Hours Video Overview | The Leather Library

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