Rare texts and images from early modern France

Bussy-Rabutin’s Book of Hours

On July 1, 1909, Edouard Rahir, the Paris bookseller and bibliographer, visited John Pierpont Morgan, the New York banker and collector, at his London residence at 13-14 Prince’s Gate. Rahir placed in Morgan’s hands a notorious little manuscript, the so-called “Book of Hours” of Roger de Rabutin, comte de Bussy (1618-1693). This transaction ended a two-century odyssey during which the volume had passed from one aristocratic and/or bibliophilic owner to the next, steadily gaining in fame and value along the way. It first appeared on the market in December 1783, at the sale of the library of the duc de La Vallière. The very long and detailed description in the sale catalog presented the book as “one of the most precious, most interesting, and most curious that can be seen.” It surfaced again at sales held in 1872 (vicomte de Lostanges-Beduer), 1879 (Ambroise Firmin-Didot), and 1897 (Henri Bordes). The acquisition by Pierpont Morgan gave the manuscript a permanent home and ensured that henceforth it could indeed “be seen” by the public. Yet its preservation and accessibility have gone largely unnoticed: while Bussy studies have blossomed in recent decades, no scholar seems to have personally examined his legendary Livre d’heures.

Two years ago, I came across this allegedly “lost” manuscript while searching the Morgan Library’s online catalog for holdings related to the poet Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (1636-1711). As the catalog record notes, the book was first alluded to in Boileau’s Eighth Satire (published in 1668), in which cuckolds are designated by the periphrasis “the saints celebrated by Bussy.” This line has often been explained as a reference to the Histoire amoureuse des Gaules, an immensely popular satirical novel exposing and mocking the love affairs of prominent French aristocrats during the 1650s. As a result of its (perhaps unintended) publication and the ensuing scandal, Bussy-Rabutin had to spend 13 months in the Bastille and another 16 years in exile before Louis XIV allowed him to return to court. However, there are no “saints” in the novel that would justify Boileau’s characteristically forceful and deliberate word choice. It is more likely that he was hinting at another work, which he may have heard about without knowing exactly what it contained. In 1659, Bussy-Rabutin had already been briefly banished to his estates following an orgy during Holy Week, which purportedly included obscene parodies of Christian rites and hymns. Did he commit even more impieties where Catholicism rhymed with eroticism? It was Boileau’s posthumous editor Claude Brossette who first openly asserted the existence of a libertine and satirical book of hours to clarify the poet’s cryptic allusion. But he evidently hadn’t seen it either and provided a misleading description. The manuscript’s occasional appearances in the late 18th and 19th centuries finally allowed for first-hand inspection, but the discussion remained contradictory and inconclusive.

As we prepare to celebrate Bussy-Rabutin’s 400th birthday (on Friday, April 13), his “saints” deserve a fresh look and renewed critical efforts. The Morgan has generously granted permission to share some photos of its manuscript for the purpose of increasing awareness and facilitating scholarly analysis. The interpretation that follows reflects my attempt to come to grips with this magnificent and mysterious object and is presented here as a working hypothesis awaiting corroboration or refutation.

Measuring 4 1/2 by 3 inches (115 x 73 mm), the book contains 35 vellum leaves, of which 24 are blank except for a golden border. On two leaves (f. 12 and 16), an identical border surrounds faint traces of calligraphy; the text begins on the recto and continues on the verso, followed by a crowned monogram (LI and RC, respectively, with both letters mirrored and intertwined). The monogram RC also appears on the verso of f. 7, in a white oval surrounded by blue lozenges on a golden background. The crowns surmounting the monograms are those of a marquis (f. 7), a duke (f. 12), and a count (f. 16).


f. 7v, MS M.370, The Morgan Library & Museum

On the verso of the remaining leaves (f. 9, 13, 17, 20, 23, 26, 29, 32) are full-page miniatures of saints (4 female, 4 male), painted inside a broad golden border like the one on f. 7. The recto of these leaves is entirely blank. By its contents and structure, the manuscript resembles a distinct section of traditional Horae, usually found at the end of the volume: the “Suffrages” or “Memorials” in which images of selected saints are accompanied by ejaculations and short prayers.1 Bussy’s book included at least two such prayers, composed in French prose and calligraphed in Roman script, but they were scrupulously erased by scraping the ink off the vellum. Past bibliographers managed to decipher some fragments, including “Ainsi soit il” (Amen) at the end of both oraisons. When seen in UV light, the text on the verso of each folio becomes almost fully legible, but only a few disconnected words emerge on the recto, which has twice as many lines and would typically include references to the saint and his or her story. One can suspect that each prayer presented at least some risqué double-entendre (if not, why take such pains to erase it?), but for now this remains open to speculation.


f. 16v, MS M.370, The Morgan Library & Museum. Left: in normal light / Right: in UV light, digitally enhanced

Whereas this textual erasure continues to thwart our curiosity, the images have remained splendidly intact and cry out for recognition. The 1783 catalog offered just one identification, seeing Louis XIII in the figure of Saint Louis, and left it up to the “amateurs” to guess the identity of the other models. Later writers took the bait and came up with a slew of famous names, from Anna of Austria and the duke of Buckingham to Mme de Montespan and Louis XIV. A penciled note in the Morgan’s curatorial file points in a more fruitful direction, suggesting that these miniatures “relate to paintings in the Bussy-Rabutin chateau.” Indeed, just like the manuscript has been preserved and can be consulted in New York, many of the hundreds of portraits assembled by Bussy have survived and can be seen in his château in Burgundy. The juxtaposition of the miniatures with the full-size paintings is illuminating, as long as we keep in mind that painted portraits are not photographs and that their degree of “resemblance” to each other and to the sitter can vary greatly.

The four female saints represented in the manuscript, clearly distinguished by their traditional attributes, are the virgin martyrs Cecilia, Dorothy, Catherine of Alexandria, and Agnes of Rome. On the basis of the paintings in the château of Bussy-le-Grand, I propose to identify the real-life models of these miniatures as the marquise de Montglas, the comtesse d’Olonne, the duchesse de Châtillon, and the comtesse de Fiesque. Montglas (whose first name was Cécile) was Bussy’s great love; she dumped him following his disgrace, and her likeness and infidelity haunt the entire decor of his château. Fiesque was Montglas’ and Bussy’s close friend and a prominent Précieuse. D’Olonne and Châtillon are the protagonists of the two main parts of the Histoire amoureuse des Gaules, appearing under the pseudonyms Ardélise and Angélie. The novel also features Montglas (“Bélise”) and Fiesque (“Fésique”).

Saint Dorothy

Left: Saint Dorothy (f. 17v, MS M.370, The Morgan Library & Museum) / Right: Catherine-Henriette d’Angennes, comtesse d’Olonne (Château de Bussy-Rabutin)

Left: Saint Agnes (f. 29v, MS M.370, The Morgan Library & Museum) / Right: Gilonne d’Harcourt, comtesse de Fiesque (Château de Bussy-Rabutin)

The male saints in the manuscript are Sebastian, John the Baptist, Louis, and George. I am inclined to identify them as follows: Bussy-Rabutin himself, the duc de Candale, the prince de Condé, and, perhaps, the comte de Guiche. (All four also appear in the Histoire amoureuse.) But the correlation between the miniatures and the paintings in the château may be less direct in these cases: Guiche, for example, is not represented in the château, and Condé’s portrait seems to have been added belatedly. To recognize the Great Condé (rather than Louis XIII) in the figure of Saint Louis, one needs to consider his youthful likenesses, such as those painted in 1645 by Juste d’Egmont. The moustache in the miniature is very similar to that worn by Condé in a 1653 depiction by David Teniers the Younger. The satirical portrait of the prince in the Histoire amoureuse presents him as having “lively eyes, a hawk’s and sharp nose, hollow lean cheeks, a long face and the physiognomy of an eagle, frizzled hair, his teeth were ill set and nasty…” On the other hand, Bussy describes himself with “great sweet eyes, a handsome mouth, a something hawkish nose, an open face, and a happy physiognomy, fair, clear light hair.”2 Posing as Saint Sebastian allows him to exhibit both his virility and his tenderness. It is safe to assume that all the miniatures embellish and soften the traits of their models, shown here not as military heroes but as martyrs of Love.

Saint Louis

Left: Saint Louis (detail of f. 26v, MS M.370, The Morgan Library & Museum) / Right: Louis II de Bourbon, prince de Condé, by Juste d’Egmont (Château de Chantilly, Musée Condé)

Saint Sebastian

Left: Saint Sebastian (f. 13v, MS M.370, The Morgan Library & Museum) / Right: Roger de Rabutin, comte de Bussy, attributed to Juste d’Egmont (Château de Bussy-Rabutin)

The sequence of the miniatures suggests an arrangement by couples: Montglas and Bussy, d’Olonne and Candale, Châtillon and Condé, Fiesque and Guiche. The repetition of the monogram RC on f. 7 and f. 16 seems to emphasize the union between the comte de Bussy (Roger) and the marquise de Montglas (Cécile), the likely dedicatee of the volume. The monogram LI, surmounted by a ducal crown, could refer to the prince de Condé (Louis) and the duchesse de Châtillon (Isabelle). Its placement on f. 12, however, does not make sense; its logical position would be on f. 25, following Saint Catherine. I suppose that the two leaves with text were separated from the rest in order to facilitate the erasure operation, after which they were retained for the painted monograms, but not both re-inserted in their original place. The current, very luxurious binding (tan morocco with red morocco doublures and “all-over” pointillé gold tooling) appears to be somewhat later and closely resembles bindings attributed to the workshop of Luc-Antoine Boyet. It may have been commissioned by Nicolas-Joseph Foucault (1643-1721), one of the foremost bibliophiles of his day, who, ten months before his death, presented the manuscript to one of Bussy-Rabutin’s daughters.


Fly-leaf, MS M.370, The Morgan Library & Museum

Once the text of the prayers is erased, there is nothing terribly scandalous about these “Hours.” It was common in the 17th century for rich and pious patrons to be represented with a saint’s attributes; Bussy-Rabutin himself once posed as Saint Julian of Brioude (a 4th-century martyr) in a painting displayed in a local church. This practice extended to illuminated prayer books, such as those executed by the calligrapher Nicolas Jarry. Too little is known about the work of French miniaturists of the time, but a name that comes up in this context is that of Louis Du Guernier (1614-1659), a Protestant and founding member of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. In 1688, the art historian André Félibien praised Du Guernier’s human and painterly qualities and affirmed that he had no rival when it came to “the force and resemblance of a head.” Among his works on vellum mentioned by Félibien is a “book of prayers” created around 1646 for Henri II de Lorraine, duc de Guise, in which “all the fairest ladies of the Court” were represented en saintes. After the death of Louis Du Guernier in January 1659, his younger brother Pierre continued the family tradition and, according to Félibien, also achieved renown for the beauty of his portrait miniatures.3

I am not ready to venture an attribution to a specific artist nor to precisely date the Morgan manuscript. A cluster of signs point to the Du Guernier family and to the period 1658-1660: years during which Bussy not only composed his novel but also participated in the fashionable craze for written portraits, indulged in parodic Alleluias, and began decorating his residences in Burgundy. The little book of saints may well predate the Histoire amoureuse des Gaules as well as the decor of the Tour dorée, the “golden tower” which continues to astonish visitors of the Bussy-Rabutin château today. Whatever its genesis, this illuminated mock hagiography adds another brilliant facet to Bussy’s life and works.

Volker Schröder

Saint Patrick’s Day, 2018

MS M.370, The Morgan Library & Museum


1. For examples of Suffrages (including sample prayers), see Roger S. Wieck, Time Sanctified: the Book of Hours, New York: George Braziller, 1988, p. 111-123 and 165-166.

2. Loves Empire; Or, the Amours of the French Court, London: printed for Dorman Newman, 1682, p. 128 and 189 (first English translation of the Histoire amoureuse des Gaules).

3. André Félibien, Entretiens sur les vies et sur les ouvrages des plus excellens peintres anciens et modernes, Trévoux: Imprimerie de S.A.S., 1725, t. IV, p. 206-213. In a short note published in 1834 in the Bulletin du Bibliophile, Charles Nodier cited the Guise Hours next to those of Bussy and wondered what had happened to these “chefs-d’œuvres si précieux.” The Morgan’s curatorial file includes an undated letter from Marvin Ross (Walters Art Gallery) to Meta Harrsen mentioning Du Guernier’s book of prayers for the duc de Guise. All earlier discussions seem to attribute the miniatures to the more famous enamelist Jean Petitot (1607-1691), without providing any evidence.

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This entry was posted on March 17, 2018 in Manuscripts, Portraits and tagged , , , .