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(Click on image to enlarge.)
click here to enlarge "1409 - 1509"
oil on panel 30 x 24 inches
Private Collection

This composition grew from a medical theme, inspired by the royal edict issued in 1421 limiting the licence to practise physic to graduates of Oxford and Cambridge.

The large book at the back is an Ortus Sanitatis, a medieval compendium of medical texts including Galen¹.

The open volume just below the medieval compendium is the Liber Cosmographiae by John Foxton produced in the early fifteenth century. The figure decorated with zodiac signs shows the seasons for bleeding on various parts of the body. This book rests against an example of English binding of the late 15th century—the beasts on the cover are a common motif.

In front of the Liber Cosmographiae we find a Ptolemaic armillary sphere, in brass, 15th or 16th century (Wh.0336 , Whipple Museum). Little is known for sure about this specific armillary sphere, although one conjecture is that it was used by a university lecturer in the 15th or 16th century to aid in the teaching of elementary astronomy. It shows the Ptolemaic system of the universe, with the Earth at the centre, and the celestial sphere represented by the eleven brass rings fixed to the central axis.

Lower left we find Johannes Marchesinus (fl. ca. 1300) Mammotrectus super Bibliam (Venice, 1479), a compendium of Bible commentary and church year sermons, and Joannes Balbus (d. 1298), Catholicon (Venice, 1495), a medieval Latin dictionary by an Italian Dominican. Neither has Cambridge connections but are the type of volume that could be found in any learned library of the time, and are in contemporary English bindings.

The open volume shows the coats-of-arms of the colleges founded in this period, namely Magdalene (1428)², King’s (1441), Queens’ (1448), St. Catharine’s (1473), Jesus (1496) and Christ’s (1505).

In the foreground, resting on a velvet cushion, we find Lady Margaret Beaufort’s Book of Hours (French, c. 1440-5, The Library, St. John’s), open, appropriately, at an image of St. John, and showing the opening of the text of St John's Gospel in Latin (In principio erat verbum/In the beginning was the word etc.). The initial I shows St. John writing his gospel, with his emblem, an eagle, by his side. A little black devil behind him is trying to snatch away John's pen case and ink pot. On the left-hand page the saints’ days are listed, written in French: St Thomas the apostle (21 Dec.), Christmas Day, St Stephanus (26 Dec.), St John the evangelist (27 Dec.), Holy innocents (28 Dec.), St Thomas archbishop of Canterbury (29 Dec.), St Silvester (31 Dec.).

Underneath the list is Lady Margaret's English inscription which gives to the book its principal interest:

my good lady Shyrley pray for
me that gevythe yow thys booke
y hertely pray yow Margaret
modyr to the kynge

Lady Margaret gave the book as a gift to Anne Shirley, wife to Richard Shirley, bailiff of Lady Margaret’s Manor at Ware.

The composition rests on a chest dating from the 14th or 15th century which was probably Clare College’s “oldest Library”, and now sits outside the Fellows’ Combination Room.

¹ Eagle-eyed observers will note that this is a very slightly later edition (c. 1511), due to artist’s lack of academic rigour during photo shoot, but content is correct for the period.

² Reference was made to Peter Pagnamenta ed., The University of Cambridge: An 800th Anniversary, Cambridge 2008 for this date, as opposed to the 1542 foundation date given in other publications.

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