The “Parliament of Heaven”: Tracking a Theatrical Iconography

Fifty-two discoveries from the BiblioPhilly project, No. 20/52

Book of Hours, Use of Rouen, Philadelphia, Free Library of Philadelphia, Lewis E 126, fols. 14v–15r (miniatures showing the Procès de Paradis or Parliament of Heaven and the Annunciation)

A few weeks ago, we saw how an early-sixteenth-century manuscript illuminator, the so-called Master of the Entries of Francis I, could translate real-life, ephemeral tableaux vivants that he almost certainly witnessed, onto the manuscript page. Today, we will examine another theatrically-derived composition, known from elsewhere but not previously identified among Philadelphia’s manuscripts: the Procès de Paradis, or Parliament of Heaven. 

This unusual image is found in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Lewis E 126, a Book of Hours from Rouen that can be dated to the reign of the French king Louis XII (r. 1498–1514) on account of an inscription in the frame on folio 35v. Though it may be slightly later than the rest of the book, the dimidiated coat-or-arms on folio 37v was identified by Albert Van de Put as those of the Quinard family of Languedoc and Venot de Noisy of Burgundy and the Lyonnais,1 with Jean-Luc Deuffic more recently suggesting the more likely Normandy family of Vauquelin instead of Quinard. The miniatures in the book were produced by two distinct artists, but ours is identifiable with Robert Boyvin (another book in the Free Library, Lewis E 124, was illuminated by a close collaborator of his).2 Facing an image of the Annunciation, the miniature on folio 14v of our manuscript shows several figures in white-grey grisaille. The figures in the lower area, standing upon the ground, represent l’Église (the Church, in place of the habitual Truth) paired with Justice, and Miséricorde (Mercy) paired with Sapience (Wisdom). The four personifications are labelled below in gold lettering. In the middle is the Angel Gabriel. Above, the scene is surveyed by an isomorphic Trinity holding open the Book of Life, and surrounded by three Orders of Angels: seraphim, cherubim, and thrones.

Though other versions of the image existed earlier in the Middle Ages,3 this variant of the Procès de Paradis was inspired by the Mystère de la Passion, a mystery play by Arnoul Gréban that was performed widely in France during the fifteenth century.4 As an iconography, it has been well-studied.5 It occurs, for example, in late-fifteenth-century Parisian Books of Hours produced in the workshop of the Maître François, an illuminator tentatively identified with a certain François le Barbier the elder.6 In one example now in New York (The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.73), dated to about 1475, the first four lines of text for the Hours of the Virgin divide the page in two, with the Annunciation (habitually the standalone image for this section of the Book of Hours) occurring below. In other cases, such as in this somewhat eccentric Parisian Book of Hours with miniatures by several different artists (The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.179) the image has even replaced the Annunciation at the beginning of the Hours of the Virgin (fol. 38r), relegating it to Lauds! By the time our book was made, the layouts of Books of Hours were being modified from the start to allow for one or two full-page miniatures preceding the beginning of the text, which meant that the Annunciation could be accompanied by another scene such as the Procès de Paradis. Our collation model shows that this was the case for our book: the scribe has given the illuminator carte blanche, as it were, for the striking double miniature.

Book of Hours, Use of Paris, New York, The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.73, fol. 7r (miniature for the beginning of the Hours of the Virgin showing the Procès de Paradis or Parliament of Heaven and the Annunciation)

The Procès de Paradis composition seems to have been introduced to Rouen (where our manuscript was made) by Jean Pichore, the prolific illuminator who also provided numerous designs for metalcut prints for Books of Hours.7 Pichore worked with the border decorator Jean Serpin, who also collaborated with Boyvin, our illuminator. A Book of Hours Pichore illuminated around 1500, now in the Vatican Library (Barb. Lat. 487), shows the Procès de Paradis facing the Annunciation, as in our book. An example of Pichore’s broadly disseminated metalcut, from a hand-colored, printed Book of Hours at the University of Kansas, shows very close similarities to the earlier manuscript version. Other manuscript illuminators active in Rouen, such as the Master of Philippe of Guelders, used somewhat different compositions (San Marino, Huntington Library, HM1101, fol. 19v).
Book of Hours, Use of Rome, Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Barb. Lat. 487, fols. 23v–24r (miniatures showing the Procès de Paradis or Parliament of Heaven and the Annunciation)

Guillaume Anabat for Germain Hardouin, Book of Hours, Use of Rome, Paris, 1505, Lawrence, University of Kansas, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, Summerfield C65 (hand-colored metalcuts showing the Procès de Paradis or Parliament of Heaven and the Annunciation)

Lewis E 126, fol. 14v (detail of miniature showing the Procès de Paradis or Parliament of Heaven)

Was our illuminator perhaps inspired by Pichore’s images, either in manuscript or print? As you can see, our miniature differs in important ways from both Pichoresque images: the female pairs of Church and Justice and Mercy and Wisdom do not embrace, but seem instead to debate the finer points of theology (counting fingers was a widespread gesture denoting scholarly dispute at the time).8 Another miniature by our Boyvin, also showing the Procès du Paradis and dated to 1502, shows a much greater similarity to Pichore’s image. Indeed, it is directly derived from it (Paris, Artcurial, 1 December 2014, lot 105, fol. 25v). Moreover, the colorless grisaille of our manuscript’s figures seems unusual.9 Was Boyvin simply reacting to an uncolored, printed image he saw, or was this a more deliberate choice?

Book of Hours, Use of Rouen, Paris, Artcurial, 1 December 2014, lot 105, fol. 25v (miniature showing the Procès de Paradis or Parliament of Heaven)

Overall, do the subtle differences found in our manuscript inflect the meaning of the composition? Might Boyvin have been referring to particular aspects of allegorical mystery plays being performed at the time in Rouen, or is he merely transmitting another pre-existing image? More research into the artist’s immediate context might yield additional answers.


  1. See Edwin Wolf, A. S. W. Rosenbach, and Richard W. Ellis, A descriptive catalogue of the John Frederick Lewis collection of European manuscripts in the Free library of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Free Library of Philadelphia, 1937), 140–41.
  2. For this artist, see Isabelle Delaunay, “Le manuscrit enluminé à Rouen au temps du cardinal Georges d’Amboise: l’œuvre de Robert Boyvin et de Jean Serpin,” Annales de Normandie 45 (1995): 211–44, and, most recently, Elliot Adam, “Retour sur l’œuvre de Robert Boyvin, enlumineur à Rouen vers 1500,” in Peindre à Rouen au XVIe siècle, ed. Frédéric Elsig (Milan: Silvana, 2017), 101–19.
  3. For the earlier history of the iconography, and some discussion of its 15th-century variants, see Jessica Savage, “Before the Parliament of Heaven: Visualizing the Reconciled Virtues of Psalm 84.11” in Tributes to Adelaide Bennett Hagens: Manuscripts, Iconography, and the Late Medieval Viewer, eds. Pamela A. Patton and Judith K. Golden (London: Harvey Miller, 2017), 213–225. I thank Pamela Patton for alerting me to this article.
  4. See, most recently, Jean-Pierre Bordier, “Le procès de Paradis dans la littérature dramatique et didactique de la fin du Moyen Age (XIV-XV siècles),” in L’intime du droit a la Renaissance, ed. Max Engammare, Alexandre Vanautgaerden, and Franz Bierlaire (Geneva: Droz, 2014), 363–96, and also Hope Traver, The Four Daughters of God, a Study of the Versions of This Allegory, with Special Reference to Those in Latin, French and English (Bryn Mawr: Bryn Mawr College, 1907).
  5. Samuel C. Chew, The Virtues Reconciled An Iconographical Study (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1947).
  6. For this artist, see Mathieu Deldicque, “L’enluminure à Paris à la fin du XVe siècle: Maître François, le Maître de Jacques de Besançon et Jacques de Besançon identifiés ?,” Revue de l’art 183, no. 1 (2014): 9–18. For the composition, see For more on this composition, see Margaret M. Manion, The Felton Illuminated Manuscripts in the National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne: Macmillian Art Publishing, 2005), 298, 338, pl. 22, figs. 3,4, and 9.
  7. For Pichore, see Caroline Zöhl, Jean Pichore: Buchmaler, Graphiker und Verleger in Paris um 1500 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004).
  8. For the significance of gestures generally, see Moshe Barasch, Giotto and the Language of Gesture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) and Clifford Davidson, ed., Gesture in Medieval Drama and Art, vol. 28 (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001).
  9. Elliot Adam, of the Université Paris-Sorbonne, is currently writing a doctoral thesis on the subject of grisaille and camaïeu d’or images of the period.