Alexander Bening's signature in the Grimani Breviary (Ghent 1515)
by Erik Drigsdahl

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[A preliminary summary release before the congress: Manuscripts in Transition, Royal Library of Belgium, Brussels 5-9 November 2002]

The signature of the chief illuminator Alexander Bening, as one of the outer painted borders in
the Grimani Breviary fol.339v (slightly reduced and turned 90°).
The letters are painted as decorative wooden branches, with a flower for intervals and missing letters,
and a lozenge to separate the initial A from the name.
It reads: A. BE + NC + 71 [A.(lexander) BE(ni)NC 71] Sanders Bening was 71 years old in 1515.
The facing border on fol.340 is filled with a frieze of peacock's feathers, an unusual border decoration
repeated several times over many years by Sanders Bening. The most reproduced example are the borders
around the Annunciation in Douce 219 f.97v-98.
(After the complete facsimile edition by S.Morpurgo & Scato de Vries 1904-08, no modern colour-reproduction is available)

Appendix: Borders with full-scale letters in the Breviarium Grimani

"Though it is, of course, by no means impossible that two
artistic personalities such as the Master of Mary of Burgundy and
Simon Bening, belonging stylistically to a first and third generation,
could have been father and son,
much more solid evidence is required
than is at present available before the Alexander Bening hypothesis
can be regarded as vindicated."
[Otto Pächt 1948]

Much more solid evidence

When I discovered the signature of Alexander Bening in the Grimani Breviary, in 1974, did
the words of Otto Pächt above immediately cross my mind. It seems unlikely, that we ever
will get any closer to "solid evidence", than his own name and age painted with large letters
in one of the most splendid works from the Ghent-Bruges School made at the end of his long
active career, lasting fifty years from 1469 to his death in 1519.
The presence of the signature is not only documenting that Sanders Bening was the driving force
behind the collaboration of the group of painters called the Ghent Associates, and himself the master
of some of the large miniatures in the Grimani Breviary.
To scholars who have studied the complex problems of attribution in works from the so-called Ghent-
Bruges School c.1477-1520 is it a significant step forward towards a solution of some of the principal
questions. The identification of works by Sanders Bening has divided scholars in different camps, since
Otto Pächt first questioned his identity in his monograph on The Master of Mary of Burgundy in 1948.
The works of Bening has been grouped under various names since Friedrich Winkler (1924) first
assembled some of the works under the misleading name The Master of Hortulus Animae,
misleading, because most of the works he included in fact was by Sanders Bening, but the
Hortulus Animae itself (Vienna Cod.vind.2706) perhaps mainly was painted by his son Simon,
(a question which now deserves reconsideration).
Hulin de Loo [La Vignette, 1939] was the first scholar to argue that the Hortulus Master was identical
with Sanders Bening. He called it "deuxième manière de Sanders Bening" and focused on
the Hours of Louis Quarré (Ms.Douce 311) as typical for this style. It is in fact
a good phaenotype for the style of Sanders Bening from the late 1480'ies to c.1500-1506
(or inclusive his miniatures in the Mayer van den Bergh Breviary). His earlier works, datable c.1480-
1488, have since been called "The Master of the Older Prayerbook of Maximilian I".
This theory by Hulin de Loo was immediately accepted by Winkler and Paul Wescher, and has been
fully and convincingly implemented by Patrick de Winter (1981) in his excellent study of the Hours
of Isabel la cathólica in Cleveland.
The groups so far created were naturally assembled from works similar to each other in style.
This traditional method has the obvious weakness that the style rarely remains the same
for more than a decade. It seems as no scholar has realized that a lifelong artistic activity would include
several stages of change in style, and that fifty years is a very long period, not least when it takes place
at the transition from late medieval to renaissance art.
With the signature from 1515 must we now add a "troisième manière", covering his last works
where he was influenced by his own son, and hitherto has been mistaken for Simon in works from
c.1506-c.1517 (or until he no longer was able to work before his death in 1519).
So far do I believe that most modern scholars will agree with me. The real problem is created when
we begin to investigate how his earlier work before c.1484 is fusing with part of the core of the
works traditionally attributed to the Master of Mary of Burgundy, to an extent where it no longer is
possible to draw a clear separation. Here did Hulin de Loo make the mistake to include all the works
of the Master and make him identical with Sanders Bening. Otto Pächt rejected the theory,
although he recognized the difficulties of the fusion of the two works:
"That it is often difficult to distinguish between him (the artist of the Quarré Hours, i.e. Sanders Bening)
and the older Master where he copies compositions of the latter - I do not deny." [1948 p.61].
This problem became a major issue when the British Library acquired the second Hastings
Hours in 1968 from the widow of Henry Yates Thompson [Add.Ms.54782].
Today we can say that both were right and wrong, because the concept of the Master of Mary of
Burgundy as a single artist prevented all to reach an acceptable conclusion. It is, however, much to
be regretted, that Otto Pächt never accepted the all too obvious identity of the Master of the
Quarré Hours with Sanders Bening, because his opinion has created a chaotic confusion
in the secondary litterature as well as in scholarly catalogues. A confusion which has prevented a much
desired clarification allowing the wider public to understand and enjoy the beauty and richness of the
mature works of the Ghent Associates Sanders Bening and Gerard Horenbout.
As will be argued elsewhere do I now consider the work previously assembled as the Master of Mary
of Burgundy to be the collective work of a Ghent triumvirate consisting of the painters Joos van
Gent, Hugo van der Goes and the illuminator Sanders Bening, executed from the mid 1460'ies
to the death of the painter Hugo van der Goes in Rookloster in 1482.

Postscript: Paul Durrieu attributed in 1891 a number of works made for Louis of Bruges to the master.
They have since been called "the so-called Alexander Bening". It cannot be excluded that these works
also were made by the atelier of Sanders Bening, and can fill a gap in his works in the mid and later
1480'ies, a period where very few books of hours from his workshop have survived. This would also
justify his membership of the Bruges Guild in 1486. It is undeniable that the later works made for Louis
of Bruges are very close in style to the Hours of Louis Quarré, especially in the modelling of faces.
This problem deserves urgently a closer examination.

The signature was first published 1977 in Danish in the annual report from the Danish Research
Council for the Humanities for 1974-75:
Erik Drigsdahl: Flamske illuminerede håndskrifter. in: HUMANIORA 1974-1975.
København 1977, p.38-40 (with illustrations).
Twenty years should pass before I was given another opportunity to communicate the consequences
of my discovery to a forum of colleagues in a lecture given at the Oxford Seminar in the History
of the Book 1994 in Oxford, with the title: "Decorative Letters in the Borders of the Ghent-Bruges
School". (The appendix below was made as a handout for this occasion).

Appendix: Borders with full-scale letters in the Breviarium Grimani

All textpages in the Grimany Breviary (more than 1500) have a painted outer border with various forms of decoration, including many with decorative letters in geometrical patterns. But only a few borders are dominated by letters in full scale. Below is a complete list (the plus signify a flower or another decorative break. Bold types indicate mysterious sequences). Most of the letters are familiar words from devotional texts, especially numerous quotes from Ave Maria and Salve Regina. Only the signature of Alexander Bening on fol.339v includes a number (for his age). It is in fact the only number in the entire decoration of the Breviary. The border on f.135v is of special interest, because it seems to be the code for a secret cipherwriting of the type used in the 16th century, where the sequence of the letters were rearranged according to a system only known to the recipient of the message. Secret writings were used for diplomatic correspondance as well as for social amusement. Books on calligraphy had a separate chapter on the art of writing in secret.
The border on fol.420 can be deciphered after a simple code (15234) and converted into what very well could be a devise: Ab deo vigor (Strenght from God). Others look almost as clear text, but a person with a name like Joachim Oldenhone is, as far as I know, not known from the circle of the painters in Ghent. Any attempt to rearrange the mystical letters to form recognizable words has not been successful. Even specialists within Danish military intelligence could not make any sense of the more obscure sequences. They did, however, come up with the proposed reading of fol.420, for which I am much obliged to the kindness of the official spokesman of the Headquarters in 1975, who also confirmed that the letters on fol.135v looks like the key to a secret diplomatic code.
[For further reading on the use of ciphered script in the later middle ages is the principal source:
Aloys Meister: Die Geheimschrift im Dienste der päpstlichen Kurie. Quellen und Forschungen der Görres-Gesellschaft, Bd.XI, Paderborn 1906.
Cf. also the curious attempt to decipher some of the decorative letters in the miniatures by:
F. de Mely: Le Breviaire Grimani et les inscriptions de ses miniatures. Revue de l'Art anciens et moderne, XXV, 1909, p.81ff.]

f.339v+A.+BE+NC+71[A. BENINC 71]
f.420+ADEOB+VGORI+[AB DEO VIGOR (15234 15234)]

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©Erik Drigsdahl CHD 2002 (Last update 17/10/2002)