Alexander Bening and the Grimany Breviary (Ghent 1515)
An Introduction by Erik Drigsdahl

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Simon Bening standing to the left of his father Sanders Bening, as two of the spectators witnessing the Queen of Sheeba before King Solomon (enlarged detail of fol.75v). The family likeness between the two is unmistakable, and when Simon later portrayed himself in 1558, at the age of 75, as "Alexandri filius" did he still carry the memory of his father and of this particular miniature.
The 71 year old Sanders Bening was fascinated by the process of aging, and his wrinkled face and realistic turtleneck is one of the most astonishing mercylessly honest self-portraits in Netherlandish art before Rembrandt. Unlike his own likeness painted in the background on fol.192 does he not look directly at us, as his 32 year old son Simon does, but is standing adorned with the regalia of success and high prestige, as in introvert resignation before his destiny, lost in deep contemplation of his memories of a long and fruitful career approaching its end after more than 45 years of activity in close collaboration with all the best painters of his time. Dressed as he probably is, as dean of the Guild of St.Luc, is he a Nestor, the very personification of an epoch later to become known as the Ghent-Bruges School of book illumination.

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

Short Introduction
With the signature of Sanders Bening in mind is the first question of course where we find his share of the illumination?
The illumination of the Grimany Breviary was made by a number of artists where the major part was divided between two renown workshops in Ghent. The commission was supervised by Sanders Bening, who took his part, with assistance of his son Simon Bening. Another major part was given to the Horenbout family. In so far is it the culmination of a long history of collaboration between the two leading families in Ghent. They had been working closely together, at the least since Gerard Horenbout became a master in Ghent in 1487.
Horenbout painted the entire decoration of the famous calendar, as well as a number of large miniatures where his style is easily recognized, including the Deathbed on fol.449v (Office of the Dead), which I mention here on purpose, because Friedrich Winkler unfortunately reproduced it in 1925, together with other miniatures by Horenbout, as supposed works of Simon Bening(?), thus causing a general confusion (Flämische Buchmalerei, Tafeln 84, 87-88, reprinted 1978 without corrections).

The loose text-gatherings were divided almost equally between the two houses, apparently without any other plan but to provide continous variety throughout the book.
All full-page miniatures (on verso-sides) were painted on single sheets of vellum, where the frame around the miniatures rarely correspond to the miniature and border around the facing text. We can thus deduce that the single sheets not were painted in the same room as the facing text. When they finally were brought together was it necessary to repaint the frames. The Deathbed mentioned above is an example of how flexible the work was divided. While Horenbout painted the loose miniature was the corresponding textpart in the Bening house, where Sanders painted the Funeral Office on f.450, after one of his favorite old model-sheets. When Horenbout came around with his miniature, did they, probably much to their disappointment, find out that they had failed to agree on the measures. Gerard Horenbout's frame was short of 8mm on the top!
As this also is the case with miniatures by Simon Bening can we deduce that Simon (then 32) no longer was living at home in his father's house. He did, however, go over all the large miniatures from the Bening house, to give them a final retouche in the form of a heavy strong shading characteristic of his mature style. The retouche should not be regarded as a correction of the works by his old father, but more as an adjustment to align his own strong outlines with the paler and more moderate contrast in the miniatures of Sanders Bening. The nature of the retouch is difficult to see in the otherwise excellent reproductions published by Thames & Hudson (1972), but more clearly seen in front of the original, where the different texture of the colours become obvious, and are seen as additions to the picture. [I am greatly indebted to the Italian Ministry of Culture for the extraordinary generous permission to study the Breviary in the Bibliotheca Marciana in 1975].
    The following miniatures in the Grimani Breviary are probable works of Sanders Bening, many retouched by Simon in various parts:
  1. f.15 Jacob sends Joseph in search of his brothers, border with Joseph's life (iconography as in The Joseph Sequence, Friedländer IV, 1969, Plate 70, Cat.79 B-C)
  2. f.44 Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl, border with dancing peasents in an annunciation scene
  3. f.52 Miracle of St. John the Evangelist (with retouche by Simon Bening, see below)
  4. f.67v The Circumcision (drawing derived from the Presentation in the Temple, Berlin 78B12 f.151, miniature retouched by Simon)
  5. f.75 The Queen of Sheba before Solomon (typological scenes to the facing Epiphany by Gerard David)
  6. f.191v The Ascension
  7. f.192 Joseph with his brothers kneeling before him (tiles in the floor with initials MS)
  8. f.219v Christ washing the feet of his disciples and the Last Supper (iconography with numerous antecedants, like BL f.265v)
  9. f.289v David anointed by Samuel (Psalterium)
  10. f.401 The twelve Apostles (Commune Sanctorum)
  11. f.469 Souls of the blessed brought to Heaven (border with Fall of the Damned) (iconography with numerous antecedants)
  12. f.593v Birth of St. John the Baptist. Background: Annunciation to Zacharias after a reversed drawing by Hugo van der Goes (Berlin 78B13 No.17).
  13. f.610v The Visitation (iconography with numerous antecedants)
  14. f.628 The Woman taken in adultery (iconography with numerous antecedants)
  15. f.660v The Transfiguration (iconography with numerous antecedants)
  16. f.683v Death of the Virgin (Derived by Hugo van der Goes painting. The complexion of the face of Mary is connecting it to the questionable group mentioned below with possible intervention by Simon Bening)
  17. f.684 Coronation of the Virgin
  18. f.751v St. Jerome
  19. f.781v Small miniature of St.Luke painting (with the famous Dragonfly in the border)
  20. Various other minor miniatures in the Sanctorale, where the gatherings were equally divided between Horenbout and Bening.
  21. f.824v St. Katherine of Alexandria disputing (scene repeated in the facing border)
  22. f.825 Martyrdom of St. Katherine

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©Erik Drigsdahl CHD 2002 (Last update 28/10/2002)