An Extraordinary Catalogue from Phillip J. Pirages
By Michael Stillman
While small catalogues are occasionally special, one thing we have found in years of reviewing them is that those over half an inch thick are usually spectacular. This month we have one of those magnificent thick catalogues, simply Catalogue 55 from Phillip J. Pirages Fine Books and Manuscripts. This is a compilation of 642 highly collectible items, filled with pages and pages of pictures of what is offered. The presentation is as brilliant as the works themselves. Descriptions are extraordinarily detailed, both concerning the content and context of the works, and the condition of the individual copies.
The type of material varies widely, but Pirages has broken it down into a few groupings. There are complete (or nearly so) illuminated manuscripts, illuminated leaves, manuscript leaves, printed leaves and leaf books, books printed before 1800, and books printed in the 19th and 20th centuries. With 642 titles from which to choose, we can mention only a few, but here are some samples of what you will find. For more details, or to obtain a copy of this fine catalogue, you should contact the bookseller.
We will start at the top. Item 1 is a manuscript bible from southern France, complete except for one leaf, created around the year 1240. Pirages notes that while the script is in French style, the decoration is Italianate. The bible was evidently the work of two scribes, who did not always coordinate their work perfectly. At least one made a few mistakes, most glaringly, leaving out the "r" in In Principio at the beginning of Genesis. This order needed a better proofreader. The manuscript contains numerous annotations which provide insight into 13th century theological issues. However, the annotations have been scraped from several pages, which leads to the question, why? Pirages theorizes it may have had to do with the "Cathar heresy." This was a popular movement in southern France at the time. Catharism believed in a dualistic world, with the material one being inherently evil. This led to numerous serious theological disputes with ecclesiastical authority. While the Church first attempted gentle persuasion, by the 13th century, it had resorted to crusades, brutal suppression, and the killing of thousands of followers. Catharism was on the run at the time of this manuscript, but still present. Whether this explains the expunging of annotations is not clear, but evidently some of the annotations displeased later readers. Other annotations indicate the manuscript was held by the Capuchin convent in Montpellier in the 17th century, and eventually in the collection of the presiding judge at the Nuremburg trials in the 20th. Priced at $69,000.
Item 9 is an illuminated manuscript leaf from the Book of Esther. The text begins with an image for its initial letter which shows Mordecai, Queen Esther, and King Ahasuerus on three floors. According to the Book of Esther, the King's evil prime minister, Haman, intended to hang Esther's adoptive father Mordecai for failing to bow down to him. For good measure, Haman also planned to kill all of the Jews in Persia, this being Mordecai's tribe. He did not understand Queen Esther was also one of the Jews (nor was the King aware of this). Ahaseurus was set to go along with the plot, as displayed in this image. On the bottom floor is Mordecai, noose around his neck, on the top floor Ahaseurus, holding the rope and ready to pull. In between is Esther, maintaining sufficient slack in the rope to prevent Mordecai from hanging. By the end of the book, Esther informs the King of her and Mordecai's ethnicity, along with reminding him of how Mordecai had once saved his life, and Ahaseurus instead uses the gallows to hang the evil Haman. $6,500.