The manuscripts and codices which survive from the late 15th century are often large and lavish affairs and usually conform to certain norms in terms of shape. But this curious and unusual little gem, which takes its name ‘Codex Rotundus’ from its unique shape, measures just over 9 centimeters across and is circular. Its 266 pages are bound along a spine just 3cm long, so small that three clasps are needed to help keep it closed. Thought to have been rebound in the 17th century, the original clasps which help hold the tiny codex together, were reused. As so many of the manuscripts from this period, it is a devotional text -a lavishly illuminated Book of Hours in Latin and French.
Remnants of a coat of arms, which a subsequent owner appears seems to have tried to obliterate, in the first initial ‘D’ suggests that it was created for Adolf of Cleves and Mark (1425-92). Adolf was a wealthy and well-connected aristocrat, the nephew of Philip the Good and cousin to Charles the Bold, successive Dukes of Burgundy. The clasps are monogrammed and these too link the codex to Adolf: the same stylised decorations appear in another Book of Hours known to have been his and now held by the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. Despite the codex’s royal and courtly associations, its size and portability suggest that it was intended for private devotional use, for the owner to carry with him to church or on long journeys away from home.
The shape is certainly a bibliographic gimmick – the Cambridge History of the Book refers to it as ‘bizarre’ – but it is also thought to suggest the perfection of circle and sphere and thus symbolise the (Christian) world.
The illuminations – 3 full-page miniatures and some 30 decorated initials – show scenes from the Bible, episodes in the life of Christ and pictures of saints. The artist is not identified, known only to history as ‘the painter of the codex rotundus’ but according to the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at the University of Ohio (which acquired an exquisite facsimile copy a few years ago) certain stylistic traits indicate that it was made around 1480 in a Bruges workshop often associated with the books of the Burgundian court.
The original Codex Rotundus is held by the Dombibliothek Hildesheim (Hs728) in Germany.
All the images which appear here are of a facsimile of the original Codex Rotundus.