Producing books before printing was an expensive exercise. The text was written by hand and often detailed and precise illuminations were added. Whereas nowadays each member of a choir would usually have their own copy of the music and words, this was prohibitive in times past because of cost. So how could a choir sing together without having to learn everything by heart? For rich and prestigious religious foundations and churches, large choir books were produced. However, in Granada cathedral in Spain, behind the altar, not just large books but HUGE choir books are on display! (Apologies for the photographs. Avoiding the reflections on glass was impossible on an iphone!)
Now when HUGE is mentioned, the actual size may not be truly appreciated. These books are actually over three feet high and two feet wide – they really are massive and would need at least two people to carry them! This ‘miniature’ of the Christ with Virgin Mary and St Anne with John the Baptist is at least 1 foot or 30 cms in size, and would have been glorious for the members of the choir to look at while they were singing.
Of course, the lettering had to be pretty large too! The x-height for these was over an inch, 3 cms, high, and written so very precisely, as can be seen here. It is likely that some form of balsa wood pen would have been used to create strokes this wide, but the purity of form, and the sharpness of outline, with dense black ink, are truly inspiring and commendable. The style of writing is called Gothic Rotunda by calligraphers, and was the Italian and Spanish equivalent to the dense Gothic Textura, or Gothic Black Letter, of northern Europe.
Each page shown was an absolute masterpiece and it was truly a privilege to see page after page of these books – and displayed at a height and in a way that they could be seen easily – not always the case with manuscripts!
Although there is no musical time indicated, and the notes didn’t appear to have a value in terms of length such as a crotchet or minim, it is likely that the positions next to one another indicated how long each note should be held for, and, of course, their position on the stave indicated the pitch.
The clarity of the script is shown well here.
The coat of arms in one of the books is certainly for a cardinal, indicated by the hat and number of tassels (although they should be red, but depicted here in grey against the red background), but I have not been able to find out which cardinal this represents.
Many of the pages have elaborate decorated and illuminated borders. This shows wonderful Renaissance decoration of urns, butterflies, and foliage with a scattering of gold dots – the ‘dots’ being at least a quarter of an inch, 5 mm in diameter!
A fully clothed Christ, without his two companions at Calvary, is shown in this image of the crucifixion, with the most glorious surrounding border. It must have been difficult to focus on the singing with this feast for the eyes within sight!
The carved and elaborate stand on which the choir books are displayed is placed just behind the magnificent altar. There is space for one on each of the four sides, but only two were on show this time, allowing for the gilded and decorated back panel to be seen.