Friday, October 30, 2015

The Black Hours of Ghita di Siracusa

The Black Hours of Ghita di Siracusa
Bobby Derie

Then all the men knew that their wives had burned incense unto other gods, and all the women stood by, a great multitude, even all the people that dwelt in the land of Egypt. Then the women said to Jeremiah: '"When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven and poured out offerings to her, did not our husbands know that we were making cakes impressed with her image and pouring out offerings to her?"

 - "The Queen of Heaven's Psalm", The Black Hours of Ghita di Siracusa

The medieval books of hours were objects of daily utilitarian devotion, as well as beauty, and these precious manuscript books represented hundreds of hours of dedication and labor by skilled specialists. The "black book of hours" in particular was a style that developed in Flanders, with seven surviving examples from the latter half of the 15th century—not counting the Black Hours of Ghita di Siracusa, which though made in a very similar style and dated to roughly the same period, yet remains something of an aberration both in its form and its content.

As with the surviving examples of the black hours, the bulk of the Black Hours of Ghita di Siracusa is a relatively substantial work (17 x 12 cm, 121 folios in Latin, with 13 full-page miniatures and 30 smaller miniatures, including illuminated initials), with the characteristic black pages achieved by soaking the vellum in ink, with the illuminations and script inscribed in gold and silver leaf. Unusually, the rear of the book contains five folios of purple vellum inscribed with Arabic script in silver, apparently salvaged from an unknown edition of the Kitāb al-‘Uzzá by Aisha bint Suleiman ibn Qaroon al-Azrd and cut down to fit the dimensions of the rest of the tome. The illuminations bear a significant similarity to the work of the Master of Anthony of Burgundy, and may derive from a pupil or apprentice in his workshop, which helps to date the work to a similar time period as the creation of the other black hours.

While the addition of an Arabic appendix would be odd enough in any Christian codex, it is the content of the Black Hours, it's format and illustrations which have gained the attention of antiquarians, many of whom believe that the work could be a forgery or a later medieval corruption of a genuine black hours. Most books of hours contain fairly prosaic contents, including a calendar of church feasts, psalms, excerpts from the gospels, an office for the dead, and other prayers; the more luxurious editions created for the nobility were often personalized with additional illustrations, particularly of the owner's patron saint, and possibly family prayers, trees, mottoes, and the like. On the surface, the Black Hours appears to follow this general form, but a close examination of the text shows that it differs markedly from all known books of hours.

The first half of the Black Hours consists of verses, most of them culled from the Old Testament of the Bible, though with many curious corruptions and with certain words and phrases highlighted via a rubric (most of the text is in silver, with gold lettering used for the rubric). The content of these verses is almost entirely concerned with idolatry or the references to pagan worship, such as Isaiah 34:14 ("And the wild-cats shall meet with the jackals, And the satyr shall cry to his fellow; Yea, the night-monster shall repose there, And shall find her a place of rest.") Often these texts will be corrupt from the established texts, and these corruptions are often highlighted by the golden rubric. The most extensive of these excerpts is from The Book of Wisdom 14:12-21 (rubric passages are given in italics):

For the beginning of fornication is the devising of idols: and the invention of them is the corruption of life.

For neither were they from the beginning, neither shall they be for ever.

For by the vanity of men they came into the world: and therefore they shall be found to come shortly to an end.

For a mother being afflicted with bitter grief, made to herself the image of her husband who was quickly taken away: and him who then had not died but does eternal lie, they began now to worship as a god, and appointed him rites and sacrifices among his servants.

Then in process of time, wicked custom prevailing, this error was kept as a law, and statues were worshipped by the commandment of tyrants.

And those whom men could not honour in presence, because they dwelt far off, they brought their resemblance from afar, and made an express image of the priest whom they had a mind to honour: that by this their diligence, they might honour as present, him that was absent. But her they ignored.

And to worshipping of these, the singular diligence also of the artificer helped to set forward the ignorant.

For she being willing to please him that employed her, laboured with all her art to make the resemblance in the best manner.

And the multitude, carried away by the beauty of the work, took him now for a god that a little before was but honoured as a priest.

And this was the occasion of deceiving life: for men serving either their affection, or their priests, gave the incommunicable name to stones and wood, and turned their back to she who made them.

From the darkling daughter he will be reborn, in her house the dead priest waits dreaming.

Such remarkable changes are perhaps best understood in the context of the life and beliefs of the most famous owner, and possibly commissioner, of this work. Ghita di Siracusa (b.1573, d.1634) was born to a Sicilian family which could trace its heritage back to the days of the Emirate, and the family had converted more than once between Christian and Muslim. The few records of her life indicate difficulties: at the age of 13 she was cloistered in a convent at Gibilmann, but by 15 was turned out and returned to her family; shortly thereafter she was married to a Flemish merchant, and left for the Spanish Netherlands, arriving in Menin around 1599. Accounts of her life after this move are few, though von Junzt in U. Kulten has occasion, in remarking on the life of the Flemish warlock Ludwig Prinn, mentiona a local cult in Menin which had incorporated into their Bible his "Saracenic Rituals" and the Gospel of Barnabas, and led by "the Crone of Syracuse, who reads out the service from her black book."

Her ownership of the Black Hours and the attribution of her name to that book is largely derived from Junzt's reference, and the coat-of-arms on the cover, which includes a dagger and a pair of eyes on a plate, attributes of Lucy, patron saint of Syracuse. The true provenance of the book is difficult to reconstruct before 1848, when it is recorded (as simple "the black hours") as having been found with some other uncatalogued books at Ghent University. A university student, Joseph Maria Alton of Southminster, investigated the tome and made the connection between von Junzt's comment and Ghita di Siracusa. It was his belief that the Italian woman had purchased or received the black hours as a gift after arriving in Flanders, and that it was an authentic 15th-century illuminated manuscript. His identification has stood, largely unexamined, for the last century and a half.

More recent researches, however, and codicological evidence have revealed a more complicated history. The noted antiquarian Debbie Obry, in her essay "The Black Book of Flanders" (Transactions of the Black Book, ed. Martowitz, 1998), has made the observation that there are some considerable parallels with the Biblical verses, and ancillary materials in the book, with the known contents of the Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum, a catalog of the errors and pagan survivals among the Saxons of northern Gaul, probably copied around 800 CE; in particular the Calendar of Feasts included in the Black Hours appears to correspond closely to those pagan festivals which, found ineradicable by the Church, were re-Christened as the feast days of saints under the interpretatio christiana.

This observation, along with closer examination of the codex itself, has shored academic opinion that the Black Hours could well be a later work than its outward manufacture suggests; a product not of the 15th century inherited by di Siracusa at the dawn of the 17th century, but a 17th century work commissioned by di Siracusa based on a 14th century original. In this scenario, the original black hours, crafted in the same studio and around the same time as the extant black hours, could have been a century or more later found—possibly in a damaged or incomplete state—and the pages re-worked into the current volume. The golden rubric and changes in the verses, psalms, etc. could be later amendments, made by scraping away the silver lettering and adding new letters in gold to change the meaning of the text to suit the purposes of its owner.

The idea is supported by the full-page illustrations, which though done in much the same style as the black hours, have markedly different subjects, being scenes depicting those given in the corrupted passages, and the inclusion of the uncanonical saint Azédarac of Ximes and two "pagan saints" based on pre-Christian gods: the repentant whore St. Aphrodite, and St. Venera. The stylistic differences are rather profound when comparing these three figures with what is believed to be the only unaltered full-page illustration in the Black Hours, a depiction of the popular medieval legendary figure of Pope Joan falling from a horse while giving birth. Many of the "altered" illustrations are marked by the addition of a border in a pseudo-Kufic script, or similar details. For example, in the illustration of Saint Azédarac, the book he is reading from (presumably a bible in the original) now has purple pages, covered with a silver pseudo-Kufic script.

Much research remains to be done, then, to separate the original black hours and the later changes made (presumably by Ghita di Siracusa); even without the amendments, the focus of the original manuscript on the Old Testament, rather than the Gospels, would mark it out as exceptional among the surviving black hours. However, a final mystery remains in the last five folios, the purple vellum which represents a survival of a heretofore unknown edition of the Kitāb al-‘Uzzá. These leaves are certainly much older than the rest of the work—even if the original black hours date from the 1470s, the purple vellum dates from at least the 13th century, if not earlier, and shares some stylistic and technical attributes with the fabled Blue Qur'an. In content, the leaves contain various incantations to Shub-Niggurath, several of which re-appear in von Junzt's U. Kulten, and which may point to the Black Hours (or the occult tradition that it represents) as von Junzt's ultimate source for these works.


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