New Altar Cards in the Medieval Tradition

The liturgical tradition of the Church is a powerful thing. Throughout history it has shaped and influenced the culture around it in a process that has been symbiotic, adopting what is good from it on the one hand, but also forming the culture around it on the other. The liturgical tradition continues to inspires moderns as much today as yesterday as revealed most recently in a project undertaken for the Terra Sancta Museum in Jerusalem. The project involved the creation of a new set of altar cards for the traditional Roman liturgy (i.e. the usus antiquior), created by Parisian Oliver Nauda.

Nauda, professionally speaking, works in the insurance industry, but in his down time he spent over 400 hours illuminating this set for the museum. He comments on the history and tradition of this art accordingly:

An excellent teacher as well, Naude first explains that the art of manuscript illumination traditionally brought together several different trades: “…until the 18th century, masters of illumination worked with calligraphers and scribes who transcribed the text, and with gilders who added gold details to the manuscripts. These masters only take part in the decoration of the book. They were true artists. The greatest miniature painters of the late Middle Ages in France, Jean Fouquet and Jean Bourdichon, were first and foremost painters, as was their Italian contemporary, Fra Angelico“. Today, however, he explains, manuscript illuminators no longer work in a “workshop” or together with other artisans. Therefore they must also carry out the calligraphy and gilding themselves before finally getting to the painting, the heart of their profession.

Naude works on special papers that mimic parchment and real parchment—lamb or kidskin that takes weeks to prepare. The first stage of the work is the “ruling” or layout—setting down the lines that will guide the letters’ writing. Then the calligraphy is added. Next is the preliminary drawing, and then the gilding, a step that requires great attention to detail. “It may seem surprising, but the gilded parts are done just after the drawing. Gold leaf cannot be applied after painting, because the metal flakes which are dusted off [during the gilding process] tend to adhere to [wet] paint…”, explains this enthusiast.

But what made the manuscripts of the 5th to 18th centuries famous was the breakthrough use of color—from natural pigments—giving depth and glow to the miniature paintings of the manuscripts. Works so famous that even the French revolutionaries would not dare to destroy them during the numerous looting of abbey libraries, says Olivier.
You can read more about the project here (along with an accompanying video that will show you various closeups of the details). In the meantime, here are some views of his project.

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