November 7, 2011

Privy Council Meeting

This woodblock print, dated October 1888, depicts a meeting of the Japanese Privy Council, which was established in 1888 for the purpose of deliberating drafts of a constitution. The idea of writing a constitution had been discussed, both within and outside the government, from the very outset of the Meiji era (i.e., from 1868), which returned Japan to imperial government after the Tokugawa shogunate. However, the detailed work on a draft constitution that led directly to the Meiji constitution did not begin in earnest until around 1886 (Meiji 19). Itō Hirobumi (1841–1909), Japan’s first prime minister, supervised the work. A clean copy of the constitution reflecting the debate on each provision was presented to the Privy Council by Itō in March 1889 (Meiji 21) and it became law the following year. The print is by Yōshu Chikanobu (1838–1912) who, along with other artists in the 1870s and 1880s, began to produce kaika-e (prints that documented Japan's modernization and Westernization) as well as prints of more conventional subjects.

Poster from the First Postwar General Election

The first general election in Japan after World War II was held on April 10, 1946, in Showa 21 (Showa years number the regnal years of Emperor Hirohito, starting in 1926). This was also the first election to be carried out after the electoral law reforms of December 17, 1945 (Showa 20), which granted all men and women aged 20 years and above the right to vote. This election poster includes text by the female author Ikuta Hanayo (1888–1970) and calls upon women to cast their votes. The voters elected 39 women to the Diet, the first female legislators in Japanese history.

November 8, 2011

The Drogo Sacramentary

The sacramentary was a liturgical book used for prayer during the High Middle Ages, containing the prayers, prefaces, and canons for mass. Drogo (801–55), bishop of Metz, son of Charlemagne, and famous patron of his era, had a gorgeous copy of the sacramentary made in Metz around 845–55. The manuscript, which is on vellum, is the work of several artists employed by the imperial court. It is written in a clear Latin script and includes some of the most beautiful fleurons ever produced in Metz. The illumination is made of illustrated initial letters, decorative arcatures, and gilded letters, and is distinguished both by the finesse and dynamism of the characters and by the delicacy of its emerald green, sky blue, violet, and purple colors and its pronounced taste for plant-based ornamentation. The iconography of the illumination is centered on the life of Christ, and corresponds to that of the binding's ivory plates. Executed in the same era and by the same workshop as the manuscript, both the front and back plates are divided into nine platelets sculpted in relief. The platelets illustrate the main sacraments (upper plate) and scenes from the church liturgy (lower plate). The sacramentary would have been used in Metz's Carolingian cathedral, and constitutes a precious record of the liturgical practices of the time and the accoutrements used in the liturgy. In the 16th century, the plates were put back on the manuscript over green-velvet covered boards and embedded in a silver lining adorned with acanthus leaves.

Spirit of the Laws

Published in 1748, condemned by the Catholic Church in 1751, Montesquieu's masterpiece, De l'Esprit des lois (Spirit of the laws) marked a turning point in the European Age of Enlightenment. It announced the new critical understanding of acquired knowledge that was also reflected in Buffon's Histoire naturelle (Natural history) and Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie (Encyclopedia). The depth of the analysis and the skill of presentation resulted in Montesquieu’s work having considerable influence on political thought in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is divided into 31 books subdivided into short chapters, which are written in a clean and incisive style, with analytical passages interspersed with anecdotes and historical facts. Montesquieu replaced the traditional, purely political classification of laws with a more concrete conception, which he based on a typology of political orders (despotic, monarchical, and republican). He associated the principles of governance and the constitutions of countries with the physical, moral, economic, and geographic causes that influenced the creation and evolution of laws. Presented here is an incomplete manuscript of the penultimate version of the text prior to publication, from the hand of several secretaries, with notes and passages signed by Montesquieu. The division of chapters differs significantly from that in the original publication. The manuscript also includes several pages from a dozen different writings by Montesquieu, produced by the secretaries that he used during his frequent periods of near-total blindness.

Reynard Cycle

Roman de Renart (Reynard cycle) is the most famous set of animal stories produced in the Middle Ages. It is not one story but a collection of 26 chapters composed by several clerks and minstrels around the end of the 12th century and the beginning of the 13th. It was inspired by the Fables of the ancient Greek writer, Aesop, and by a mock epic poem in Latin by Nivardus, written in Ghent in around 1150, called Ysengrimus. Under the guise of the endless war between Reynard the Fox and Ysengrimus the Wolf, the work illustrates the animal nature of man and offers a critique of the errant ways of the feudal world. This highly illustrated manuscript, created in the first half of the 14th century, is a rare manuscript copy of the cycle. Naive-style miniatures celebrate the exploits of the fox, most cunning of animals. They also illustrate such stories as the funeral of Lady Coppée, the chicken (f. 4r); Reynard’s departure for the Crusades (f. 12v); the attack on the castle of Maupertuis, the hero’s lair, by Tibert the Cat, Noble the Lion, Tardif the Snail, and Ysengrimus the Wolf while Reynard and his children have a carefree dinner (f. 14v); and the rape of Hersent, the wife of Ysengrimus (f. 16r).


Charlemagne (742–814) was crowned emperor of the Romans in 800. Yet coins bearing his imperial title are so rare that it is believed that he had them minted only after 812, when he received recognition as emperor of the West by the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. This denier silver coin is typical of those produced during the Carolingian Renaissance, a period in which art, culture, and religion flourished under the influence of Charlemagne. Such coins include a classical imperial bust and a reverse side often inspired by Roman coinage: a city gate (at Arles, Rouen, or Trier), a ship (at Quentovic or Dorestad), minting tools (at Melle), or a temple such as here. The coins were marked with letters under the bust indicating where they were made. The M on this coin stands for Mainz; those marked with C were made in Cologne, F in Frankfurt, and V in Worms. Specimens without letters are attributable to Aix-la-Chapelle. This coin contains what appears to be an actual portrait of Charlemagne, making it comparable in importance to the literary portrait by Einhard in his biography of Charlemagne written shortly after the emperor’s death or to the ninth-century equestrian statue of Charlemagne now in the Louvre Museum.