In 2016, the Walters Art Museum purchased a unique and fascinating Edwardian era manuscript from 1906, known today as the Clothilde Missal (W.934) after its creator Clothilde Coulaux. This exciting acquisition greatly enriches the Walters manuscript collection, which includes only a small handful of manuscripts made by women. Clothilde was a young French woman living in Molsheim, a city in German-occupied Alsace, France, and her lovely manuscript is a testimony to her artistic skill, imagination, and ability to find beauty in an uncertain world.
While the text of her manuscript is traditional and religious, Clothilde illustrates all 174 pages with a rich variety of imagery including not only devotional subjects, but also scenes of everyday life, music, feasting, courtship and child rearing, death, warfare, and regional architecture. Her religious illuminations often draw upon prints by Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein, and other early masters, as well as art she possibly encountered in her environment such as stained glass, sculpture, and liturgical instruments. Much of the other imagery, however, is uniquely her own, and seems to play around the edges of a text to which it does not entirely relate. Personal touches like her cat gazing out the window, or a tiny figure spilling an enormous ink pot, add whimsy and humor to the pages. The book is her canvas, and the text a background and excuse for her art.
Clothilde was born in 1878 to parents from the two most important families of industrialists in France. On her mother’s side, she was descended from Jean-Baptiste Müller, a major textile manufacturer. Her father’s legacy was that of the Coulaux Frères arms and armor company, founded by her great-grandfather Jacques Coulaux. They were famous for supplying arms to French troops starting with Napoleon (there is armor by Coulaux in the Met’s collection).
The world Clothilde was born into was one that had been recently shattered by the Franco-Prussian War. In 1870, her homeland came under German rule, creating a palpable tension and strain between the previously French inhabitants and the new German government. Her grandfather, who kept the Coulaux arms business running under the new regime, was branded a traitor for creating weapons that could be used against those who had previously been their French brethren.
With this background in mind, Clothilde’s whimsical book takes on new meaning. An abundance of architectural detail—images of quaint timber houses, city gates, clock towers, bridges, and castles—evoke the distinctive architecture found in the city of Molsheim and nearby towns that comprised her world. Unusually numerous scenes of wine being served and imbibed seem to refer to the famed vineyards of the Alsace region. Figures in white robes recall the Chartreuse monks who once took refuge in the town walls. A sense of civic and regional pride permeates the book. That pride takes on a more personal note when one recognizes the surprisingly heavy presence of armor, swords, and firearms—imagery that has no place within the prayers of the Mass, and which recalls the glory of the Coulaux family’s contribution to French history. Intricately detailed garments throughout that suggest embroidered fabrics and lace similarly recall the contribution of her mother’s family, the Müllers.
By 1906, Clothilde’s world had entered a downward spiral. The German presence was a source of internal conflict and resentment, and the rosy, dream-like world Clothilde’s medieval figures inhabit was far from her reality. The book seems to conjure her idea of a lost past, an homage to her home and the way things once had been. In striking contrast to these peaceful scenes, she periodically incorporates the jagged and menacing eagles of the Prussians and Habsburgs. Below one Habsburg eagle, Christ seems to shelter a sleeping child. Repeated inscriptions ask for peace, and another asks for protection of those living in an Alsatian house.
Clothilde’s choice to write her manuscript in French while under German rule demonstrates a rebellious loyalty to France. She also included an unusual and daring image: Joan of Arc, who at the time of the manuscript’s creation had not yet been beatified as a saint. The inclusion of Joan of Arc therefore reinforces the nationalistic message—one that speaks quietly of loyalties and her hopes for a better future.
The Clothilde Missal is visually rich, with deep and interesting cultural implications. It captures a sense of the tension and vulnerability felt by those living in an uneasy peace, yet on the brink of war.