The Illuminator: The Master of Cardinal Wolsey

Dr Elizabeth Morrison, Senior Curator of Manuscripts, J. Paul Getty Museum

Published on 11/05/2017

The Master of Cardinal Wolsey, a designation introduced in 2003 during research for the Getty Museum’s ‘Illuminating the Renaissance’ exhibition, is named after the patron of two impressive liturgical books now in Oxford: a gospel-lectionary (Magdalen College, MS. Lat. 223) and an epistle-lectionary (Christ Church, MS. 101). These two manuscripts have usually been attributed to a member of the Horenbout family, most often Gerard Horenbout (c.1465–1541), probably because Wolsey was once thought to have been a patron of his work.1 Scholars have based this supposition more on historical circumstance than on a comparison of the miniatures with Horenbout’s oeuvre.2 The miniatures in fact have little in common with any of the works associated with either Gerard Horenbout or the Master of James IV of Scotland, who has been identified with Horenbout.

The atmospheric landscapes, naturalistic modeling of the figures, and strewn-flower borders link the manuscripts’ miniatures to illumination being produced in Ghent and Bruges at the time, yet they are also permeated by Mannerist elements, seen in the excessively dramatic hand gestures, the agitated brushwork, and the muscular putti in the borders. This dichotomy of styles can be seen most clearly in the Wolsey Master’s two main methods of delineating drapery, often present in the same miniature. In the Saint Andrew miniature of the Christ Church manuscript (fol. 1), the folds of the saint’s cloak are indicated by large, clearly defined areas outlined in shell gold and then filled in with parallel strokes of the same, a version of a conventional Flemish technique. The drapery of the bystanders, by contrast, is full of nervous worrying, conveyed by short, uneven strokes of a darker wash or a contrasting color and occasionally heightened by dots and dashes of black. The two aspects of the Wolsey Master’s style are largely juxtaposed rather than blended, sometimes resulting in awkward contrasts.3

The Wolsey Master’s faces are characterized by small features concentrated toward the center of the face, leaving the foreheads and chins unusually large. The men tend to have double-pronged beards extending from rosebud lips, while the women often have fleshy oval faces, giving them a slightly bovine quality. Their hands frequently have overextended thumbs and crooked pinkies, while the bare feet of the men sometimes have a short big toe that unnaturally crosses over the longer second toe. These figures interact in crowded compositions full of tension, leaning in with imploring faces or gesturing theatrically toward the center of the action.

Although no other manuscripts can be attributed to the Wolsey Master, he had a skilled associate whose work is known in two manuscripts.4 This artist, who illuminated the Arenberg Missal (private collection), was also responsible for four illuminations in a book of hours (Ramsen, Switzerland, Heribert Tenschert collection, catalogue 20, 1987, no. 25). He has previously been identified as the Master of Charles V, but his ties to the Wolsey Master are much closer. Both the Wolsey Master and his associate shared an interest in the complex spatial arrangements and dramatic narratives of Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts, employing a number of his compositions in their work. There are also other compositions shared within the workshop that appear in the illuminations of both. The two artists, moreover, utilized the same facial type, as well as a similar manner of treating drapery by filling in geometric sections of the fabric with parallel lines of gold as discussed above. The work of the associate displays none of the agitated brushwork seen in the illuminations of the Wolsey Master, suggesting that the latter artist was more steeped in Mannerist influences. The Wolsey Master was also much more interested in indicating the musculature beneath the drapery of his figures and in using hand gestures to tell a story or convey emotion. The studied contrast between bright and pastel colors used to such advantage by the Wolsey Master is also absent from the work of his associate, who limited himself to cool colors. Lastly, the work of the associate of the Wolsey Master is in general less agitated and detailed, with softer, sweeter faces and more curvilinear, sweeping drapery.

The known works of these two artists all likely date to the decade 1520–30 and incorporate the traditional Flemish borders. The quotations from Antwerp Mannerist works found in the illuminations of the associate of the Wolsey Master and the Mannerist tendencies of the Wolsey Master himself, however, suggest that the artists may have trained in Antwerp or that their workshop was located in that city. Their compositions, moreover, reveal a familiarity with the panel painting motifs of the Antwerp Mannerists Joos van Cleve (d. 1540–1) and Joachim Patinir (c.1485–1524).


1. In 1528 or 1529 a certain ‘Gerarde’ was paid for working on a patent for Wolsey’s foundation of Cardinal College at Oxford (Erna Auerbach, Tudor Artists (London, 1954), 45). Because Wolsey’s two liturgical books were probably also commissioned for Cardinal College, Pächt (in Flemish Art 1300–1700 (London, 1953–54), nos. 623, 624) linked them as well to the Horenbout family. Campbell and Foister (in ‘Gerard, Lucas, and Susan Horenbout’, Burlington Magazine, 128 (1986), 721), however, have cast serious doubt on the theory that Horenbout ever worked for Wolsey. Back to text

2. The following all attribute the manuscripts to a member of the Horenbout family: H. Paget, ‘Gerard and Lucas Horenbolt in England’, Burlington Magazine, 101 (1959), 400–1; S. M. Hardie, ‘Cardinal Wolsey’s Patronage of the Arts’, Master’s thesis (University of Bristol, 1982), 81; J. J. G. Alexander and E. Temple, Illuminated Manuscripts in Oxford College Libraries, The University Archives, and Taylor Institution (Oxford, 1985), 83; G. Dogaer, Flemish Miniature Painting in the 15th and 16th Centuries (Amsterdam, 1987), 166. Back to text

3. For instance, in one miniature the artist randomly placed a broken Italianate column on a wall (Magdalen College, MS. Lat. 223, fol. 7), and in another the artist took a common pattern such as the Nativity and crowded it with gesticulating angels, creating an unwieldy composition (Christ Church College, MS. 101, fol. 4v). Back to text

4. A manuscript in a private collection (Jörn Günther, Mittelalterliche Handschriften und Miniaturen 3 (Hamburg, 1995), no. 27) contains illumination closely related to the work of the Wolsey Master and his associate. Based on the reproductions, the illuminations do not appear to be by the hand of either artist, but the compositions and certain stylistic elements correspond to aspects of their work. Back to text

Christ Church ms 101, 4v