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Monumental letter of indulgence, intended for display at a church door in Bavaria

Boniface VIII, Pope (ca 1230-1303). Letter of indulgence for the church "Beati Nicolai" at the monastery of Scheyern, in the diocese of Constance.

St Peter, Rome, 1298.

Manuscript on vellum. A parchment leaf of 46 x 67 cm. 13 lines. With 9 (of 12) wax seals on silk strings (2 loose, 1 in fragments). Stored in cloth box.

A fine and generously written pre-Avignon collective episcopal indulgence in gothic minuscle, with a very large "U" initial ("Universis") in the same ink, decorated with minute blank designs, including a flower bud in the left shaft. The fairly thin initial suggests a scribe not yet fully accustomed to large-scale designs. The ascenders of his normal-sized letters, however, are decoratively and professionally executed with a sweeping arch to the right showing a circle or dot topped with a curved line, reminiscent of a pictographic face shown in profile.

The Scheyern monastery was founded by the Benedictine order in 1119. Well known as a place of pilgrimage, it was an important cultural centre, especially due to its illuminated manuscripts. This letter of indulgence was issued during the papacy of Boniface VIII (1294-1303), best remembered for his feuds with King Philip IV of France and for being placed in the Eighth Circle of Hell by his contemporary, Dante Alighieri. Twelve different bishops grant this 40-day indulgence to all the faithful who visit the Scheyern church at Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and other feast days and contribute to the cost of the decoration.

Collective episcopal indulgences such as this are remarkable for their sheer size and the number of their seals; Seibold (2001) calculated their average size for the pre-Avignon period as 374 x 580 mm (Sammelindulgenzen, p. 55). Indeed, they were always intended for display, to be suspended from poles or even draped above the church door on the relevant days (some examples even preserve the loops for hanging up). Their text was supposed to be legible from a distance, which explains the large spaces between the lines; this also gave the various letters' ascenders and descenders ample room for calligraphic development. The elegant script, as well as the large number of seals, would have been interpreted as an iconic sign not only by the illiterate: hence, scholarship has long regarded such collective indulgences as a type of broadsheet or poster.

17th century summary in German handwriting on the reverse. In excellent condition; especially uncommon with the wax seals preserved intact.