Sets of choir books were essential equipment for monasteries and cathedrals in medieval Europe. They spelled out the complex sequences of prayers and sung responses that accompanied the mass and canonical hours. The book of music for the mass over the course of the church year is called a gradual. Luxuriously decorated with large initials filled with lively figures, Italian choir books were targets for 19th-century collectors, who cut out their brilliant initials and framed them like drawings.
The image above shows a page from an early 14th-century gradual that features the letter “M.” The initial’s serene and legible style belongs to the Maestro Daddesco, an important Florentine illuminator. Scholars assigned him this name because he was presumed to have been a follower of Bernardo Daddi, although the two artists may have actually influenced each other. Instead of a specific biblical story, the page shows an aspect of the life of the faithful tied to the cycle of the church year. It probably began the text sung as an introduction on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the long penitential season of Lent. The text begins, "Misereris omnium domine (You take pity on all, O lord)," hence the penitents kneeling before Christ.