Prayers Saved in Miniature by the Master of Claude de France
Melissa Ostrom

As a tribute to the saint to whom she prayed for a healthy infant, Anne of Brittany named her daughter Claude. In 1514, Anne died, and that same year, Claude, now Duchess of Brittany, married Francis I. She was fifteen. Anxious to secure for the French monarchy a male heir, she supplicated God, not through the pilgrimages her mother had favored but with fervent prayer.

To this end, a manuscript illuminator contrived a marvel of a prayer book, shy three inches in length but with more than a hundred pages. It fitted neatly in the small queen’s hand. The master devised expert compositions of saints and angels in colors as vivid as Claude’s jewel box gems. Everything in God’s creation, from a single leaf to the Virgin Mary, appeared touched with gleaming grace.

The few fortunate enough to examine the book had trouble giving it back. Queen Claude was not exempt from its influence. It made prayer more than a calming balm; its beauty and surprises prompted pleasure, little thrills of private rapture. Indeed, the diminutive object might have been a piece of sorcery, rife with incantations, if it were not so holy.

The book gave the young queen her prayers for dawn and noontime, for breaking her fast and preparing for bed. In the illustration beside one prayer, St. Sebastian bled; by another, a haystack flashed turquoise. Claude wondered about that haystack. Why had the master not colored it yellow? Why awash in the green of ocean blue? Such aberrations enchanted her and made devotedness easy, the stuff of play. The book, tiny as it was, in fact could have been an accessory to a doll, a very elaborate toy.

The queen favored it in this way—a child’s most special thing, very difficult to share—and carried it like a secret. Soon she carried the first of the prayed-for babes, as well. There would be seven, in all. A lucky number. They rounded her belly for the better part of the last nine years of her life.

It is said a princeling inherited the book, parted its pages to gaze intently at the images the former owner had admired and thus search for her in this way—as the left behind are wont to do, as any child might when he misses his mother.

Melissa Ostrom lives in rural western New York, where she serves as a public school curriculum consultant and teaches English at Genesee Community College. Her fiction has appeared in Monkeybicycle, decomP, Lunch Ticket, Cleaver, and elsewhere.