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This rare binding made for the psalmbook of a member of Henri III of France’s select ‘Compagnie des Confrères de la Mort’ was sold for £30,000 as part of the Wittock collection at Christie’s.

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Tooled in silver, it has a central panel of a skeleton holding an hourglass and scythe on a semé, or overall pattern of teardrops, cornered by skull and cross-bones emblems.

A candelabra and an aspergillum, a sort of brush used to sprinkle holy water, with crossed arrows, are seen top and bottom, while to the sides are repeated motifs of torch and bells, cross and coffin and, at the corners, candlesticks crossed with scythe and spade.

A meeting with the ecclesiastical disciplinarian and future Saint Charles Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan and nephew of Pope Pius IV, only served to heighten the fervently religious views of Henri III. Encouraged by Borromeo and suffused with his zeal for the Counter Reformation, Henri established a number of penitential confraternities in the belief that religious reform, advanced by such groups, was the only way to save France from religious and civil turmoil.

The Confrères de la Mort, however, were an unusually small and rather more select group chosen from amongst the king's personal entourage, limited to 19 members and subject to severe discipline.

They met each Wednesday in the Louvre chapel for prayers and litany, after which, according to the papal nuncio, "for some time the sound of numerous blows to chastised flesh could be heard in the silence and the shadows."

Each member of the confraternity possessed a copy of Le pseaultier de David and L'Office de la Vierge Marie, printed in similar format by Jean Mettayer, the King's printer. They were uniformly bound as here, presumably by the King's binder, Clovis Eve.

Fourteen of what we must assume was a total of 38 such bindings are recorded (though one was destroyed by fire in the Louvre in 1871) but only four remain in private collections. This example was sold for £30,000 at Christie's on July 7 as part of the Michel Wittock collection of Renaissance bindings.