The Book of Hours

Research paper for History of Western Art 1

The Book of Hours is part of the collection at the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, acquired in 1985. This particular manuscript dates to the second half of the fifteenth century in France and fits the formula for illumination of that period. Also, being a book of hours, it had a very specific purpose when it was created, in addition to being a fine volume of medieval art.
Manuscript illumination was the painting of small illustrations in a volume of text. Illuminations are historically important painted works because many of them have been preserved inside closed books in libraries instead of in the open where they may be subject to damage. They varied greatly in subject matter, from the nativity to medieval farming techniques, which offers great insight into medieval daily life. Illuminated manuscripts were originally produced in monasteries ‘for the Greater Glory of God’ and included religious texts and commissions from kings. During the thirteenth century, the style of illuminations shifted from an abstract and idealized form to an attempt at realism; the Book of Hours came from this later time period. At this same time, manuscript illumination was expanding beyond the monasteries, and guilds of illuminators were formed, taking commissions for personal use. The most prolific period of manuscript illumination was from 1000 to 1500, at which time the printing press was invented and the art of handwriting books faded.
Considering the date of this work, the Book of Hours was most likely commissioned by a member of the aristocracy, someone who could afford to pay for the months of labor required. During this period, the Dukes of Burgundy were patrons and collectors of illuminated works, and they inherited the territory of Flanders, from which came the renowned Flemish illuminators of the fifteenth century. The date and location of origin of the Book of Hours places it during this surge of Flemish illumination.
A book of hours was a personal prayer book designed for the laity and modeled from the extensive religious duties of the clergy. It provided a canon of daily devotion for secular folk. On a less devout note, a book of hours was also a status symbol, and the lavishness of the work illustrated the wealth of its owner. There were more books of hours than any other type of manuscript because of their popularity. A book of hours usually started with a calendar; important days were often indicated in red ink, hence the phrase “red-letter day.” The contents were most often the same, since the books were intended to lead people through their daily prayers in a uniform manner. The contents contained a calendar, prayers of the Virgin, hours of the Virgin, hours of the Cross and Holy Spirit, penitential psalms, suffrages of the saints, office of the dead and litany. The subjects of the miniatures often followed the same pattern, with a specific scene designated to a specific type of prayer. For example, an illustration of the Annunciation usually accompanied the prayers of Matins.
The Book of Hours is a delicate work of 160 leaves (pages) of vellum- finely prepared sheepskin. The leaves date to 1460-1480 C.E., and there are 33 miniatures- small paintings of an illuminated manuscript- within the book right now, though there should be 34. The miniatures are painted with tempera and gilded in gold leaf- a thin sheet of gold. The blocks of text are written in black ink on twelve ruled lines, with the occasional use of red ink or gold. For instances in which a line of text does not reach the full length of the line, the artist filled the remained space with decorative motifs. Even though this work comes from the France, the text is written in Latin, which is appropriate for sacred works. The miniatures and blocks of text are off-center, shifted toward the top and binding edge of the page. Throughout the text, the artist used larger ornate monograms to accentuate the beginning of new passages. Empty space, particularly around the miniatures, is filled with elaborate scroll designs of flora and fauna themes accented in gold leaf. Unlike the earlier style of illumination, which often had a blank or abstract background, the miniatures in the Book of Hours, as in other later manuscripts, has detailed landscapes in the background with gothic architecture.
The Book of Hours is bound in red morocco- goatskin leather tanned in sumac- and has triple fillets- narrow strips- in gold and floral stamping on the spine. The binding dates to the eighteenth or nineteenth century, quite some time after the illuminations of the leaves. The red leather cover is stamped on the spine with the word “Heures”, which means “hours” in French. It is also stamped with the date “1416”, but that appears to be an inaccurate assessment made when it was bound in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Measuring 4-5/8″ tall, 3-1/8″ wide and 1-1/2″ thick, the small size of the Book of Hours was designed for ease of daily personal use. The Book of Hours has sustained some damage, including three to six missing pages, tears, water damage, and a few flaked, smudged and retouched miniatures.
The Book of Hours begins with a title page that appears to have been added during the binding, which reads: “Horae in laudem beatissime virginis Mariae ad usum Romanum ad longum sine require f. acquix. 1416.” This is a common inscription and translates to: “Hours in praise of the blessed virgin Mary…” The original text begins with the months of the year, listing the saint’s days within each month, and the calendar pages are ornamented with zodiac symbols and decorative border. The Book of Hours also includes excerpts from the four gospels, accompanied by miniatures of St. John, St. Luke and St. Mark; the miniature of St. Matthew is missing. There are sixteen miniatures of other saints and fourteen miniatures of Biblical scenes, coordinating with the common structure of books of hours.
The Book of Hours is a fine example of both form and function. The delicate paintings highlight the sacred texts used in the daily prayer of the aristocrat that commissioned it. The nature of the illuminated manuscript aids in the preservation of this painstaking medieval art.

Bober, Harry. technical analysis of manuscript. Haggerty Museum of Art, Milwaukee.
Book of Hours (Horae B.V.M.). Haggerty Museum of Art, Milwaukee.
Harthan, John. The Book of Hours. New York: Thomas Y Crowell Company, 1977.
Mitchell, Sabrina. Medieval Manuscript Painting. New York: The Viking Press, 1964.

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