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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Book of Hours: A Medieval Bestseller

Some of the greatest paintings and drawings of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance are not displayed on church and museum walls; instead, they shine forth from the pages of books. Many accompany a devotional text of a type originally chanted in monasteries that was adopted for use by lay people. These were books of hours, functional prayer books made for the nonordained, and the paintings in them were intended to foster reflection and devotion.

Thousands of books of hours made between 1250 and 1700 survive today in libraries and museums, testament to their popularity in their heyday, especially in northern Europe; from the fourteenth to the mid-sixteenth century, more books of hours were made than any other type of book. No two are exactly alike, although they share one group of devotions. That text, a set of prayers in eight sections meant to be said at regular intervals throughout the twenty-four-hour day, is called the Hours of the Virgin, and is the basis for the term book of hours. The practice of praying at multiple times of the day and night was based upon the Divine Office, a liturgy chanted in religious communities that gathered for prayer at Matins (before daybreak), Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext (around noon), None, Vespers, and Compline (after sunset). The Little Office of the Virgin (the formal name for the Hours of the Virgin) was much simplified and thus accessible to a wider public interested in taking on some of the practices of the clergy and those in religious orders. It is a series of prayers and praise for the Virgin Mary as the mother of Jesus, meant to be recited at the eight canonical hours.

In addition to the Hours of the Virgin, books of hours may include five to twenty-five further elements, of which some of the most common are a calendar (22.24.5), a set of gospel lessons (2011.353, Mark, p. 11), hours focusing on the Cross, a group of psalms that express penitence or regret (2015.706, fol. 114v), and prayers to saints called Suffrages (see 54.1.1, fol. 160v and 2015.706, fols. 205v–206r). A patron could choose which and how many supplemental texts to include, and this flexibility, which allowed for a high degree of personalization, contributed to the popularity of the type. As much as books of hours were flexible in the number and variety of prayers to include, they could be even more varied in decoration, ranging from a few painted initials to lavish books with fully illuminated borders and multiple full-page pictures. The buyer could specify how many painted initials to include, and even pay by the initial.

The patrons of early books of hours were all members of the nobility; while that high-end patronage continued, with the growth in cities and the rise of a prosperous bourgeoisie, more ordinary citizens also could own books of their own. Several factors contributed to the demand for books of hours. Increasing literacy among a wider circle of the population—both men and women—expanded the market for books in general. The manufacture of manuscripts shifted from clerical control to professional scribes, artists, and booksellers. Devotion to the Virgin Mary was a key focus of the Christianity of the period. Finally, a shift in devotional practice toward more personal piety created interest in artworks that cultivated individual reflection and engagement, and these customized books were perfect for the task, as shown in this painting of a woman with her book of hours (32.100.47).

The images in books of hours are “painted prayers,” but they also functioned as text markers. In the absence of page numbers, tables of contents, and indices, images provided an easy way for the user to find, say, the beginning of the Suffrages, as illuminations served to divide the sections of the manuscript. Although each book of hours is unique, common patterns of illustration occur across many books, and a few can be noted here.

Most books of hours begin with a calendar, to help the owner keep track of saints’ days and other feasts. Each month gets a page with listed days; important holy days are often written in red (the origin of the term “red letter day”). In luxury books, significant feast days can also appear in gold letters. Decoration for this section is usually limited to marginal images; they may show the relevant sign of the zodiac or an activity associated with that month, or both. The tabular layout and inclusion of these elements goes back to examples in psalters (22.24.5, June) and continues for centuries (54.1.1, June, fol. 7r; 2015.706, May–June, fols. 3v–4r).

The Hours of the Virgin is the heart of any book of hours. Even in the most modest examples, the start of the first hour, Matins, is marked with some decoration, at least a painted initial or border. In more luxurious books, Matins is marked with a painted scene, and in the richest books there is a full-page image for each of the eight hours. The Latin texts are devotions invoking praise for and supplication to God and the Virgin; the illuminations do not illustrate the words, but rather depict key moments in the life of Mary. Matins opens with an illustration of the Annunciation, the moment when the archangel Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear the son of God (54.1.2, fol. 16r54.1.1, fol. 30r; 2015.706, fols. 8v–9r; 58.71a,b2004.564). Manuscripts that have a full set of illuminations usually adhere to an established program of subjects for each of the subsequent hours, such as the Nativity at Prime (54.1.2, fol. 54r), the Annunciation to the Shepherds at Terce (2015.706, fols. 60v–61r), and other scenes familiar from the Christmas story.

The Hours of the Cross follows the textual pattern of the Hours of the Virgin, marking major divisions of the day, each with its own set of prayers, hymns, and antiphons. The exact sequence and number of scenes accorded this section varies in different manuscripts, but all represent the drama leading up to the Crucifixion, known as the Passion. A modest manuscript such as the one from which a single leaf is preserved (39.81.4) has a small Crucifixion painted within the opening initial D that begins the text, whereas the luxurious Belles Heures has three different full pages of the Crucifixion (54.1.1, fols. 142r, 145r, 145v).

The Suffrages of the Saints is the section that perhaps varies most from one book of hours to another, as it can be customized with the patron’s favorite saints or those associated with a particular locality. Again, this textual variety is accompanied by a range of options for decoration, from no images, to a saint’s “portrait” depicted within an initial, to full-page and even multipage treatment. In one leaf (32.100.475d), Saint James the Great is identified especially by the elements in the painted border of the page: the satchel and walking stick of a medieval pilgrim and the scallop shells associated with the shrine of Saint James at Santiago de Compostela, the major pilgrimage site in northwest Spain (compare 54.1.1, fol. 160v, and 2015.706, fols. 205v–206).

In addition to single leaves, the Metropolitan Museum owns three great examples of books of hours: the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux, the Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry, and a diminutive manuscript by Simon Bening (54.1.2; 54.1.1; 2015.706). These fine books from three different centuries are not typical of the majority of existing examples of the type, but rather are masterworks, each a touchstone of its period, each with decoration made by artists renowned in their own time. Even so, their paintings illustrate key stories and themes that can be found in many other works of lesser ambition and demonstrate the way books of hours provided a template for artists over centuries. They wonderfully display the diversity possible within the type.

The Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux was made for a fourteenth-century queen of France, and its diminutive size, gossamer-thin parchment, and delicate painting by Jean Pucelle all contribute to its exquisite femininity. It includes a Life of Saint Louis, the king of France who was great-grandfather of Jeanne d’Evreux (54.1.2, fols. 154v–155r). Each of the Hours of the Virgin is introduced not only with the traditional scenes from Jesus’ infancy, but also a dramatic scene from the final days of his life, known as the Passion, on the facing page (54.1.2, fols. 82v–83r). All are rendered in grisaille, black and white drawings with lightly tinted backgrounds and other areas.

The much larger Belles Heures is one of fifteen books of hours once owned by the acquisitive Duke of Berry, brother of the king, a connoisseur and rapacious collector. Its vibrantly colored and narratively rich paintings were made at the beginning of the fifteenth century by three exceptionally talented artists—teenage prodigies, the Limbourg brothers. In addition to cycles of fully painted pages for the typical devotional sections, it includes seven “picture book” sequences, using full-page paintings to tell the stories of different saints with pathos and even humor (54.1.1, fols. 74v184v). Many of its over 150 extraordinary miniatures exhibit a marked taste for violence and bloodshed (54.1.1, fol. 178v).

The Bening hours is a tiny masterpiece (2015.706, fols. 199v–200r), full of charming detail and emotionally resonant images (2015.706, fols. 210v–211r), made for an unknown sixteenth-century patron. Simon Bening (1975.1.2487) was praised in his lifetime as the greatest Renaissance illuminator, not only in his homeland, but even by Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), the noted Florentine artist and historiographer. The manuscript is so small, it would have been treasured, and could have even been worn like jewelry by the owner.

In contrast to these three masterpieces of manuscript art is a more typical page from a fifteenth-century book of hours (2003.493), its script a more informal cursive, its decoration limited to a half-border and a few colored initials. It could have been owned by a member of the newly developing bourgeoisie. A century later, the invention and adoption of printing made books of hours even more accessible to a wider audience, and a press like that of the Hardouyn family (89.27.4, fols. 5v–6r) made copies by the dozen or more. However numerous and easy to produce, the widespread printed books of hours never attained the appeal of the finest handmade manuscript copies, each one not only a functional prayer book but a unique work of art.