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This is one of the most extensively illustrated Books of Hours in existence. It is a handwritten prayer book containing religious texts and illustrations that were highly personal to the owner. It has over 500 scenes with figures in them and there is ornamentation on every page.
This extraordinarily complex manuscript combines the standard texts and images for Books of Hours with other, less common texts. Large miniatures, mostly depicting events from the lives of Christ and the Virgin, and elaborate initials filled with foliage, mark major text divisions. Smaller miniatures showing Christ and the saints illustrate prayers. Less important texts open with small gold, blue or pink initials. Every page has a border of delicate work with gold leaves and a miniature.
The word ‘illuminated’ means ‘that which throws light on’. The paintings in the Book of Hours were designed to bring religious words and ideas to life.
The Book of hours allowed people to say their prayers anywhere at any time. The portable nature of the book meant they could perform their private devotions in church, at home or while travelling. It contained a calendar of saints’ days, excerpts from the Bible and psalms, as well as other texts. The illuminated drawings guided the reader through the pages as there were no chapters or page numbers.
The Book of hours allowed people to say their prayers anywhere and at any time. The portable nature of he book meant they could perform their private devotions in church, at home, or while travelling. It contained a calendar of saints’ days, excerpts from the Bible and psalms, as well as other texts. The illuminated drawings guided the reader through the pages as there were no chapters or page numbers.
Three main artists – the Giac, Rohan and Madonna Masters – and their assistants, completed the illumination in Angers, France sometime in the period up to 1431. It was made for the learned and powerful Duchess of Anjou, Yolande of Aragon. Over the next three decades, the manuscript belonged to three other women and was constantly adapted to suit their worship pattern needs. The texts and illustrations also reflect their particular aspirations.
Illuminated manuscripts were very much the product of teamwork, they were written on parchment, which is made from goat, sheep or calf skin. The best parchment was vellum (calf skin), which was then soaked in lime solution and left to dry. The process of copying the text was laborious and involved many people; monks, secular scholars, or professional scribes. The artists drew the images (figures, scenes and letters) and applied first the gold leaf and then the colour.
Are there links to current religious practices or a modern equivalent?
Books are now so commonplace that we don’t think about how valuable they must have been before the invention of printing. They were objects to be used but also treasured. Owing to the use of gold leaf and the high cost of the pigments used to make the different colours in the decoration, these books of hours became extremely precious objects and symbols of great wealth and power, even more so than today’s portable belongings such as books, phones or laptops.
The word ‘illuminated’ means ‘that which throws light on’. The paintings in the Book of Hours brought religious words and ideas to life and into the home.
Not all Books of Hours were richly decorated, simple versions were also produced and so the Book of Hours from the 1300s and 1400s reached people who had never before owned a book. For example, there is evidence of servants owning them. It is also worth noting that the first book many people owned was a religious text, in contrast to the case in most parts of the world today. Religion was an incredibly significant part of life in Western Europe at this time and the people producing manuscripts were often monks.
By the end of 1400s, the printing press was beginning to have a huge impact on the availability of books and the types of material that was used to produce them, though often they remained religious in content.
ILLUMINATED brings to life the finest illuminated manuscripts preserved at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
Descriptions and images for many Book of Hours. Examples represent manuscripts made in France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Italy and dating from c. 1400 to c. 1540.
Visit the museum to see the collections.
Christopher de Hamel