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Book of the Month

December 2006

Book of Hours

  Flanders: c.1460   
Sp Coll MS Euing 3

For our 2006 festive book of the month we feature a small fifteenth century Book of Hours. Like many examples of these private prayer books, this manuscript's scheme of illustration incorporates a beautiful sequence of illuminated miniatures portraying scenes from the Christmas story. Produced in the Netherlands in about 1460, this book is from the Euing Collection.

Folios 48v-49r: The Annunciation (Matins)

Books of Hours (or 'Horae') are compendiums of prayers and devotional texts designed to be used by ordinary people. They were extremely popular from the late thirteenth century until the mid sixteenth century. Often illustrated and finely produced, many were obviously cherished by their original owners and handed down from generation to generation. These manuscripts consequently survive today in large numbers, 'relics' of late medieval culture, as Wieck eloquently describes them.

Folio 58v: The Visitation (Lauds)

The core text of any Book of Hours is the series of prayers, readings and psalms known as 'The Hours of the Virgin'. These prayers were to be recited daily at eight set 'hours' in the day to Mary, the Mother of God, who would act as an intercessor between man and God. Such devotions were a simplified imitation of the Divine Office, said by members of the clergy and monastic orders every day in the quest for salvation.

It was usual for the beginning of each Hour to be illustrated with scenes from the events of Mary's life surrounding the birth and infancy of Christ. Many of these events are recounted in the Gospel of Luke which has the most complete account of this Christmas story. The illustrative cycle begins at the start of the story with the Annunciation and Visitation, placed respectively at the Hours of Lauds and Matins; these Hours were to be prayed together, either during the night or upon rising. The Annunciation is shown above: the angel Gabriel interrupts Mary, who is kneeling in prayer, to bring her the good news that she has been chosen to be the mother of God. Mary has a prayer book open before her (possibly a depiction of her own Book of Hours). The angel's words to her are shown in a scroll emanating from his hand: 'Ave Maria gratia plena Dominus tecum' (Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with you) - the opening of the Hail Mary, the prayer to be recited before embarking upon the Hours. The Visitation is shown to the left. It depicts Mary relaying the miraculous news of her pregnancy to her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth is shown touching Mary's stomach, underlining her response 'blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus'.

While the story of the infancy of Christ is the most commonly found cycle of illustration for the Hours of the Virgin, it is occasionally replaced with scenes from the Passion. Whatever the series used, the illustrations were an essential part of the text: referred to as 'painted prayers' by Wieck, they encouraged contemplation but also acted functionally as bookmarks aiding easy access to the different sections of the text. Their inclusion was undoubtedly a major factor in the long lasting popularity of these books.

Folio 68v Prime: The Nativity (Prime)

Folio 73v: The Annunciation to the Shepherds (Terce)

Following in the sequence of the Hours is Prime, to be prayed at around 6am (the 'first' hour). It is traditionally accompanied by a nativity scene, as shown above: having sought refuge in a humble stable in Bethlehem - there being no room at the inn - Mary and Joseph kneel in devotion before the baby Jesus. The Annunciation by the angel of the Lord of the great tidings of the birth of the Saviour to some shepherds watching their flocks is found next; it is placed before Terce (or the third hour, 9am). The shepherds go on to make the journey to Bethlehem to pay homage to the newly born Christ; in our manuscript, two of them can be seen lurking in the background of the nativity scene. 

Folio 77v: The Adoration of the Magi  (Sext: the sixth hour (noon))


To the left is the illustration accompanying Sext (the sixth hour), to be said at noon. It shows the Adoration of the Magi - that is, the pilgrimage of the three wise men (or kings) who brought the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh after following a star from the East that signified to them the birth of Christ; their guiding star can just about be made out to the left of the stable's roof. Note the very Renaissance red and white coloured hosiery of the king at far left.

Found next in the pictorial Christmas sequence of the Hours of the Virgin is a miniature of Christ's Presentation in the Temple. Anna and Simeon stand to the left and right, prophesising the greatness of the baby. This accompanies the Hour of None (the ninth hour), recited at 3pm.


Folio 81v: The  Presentation in the Temple (None)

Folio 85v: Massacre of the Innocents (Vespers)


The illustration for Vespers (evensong), The Massacre of the Innocents, is shown to the left. This was the slaying of all the children under the age of two in the vicinity of Bethlehem, ordered by King Herod in an attempt to murder the newly born Christ.

Warned in a dream of Herod's evil intentions, Joseph and his family escaped to Egypt before any harm could befall Jesus. This Flight into Egypt is shown to the right. It accompanies Compline, the last set of prayers in the daily cycle of Hours, to be recited before retiring for the night.

Folio 92v: The Flight into Egypt (Compline)

Close up detail of one of the kings
from folio 77v


Although the Hours of the Virgin is central to any Book of Hours, these books typically contain a varied mix of other devotional texts. The complete contents of this manuscript are as follows:

Folios 2r-13v: Calendar.
Folios 14v-20r: Hours of the Holy Cross (prefaced by a full page miniature of the Crucifixion).
Folios 20v-25v: Hours of the Holy Spirit (prefaced by a full page miniature of the Pentecost).
Folios 26v-31v: Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary (prefaced by a full page miniature of the Madonna enthroned).
Folios 32r-36v: Gospel lessons.
Folios 37r-40r: Prayer: Obsecro te.
Folios 40r-42r: Prayer: O intemerata.
Folios 42v-47v: Memorials/Suffrages of prayers to the Saints (including the Holy Trinity, Michael, John the Baptist, Peter and Paul, Andrew, Laurence, Christopher, Katherine and Barbara).
Folios 48V-96v: Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for use of Rome (with eight full page miniatures, as illustrated here)
Folios 97v-113v: Penitential Psalms & Litany (prefaced by a full page miniature of King David in prayer).
Folios 114v-138v: Office of the Dead (prefaced by a full page miniature of monks praying around bier).

There is a huge variation in quality between the many examples of Books of Hours that have survived to this day. Some were luxurious creations, lavishly produced and illustrated by the best artists. Although comprising a basic set of standard texts, the manuscripts could be designed and decorated according to the requirements and budget of the purchaser. While many were individual commissions, there were also many fairly routine manuscripts produced, made in workshops that followed templates and standard patterns to manufacture a large number of very similar books quickly and efficiently. Although it might be unfair to describe these books as being 'churned out', a high level of skill and organisation being required by teams of collaborating scribes and illuminators, this was a pre-print mass production of sorts, made necessary and lucrative by the high market demand for these books.

Close up detail of illuminated initial 'D' from folio 49r

Our manuscript is an example of the output of such a workshop. Pocket sized, it is competently produced but relatively modest. It has thirteen fairly formulaic full page illustrations (or 'miniatures'), seven of which were painted on single leaves ('singletons') that could have been produced separately from the rest of the book and inserted at the relevant sections when the book was assembled. There are a further fourteen smaller pictures found in other sections of the book. The script is a standard set cursiva and the larger initials are embellished with gold, making it truly an 'illuminated' work.


Close up detail of one of the kings from folio 77v

By the early fifteenth century, France dominated as the main producer of Books of Hours. Belgium and the Netherlands were also major centres of production. Our manuscript was probably made in Flanders (the southern Netherlands). Its borders of swirling acanthus style leaves are typical of much Ghent and Bruges decoration, while the contents of the calendar also suggest a Netherlandish origin.

Folio 13r: Beginning of Calendar page for December

Detail from folio 13v: Section of Calendar page for December

As is usual, the manuscript opens with a Calendar. Each month has a listing of saints for certain days, with special feasts being marked out in red ink. To the left of the named saints' days are a series of letters running from a to g: these are the Dominical letters that help to locate the Sundays in each year. The Roman numerals found at the far left are the Golden Numbers: these indicate appearances of new moons and full moons throughout the year. The Dominical letters and Golden numbers were used together to find the date for Easter each year.
The names of the saints cited varies from manuscript to manuscript - those saints particularly special to a book's owner could be inserted, for example, or the patron saints of the place with which the book was associated might be included. According to Thorpe, the content of this calendar points to Ghent rather than Bruges as a possible place for its production. A book's place of production could be different from its place of intended use, however. During the fifteenth century, Books of Hours - including this copy - were increasingly made for general use 'of Rome' so that they could be used (and therefore sold) almost anywhere.

Detail from folio 35r: Mark

The Gospel Lessons are illustrated by a cycle of portraits of the four Evangelists. These small illustrations are inset at the beginning of each reading and, as is conventional, depict the authors in the act of writing their Gospels, each accompanied by their traditional 'symbol'. Shown here is Mark and his (rather melancholy dog-like) lion.

Folio 35r : Gospel lesson (Mark)

Detail from folio 32r: Saint John

Detail from folio 33r: Saint Luke

Detail from folio 34v: Saint Matthew

Saint John is shown with his eagle on Patmos - the island to which he was banished by the Emperor Domitian (51-96) and where he is said to have written the Book of Revelation. Luke is accompanied by an ox and Matthew by an angel. Ten similar small illustrations decorate the 'Obsecro te' prayer and Memorials of the Saints following.

Opening of folios 46v - 47r (Memorials for SS. Katherine and Barbara)

One element of this manuscript that may not be truly conveyed by this presentation on the web is its small size. The illustrations of the Evangelists, for example, each measure c. 24 x 26 mm in reality. The images shown above are blown up to over three times their actual size. In its binding, the manuscript itself measures only 124 x 90 mm. Such a small size made this book eminently portable. This is surely practical in a book that would have had to have been carried about if its original owner were to stop at set intervals in every day to read the Hours at the allotted times. But there are very few signs of wear and tear to indicate that the manuscript was actually used as intended. Indeed, there is some debate as to how Books of Hours actually were utilised by the ordinary people for whom they were made: according to Wieck, evidence suggests that, in fact, most people did not stop to pray seven times during the day, but rather used their books at home during the morning for private prayer or in Church at Mass.

A manuscript note on a flyleaf records that this manuscript was purchased on 26 May 1853 by William Euing (1788-1874), a Glasgow insurance broker. He bequeathed his collections - including a substantial number of Bibles and other religious texts - to Glasgow University in 1874.

We do not know anything of its provenance before this time. As has been mentioned, it was probably not a commissioned work, but rather the product of a workshop aimed at a member of the aspiring middle classes. Still an expensive object to own, it would probably have been as much a source of pride as of devotion. As such, it has been carefully preserved through the generations so that it remains an object of beauty and reveration some five hundred years after its creation.

Close up detail of one of the shepherds from 68v


The following were useful in compiling this article:

Christopher de Hamel A history of illuminated manuscripts (2nd ed.) London: 1994 Level 11 Bibliog B160 1994 (especially chapter 6, 'Books for everyone').

N.R. Ker Medieval manuscripts in British libraries (Vol. 2) Oxford: 1969 Level 11 Bibliog D92 1969-K and Sp Coll Ref.

Nigel Thorp The Glory of the Page London: 1987 Sp Coll Hunterian Add. f59 and Sp Coll Ref.

Roger S. Wieck Painted prayers: the Book of Hours in Medieval and Renaissance art New York: 1997.

Roger S. Wieck Time Sanctified: the Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life With essays by Lawrence R. Poos, Virginia Reinburg & John Plummer New York: George Braziller, 1988.


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Julie Gardham December 2006