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Book of Hours

Our guest blogger today is Anna-Claire Stinebring, an art history student and recent IMA Scholar in the Department of Painting and Sculpture before 1800.

In the Middle Ages, Books of Hours—private prayer books for daily use—were in high demand. Books of Hours made for wealthy owners were often lavishly decorated and individualized. This is the case with three delicately painted, richly colored, illuminated Books of Hours in the Clowes Fund Collection, two of which are currently on view in the IMA’s galleries:

Master of the Dresden Prayer Book and workshop, “Annunciation with Tree of Jesse,” about 1500. Clowes Fund Collection. TR10965/4.


Unknown artist (Flemish), “Deposition,” about 1410-1420. Clowes Fund Collection. TR10965/2.

Conducting research on a French Book of Hours from the early 15th century (not currently on view), I had the opportunity to hold the small book (less than 8” long x 6” wide) in my hands. Turning the vellum pages slowly, “listening” to the delicate book as I went, I tried to imagine myself in the place of the original owners. Medieval users of Books of Hours were expected to say the entire cycle of the book’s prayers at eight prescribed times a day—hence the name “Book of Hours.”

Unknown artist (French), “Virgin and Child in hortus conclusus,” about 1430. Clowes Fund Collection. TR10965/3.

Painted miniatures such as the Virgin and Child in a Garden above were designed to guide prayer by helping medieval users visualize the sacred stories and figures. Studying this miniature, I marveled at how precise the hand of the unknown artist had been, from the tiny, long-limbed Christ Child—somehow appearing both squirmy and serene—to the rendering of each rose petal and each feather on the angel’s wing. The thicket of rose bushes behind the figures mirrors the swirls of densely packed, stylized ivy that borders the miniature. Roundels with smaller angels playing medieval instruments also decorate the margins. Robed in gold, orange, white, and pink, the angels sport green and red wings.

Equally striking is how beautiful the pages without painted miniatures are. The gothic script of the French and Latin text is itself a work of art. Though the script is even and fluent, the moments when the scribe re-inked the quill are evident.  Red pencil marks, faintly visible below each line of text, would have helped guide the scribe. The text is not without mistakes, either: at one point, a forgotten word is added in scrunched gothic lettering above a line. Notes scribbled in the margins were presumably added by the book’s original owner. Every page includes an ivy border dotted throughout with tiny flowers, leaves, and berries. Peacocks, storks, and little mint-green birds populate the ivy.

The two sumptuous Flemish Books of Hours currently on display in the Clowes Library were likewise made with great skill and created for similarly wealthy individuals. The early 15th century Hours features miniatures of graceful, elongated figures against flat, patterned backgrounds:

Unknown artist (Flemish), “Flagellation,” about 1410-1420. Clowes Fund Collection. TR10965/2.

In contrast, the early 16th century example pairs religious miniatures with fanciful border scenes from contemporary—albeit idealized—courtly life. The full-page decoration demonstrates a new interest in naturalistic detail. The organic designs along the margins are no longer strictly stylized ivy but instead appear like picked flowers pressed into the book.

Master of the Dresden Prayer Book and workshop, “Salvator Mundi,” about 1500. Clowes Fund Collection. TR10965/4.

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