Manuscript Illumination

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Ragnhild Bø

A book of hours is often referred to as the ‘medieval bestseller’, having been classified as such by the French historian Delaissé in 1927 (Harthan 1977:9). It is a prayer book which follows the form of the Psalter and the function of a Breviary. The first genuine manuscript made as a book of hours, is the so called de Brailes Hours made in Oxford by William de Brailes for a woman named Susanna c.1240 (Donovan 1991). A standard compiled edition contains prayers like the Hours of the Virgin, the Hours of the Holy Cross, the Hours of the Holy Spirit, Penitential Psalms, the Office of the Dead, Suffrages and Marian prayers like 'Obsecro te' and 'O intemerata'. In order to recognize a manuscript as a book of hours, however, only the Hours of the Virgin is required (Smith 2006:90).

The Annunciation (ms LA 237, f.25v)
These prayers were most commissioned and produced texts between the mid-thirteenth and the mid-sixteenth century, and were to be read at the canonical hours throughout the day: Matins and Lauds (daybreak), Prime (6.00am), Terce (9.00am), Sext (noon), None (3.00pm), Vespers (sunset) and Compline (evening). The popularity was due to their spiritual content, and to their sort of ‘democratic nature’. As Roger S. Wieck has noted “In an age when rood screens blocked all but the most fleeting views of the Mass, when squints were pierced into walls in effort to offer some glimpse of the elevated Eucharist, when, in other words, the laity’s access to God was very much controlled and limited by other than themselves, books of hours bestowed direct, democratic, and potentially uninterrupted access to God, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints” (Wieck 2001:476). Most books of hours are decorated – some with a handful, some with thousands, some with modest, some with masterly executed miniatures. There is still a certain disagreement among scholars on the role played by the church on the iconographic content on these miniatures. For women, the number of surviving books of hours with female owner portraits or with prayers written in the feminine form, suggest that prayer books were their primary source to the written word. As with the iconographical content, scholars still dispute the women’s actual influence on the making of their own books, yet the gender research carried out during the last three decades have repressed earlier notions of medieval women being illiterate, using their books of hours just as a show off.
This project aims to contribute to the research on French late Gothic manuscripts by offering a detailed analysis of the iconography and a first time publication of the illuminations in a relatively unknown, but artistically significant manuscript, i.e. the Lamoignon Hours (Lisbon, Gulbenkian, ms LA 237). It was commissioned for Jeanne of France (1391-1432), daughter of the Valois king Charles VI and Isabeau of Bavaria, probably around 1415. Her book of hours is decorated with 30 large miniatures, some 170 smaller ones, and 74 historiated initials. The motives include various scenes from the Life of the Virgin, the Passion of Christ, the Lives of the Evangelists, the Life of St. Jerome, a calendar cycle with the Labours of the Year and three owner portraits.
St John the Evangelist (ms LA 237, f.13v)

An examination of the iconography – i.e. an analytic study of the symbolic meaning of objects, persons and events depicted – will throw light upon how this book of hours was meant to be a tool for devotion and contemplative exercise for its (female) reader. Further, my project aims to offer a discussion on the iconography found in books of hours made by the Bedford Master and his workshop, comparing the Lamoignon Hours with two other horae, the Bedford Hours (London, British Library, ms Add 18850) and the Vienna Hours (Vienna, Österreichisches Nationalbibliothek, ms 1855), made for Jeanne’s brothers Louis, Duke of Guyenne, and Charles, the later Charles VII, respectively. A comparison between the three can tell how the Bedford Master and his workshop responded to the difference in gender, personal wishes and devotional needs of these three royal descendants, using recent multidisciplinary studies paired with detailed examinations of the iconography as its tool. As it has been pointed out in recent scholarship, the complex history of many books of hours is more likely to be elucidated by previously unconsidered visual evidence within the manuscripts themselves, than by the discovery of new documents. This is particularly true for books of hours associated with a female ownership, since the documentary evidence of most medieval women’s lives are scarce, at best, or simply not existing (Smith 2003:11).

The Birth of Christ (ms LA 237, f.60v)
This project will offer a general outline on the context of the manuscript, including a short introduction on its first owner, Jeanne of France, i.e. to characterise the courtly atmosphere in which the manuscript was to be used, and to trace the biographical and historical circumstances that led to its appearance; a section on books of hours, i.e. to define them as decorative and devotional artefacts, including some special attention on female patrons and users, and their relation with books in the Middle Ages and; as well as a presentation the oeuvre of the Bedford Master and his workshop, to distinguish the style and content of their (surviving) production (Reynolds 2006). When turning to the Lamoignon Hours itself, the iconography of the 30 full-page picture cycles, the many smaller roundels with a narrative continuum and the figurative drolleries will be analysed and discussed, to see how the images “act in service of text and patron” (van Buren 1975: 305). It is further believed that a comparison between the Lamoignon Hours and the two related manuscripts in Vienna and London, will offer plausible answers to questions like 1) does the gendered difference that is evident e.g. in the three horae’s versions of the Virgin of Mercy, persist throughout the iconography in Jeanne’s book; and 2) does the Marian iconography and the accompanying prayers found in her book only testify to a random change in content, or were they included with specific address to the young princess.

Jeanne de France at Prayer (ms LA 237, f.202v)

Selected bibliography:

van Buren, Anne. “The Master of Mary of Burgundy and his colleagues: the state of research and questions of method”, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 38, 1975: 286-309.

Donovan, Claire. The De Brailes Hours: Shaping the Book of Hours in Thirteenth-Century Oxford. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Harthan, John P. Books of Hours and Their Owners, London: Thames & Hudson, 1977.

Reynolds, Catherine. “The Workshop of the Master of the duke of Bedford: Definitions and Identities” in Croenen, G. and P. Ainsworth, Patrons, Authors and Workshops. Books and Bookproduction in Paris around 1400. Louvain, Paris and Dudley, MA:  

Smith, Kathryn A. Art, Identity and Devotion in Fourteenth Century England. Three Women and their Books of Hours, London and Toronto: The British Library and The University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Smith, Kathryn A. “Books of Hours” in Stuard, S.M., T. Izbicki and M. Schaus (eds.), Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopaedia, New York and London: Routledge, 2006: 89-92.

Wieck, Roger. “Book of Hours” in Heffernan, T. J. and E. A. Matter (eds.), The Liturgy of the Medieval Church, Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001: 473-513.