The Book of Hours

The Nasher Museum’s Book of Hours (c.1490) displays the luminous colors and rich details for which illustrated books of this period are noted. It contains 156 pages, including a calendar and thirteen full-page paintings, or miniatures, depicting religious scenes and vignettes associated with contemporary life. This program will give you general information on Books of Hours, and explore in detail the fully illustrated pages of the Nasher’s French example.*


*The thirteen illustrated pages are shown in the order they appear in the Book of Hours. Each illustrated page is displayed with its actual facing page. The pages in between each image have been omitted.

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What is a Book of Hours?

A Book of Hours was a private book containing daily prayers for Christian devotion. It was used mainly by ordinary people, rather than by priests or nuns. The content was adapted from the Psalter and the Breviary, religious volumes that contained psalms and liturgical texts. Its great popularity reflected people’s concern for a more direct and intimate relationship with the Virgin Mary and Christ, without the mediation of the clergy. By the fourteenth century, illustrated Books of Hours were commissioned largely by nobles and aristocrats and produced by lay workshops headed by celebrated painters, or illuminators. By the fifteenth century, bookdealers and these workshops supplied the growing demand of affluent townspeople. Often commissioned or purchased as wedding gifts, these books were usually passed down from parent to child. Although the original owners and artists are often unknown, the text and illustrations, or illuminations, can provide clues about their lives and religious practices. The miniatures and marginalia, or drawings in the margins, also provide a window into certain aspects of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.


How was a Book of Hours Used?

A Book of Hours contained basic features such as a calendar, Gospel lessons, Hours of the Virgin, Penitential Psalms, and Suffrages of Saints. The manuscript could be customized or expanded to suit an owner’s needs and budget. A Book of Hours was more than a collection of prayers and devotional images. It provided its owner with a luxury object to express social status, especially when its lavish color and gilding were shown in public at church services. The illustrations delighted the eye, evoked emotion, and humorous marginalia entertained. The Book of Hours, often the first or only book owned by a family, also served as a reader for mothers to educate their daughters.


How was a Book of Hours Made?

By the late Middle Ages, book production had passed from the sphere of monasteries to commercial bookshops. The book dealer often took the commission and subcontracted the work to professional scribes and illuminators, who were paid by the job, not by the hour. Like most medieval manuscripts, Books of Hours were made from parchment or vellum. Parchment is the specially prepared skin of sheep or cows (and occasionally goat, pig, deer, hare, or squirrel). Vellum is parchment made specifically from calf skin. Parchment sheets were ruled with lines, at first with a dry tool, then later in graphite or colored inks. Patterns and imagery were frequently copied by illuminators. Prickings, or tiny holes punched through several sheets, would speed up this process by exactly duplicating a pattern from page to page. Can you find evidence of rulings and prickings in this Book of Hours?


Manuscripts and Books of Hours were always made by hand. The production sequence involved blocking out spaces for text and illustrations, then gradually filling them in. Each page was folded and decorated while it was still loose, or unbound. The folded pages were then inserted one inside the other and sewn together. Each page had two sides: the recto (front), and verso (back). Medieval book bindings were wooden boards covered with embossed or painted leather or fabric. These materials are so fragile that most have perished or been replaced by subsequent bindings. The Nasher’s Book of Hours was rebound in the late nineteenth century with a textile cover in medieval fashion.


When were Books of Hours Made?

Manuscripts containing the Hours of the Virgin (daily prayers and hymns) occur as early as the eleventh century. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Hours of the Virgin were combined with selected Psalms in a Psalter-Hours used by lay people. By the end of the thirteenth century, the manuscript had become so long that the Psalter was separated out. Other texts, such as a calendar, Penitential Psalms, and a Litany of Saints, were added and called a Book of Hours. It remained in use for nearly 250 years.


Where were Books of Hours Made?

France led the production of Books of Hours. In the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Paris and northern France were prominent centers of production due in part to their numerous cathedral schools and royal court workshops. Jean Pucelle (active in Paris c.1319-1350) was one of the leading artists patronized by the royal family in the first half of the fourteenth century, and worked in a High Gothic style. The early fifteenth-century explosion of artistic output was the result of patronage on a grand scale by French and Burgundian nobility, especially by Jean, Duke of Berry (1340-1416). Artists like the Limbourg brothers produced lavish and exquisite works that introduced new pictorial elements into illuminations. During the second half of the fifteenth century, the demand for Books of Hours again soared, with artists such as Henri de Vulcop, Jean Colombe, and Jean Fourquet adding volume and pictorial depth into their work. The end of the fifteenth century ushered in the Renaissance in France, and the leading artists working for the court included Jean Bourdichon of Tours (c.1457-c.1521), who produced an elaborate Book of Hours for his patron, Queen Anne of Brittany.


Who Made this Book of Hours?

At least two painters produced the miniatures of this book. The master was responsible for the Annunciation (Folio 13 recto), while one or more artists painted the other miniatures and border illustrations. One or more artists only painted the foliate borders that occur on every page. The master was trained or closely influenced by Jean Bourdichon, a court painter. At least one member of the production team, who produced the gilded architectural frames as seen in Folios 47 recto and 57 recto, was trained in Rouen, where this technique was popular. The text is written in Latin.


Who Owned this Book of Hours?

The artists and original owners of medieval manuscripts are rarely known by name. This manuscript, however, features an extraordinary illustration that gives readers a clue: the Crucifixion scene on Folio 43 verso contains a portrait of a woman patron who kneels in prayer at the base of the cross with her Book of Hours in hand. Her identity remains a mystery because neither her name nor her family coat of arms have been inserted. Several unusual features that she had the workshop add tell the modern reader something about her social status and religious outlook. She wears a red dress, black headdress, and jewelry, indicating affluence. A similar depiction occurs in the border of the Annunciation to the Shepherds (Folio 29 recto). In the context of this narrative, she appears to be a shepherdess, but is too well dressed for this occupation. Her spindle or distaff suggests that she was engaged in the textile trade, possibly the family business of the owner. Furthermore, the Virgin Mary wears a lace headpiece on the Annunciation page (Folio 13 recto), instead of a traditional blue mantle. Lacemaking was a major industry in the regions of Normandy and Brittany where this manuscript was produced. This may be further indication of the owner’s family business. We also know that the owner was concerned with current Paris fashion in the royal court, as it appears she hired a workshop with model books adapted from the Queen’s Book of Hours.


How was the Calendar Used?

Medieval Europe reckoned the year by days commemorating events in the Life of Christ or the Virgin, or the martyrdom anniversaries of saints. The text of a calendar page provides the various feast days and saints days for each month. In most Books of Hours, calendar are not illustrated at all or have modest marginalia. Calendar illustrations depict Zodiac symbols or the Labors of the Months, which are usually seasonally appropriate peasant activities.


Alexander, Jonathan J.G. Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Calkins, Robert G. Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983.

De Hamel, Christopher. A History of Illuminated Manuscripts. Boston: David R. Godine, 1986.

De Hamel, Christopher. Scribes and Illuminators. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.

Gibbon, David Mac. Jean Bourdichon: A Court Painter of the Fifteenth Century. Glasgow: R. MacLehose & Company, 1933.

Hindman, Sandra and James H. Marrow, eds. Books of Hours Reconsidered. London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2013.

Reinburg, Virginia. French Books of Hours: Making an Archive of Prayer, c. 1400-1600. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Wieck, Roger S., Lawrence R. Poos, Virginia Reinburg, John Plummer, and Walters Art Gallery. Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life. New York: George Braziller, in association with the Walters Art Gallery, 1988.


Special thanks to:

Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Duke University

WIRED! Lab, Digital Art History & Visual Culture, Duke University

Information Science + Information Studies, Duke University

Duke University Libraries Digital Projects and Production Services

Katherine de Vos Devine


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