Books of Hours: Images I

After having discussed the texts of the Books of Hours, we’ll now turn to the images. Ironically, most people who study the Books of Hours are more interested in this facet than in the texts themselves as most students are going after the art-history angle rather than late medieval devotion. (Go figure!)

There are several different ways to lay this topic out and to work through it. At the moment I’m relying mostly on the art-historical data from Harthan (totally worth picking up if you’re interested at all either in the topic or in pretty medieval pictures…) cross-referenced with images from a variety of the digitized Books of Hours linked to in a previous post.

First, we’ll take a look at major kinds of images and where they appear on the page, then (likely in a subsequent post), we’ll take a look at the various possible contents of these images. Needless to say, our focus here will be primarily on the deluxe manuscript Books of Hours. That’s not to say or imply that there weren’t images in the printed Books of Hours and prymers however—there were, and I do hope to touch on those but exactly how and when that’ll happen, I can’t say.

In his section on “Decoration,” Harthan states, “The varying stress laid at various times on decoration and illustration, the problems of reconciling the inventive fantasy of the artist with the demands of the text, and the several solutions adopted for combining the separate units of text, initial, miniature and border into a decorative ensemble, represent book illumination considered as an art form” (Harthan, Books of Hours, 19). His identification here of four fundamental units on the page: 1) text, 2) initial, 3) miniature, and 4) border is quite important. Unfortunately, he leaves one of these out as he begins his explication of the illuminated elements: “The basic elements in illumination are the initial, the miniature and the border” (Harthan, Books of Hours, 19-20). While he’s correct that most of the text is not technically illuminated, we’ll keep an eye on it as we go…

So, before looking more at Harthan, let me throw up an image that contain all three (four) elements. Here we have a page from the beginning of Matins of the BVM from the British Library’s fifteenth-century Royal MS 2 A XVIII (f. 25r):

We have the picture of the Annunciation above the text. That’s the miniature. We have the big “D” with a woman with her own Book of Hours looking up at the scene. (Chances are this is the person for whom the book was commissioned). That’s an initial—but so are the smaller ones done in blue, red, and gold sprinkled down the page. We have an outline that bounds the text, containing lots of flowery stuff  between the boundary and the page; that’s the border. Text-wise, notice that we have a rubric—the text in red—and a fine, clear, easy-to-read Gothic text containing the aforementioned smaller initials.

In manuscript terms, “miniature” doesn’t technically refer to size but to the practice of painting; the Latin miniare means to paint with vermillion. Basically, it’s any large free-standing picture whether bordered or not. In the later books we see this become full page illustrations as in this great one standing before Sext from Bibliotheque nationale, Latin 1173:


Miniatures are miniatures and there’s not a lot to say about them until we start discussing content. Next up are the initials.

There are two fundamental types of initials in Books of Hours (as in other medieval manuscripts), decorative and historiated. Decorative are those initials that are decorated and embellished with backgrounds and various kinds of pen-strokes; historiated means that there is an image inside of it. In Books of Hours whether you’ll see one or the other tend not to be an either/or situation but a both/and. Thus, on the page with the Annunciation on it, we have a large historiated initial (with the woman in it), and a number of smaller decorative initials. Here’s another example from an earlier period, coming from Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, 288 (f. 17r) from the first quarter of the 14th century:

Again—a both/and; we have a historiated initial of Jesus with bloody sweat in the Garden, then a number of decorated initials. Note the alternation of colors in the decorative initials. The most typical scheme is blue and red but I’ve seen gold or green instead of red in some and, occasionally, a three color alternation with blue, red, and gold. These denote sense-breaks and indicate when different elements begin. As you know, the Offices were originally communal affairs with alternation between individuals and groups or between two parts of a choir. The colors provide indications of hen each “part” changes, but does not assume either private or public use. We know from contemporary writings, however, that people (often women) would use their books of hours in pairs with a companion; the colors would give an indication as to when one person was to stop and the other start.

On the text, note that we have three different kinds of visual cues in the text-block: We have a “regular” text for the bulk of the material, we have rubrics (those in red) identifying the parts of the Office, but then we also have a “lesser” text identified by the smaller writing used for the invitatory antiphon. Directly after the rubric “Invitatorium” is the text “Regem xpm crucifixu: venite adoremus [the last word appears just under the “venite,” at the right ogf the new line rather than the left]” in a smaller font than the surrounding text. This becomes visually important as we move down the page because we will consistently be able to identify the antiphon even when it’s not marked because it will remain visually smaller as we see here when the second half of the antiphon is repeated after the blue decorative initial “V” (that does look sort of like a “U” if you’re not used to this script):


As for borders, they are often visually outgrowths from initials. For instance, if you look at the images above, you’ll see that the line in the left border of the second picture begins as a line coming off the historiated initial in the first. Citing Harthan:

Originally introduced to enclose the miniature and separate it from the text, the rectangular frame-border in Anglo-Saxon and Romanesque manuscripts (for example, in the English Winchester School of illumination) was often enlarged to form wide panels around the miniature, which were filled with a variety of closely packed acanthus ornaments or an interlace of foliage with climbing beasts and human figures. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, in the Gothic period of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, a second type of border appeared with irregular edges. Beginning as a tail-like extension of the initial into the margin, it developed into the prolific ivy- or vine-leaf border composed of curling tendrils from which sprouted tiny leaves picked out in gold. The ivy-leaf border was to become one of the most characteristic decorative features of northern Books of Hours in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. (Harthan, Books of Hours, 20)

He describes how images started escaping their initials and how miniatures would likewise escape their borders, and around 1420 would become full-fledged paintings with perspective, movement, etc. as opposed to the more cartoon-like look that we saw in the image of Jesus in the garden…

Parallel with the miniature, the borders are undergoing a similar evolution. At first, the blank margins of the text are filled only sparsely by the tail-like extension of initials from which sprout the first shoots of vine- or ivy-leaf ornament. But when these ‘tails’ extend to the corners they throw out cusped bars at right angles which provide platforms to support drolleries, grotesque figures, monsters, birds, and animals. Playful secular imagery of this kind is sometimes said, on not very clear grounds, to indicate the artists’ emancipation from clerical control. It derives more immediately from the natural inventiveness of artists and from the willingness of their clients to be diverted from their religious texts during long services in church or periods of private devotion; Books of Hours were taken to church as well as read at home. In the late fourteenth century the emphatic ‘bar borders’ supporting drolleries and little human figures gradually give way to lighter and more graceful ivy-leaf designs which now completely frame the miniature and text with a dense but delicate mass of foliated scrolls or rinceaux. (Harthan, Books of Hours, 21)

Alright—enough citing…

The Little Hours of John de Berry (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, ms. lat. 18014) is a delightful book that shows a wide variety of decorations including most everything talked about here. What Harthan can’t always give a sense of is the balance of illustration. Some pages get lavish attention artistically; in others it’s quite scant. However, this set of hours demonstrates how decoration on a variety of levels was deployed within the same text and how beautiful results were achieved on all levels.

First, a page virtually devoid of decoration:

We have vernacular French prayers with just a couple of decorated initials and no border at all. The regularity of the text and punctuations of color make it work.

Now, decorative initials moving towards a pseudo-border in Psalm 8:

or this one:


Then there’s the full-on ivy-leaf border of which Harthan speaks deployed at the start of the Lauds of the BVM:

That’s enough for now—more on the content later.

And this is why I’ve always said that the breviary doesn’t live up to my dreams of what a well-crafted electronic text could live up to…





2 thoughts on “Books of Hours: Images I

  1. aredstatemystic

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, where “beauty will save the world.” I’m so tired everything being useful and easy-to-digest. That’s not beauty, it’s efficiency and efficiency won’t save the world. One day we might remember how we present the Gospel in everything from our preaching down to our service leaflets reflects our belief in the importance of that same Gospel. That, perhaps, our commitment to beauty reflects our Creator’s commitment and love for beauty in nature and in the soul. We do not serve a simple God.

    Sorry for the rant. What I meant to say was: thanks for the images. These Books of Hours are beautiful. They took time, effort and money. I’d gather several of them are well-prayed over the years, too. Which, of course, makes them all the more wonderful.

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