Books of Hours: Images II

Last time we talked broadly about illustration issues and design elements in the Books of Hours. Today, let’s look more specifically at illustration content. As we saw with textual contents, the French Roman Catholic master of the field Leroquais identified a set of essential texts: “the Calendar, the Little Office or Hours of the Virgin, the Penitential Psalms, the Litany, the Office of the Dead, and the Suffrages of the Saints” (Harthan, The Book of Hours, 14). Over the centuries, a fairly stable set of illustrations—or at least themes upon which to base illustrations—became standard in the various Books of Hours. We’ll start by making a quick survey of these.

Again—we can properly use the language of “fairly stable”; whenever we’re dealing with medieval manuscript culture, there’s no such thing as “invariable” or “always” and you’ll find occasional exceptions to these if you look hard and broad enough.

The Calendar

[image from the Little Hours of John de Berry (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, ms. lat. 18014) f. 6v]

Kalendars are, at base, a simple list of dates and feasts. However, it’s never been quite that simple. Due to the calculations necessary to determine when Easter falls, locating Sundays, and establishing the hours of day and night all before reliable clocks, a variety of astronomical entries are common in kalendars certainly in the early medieval period and likely earlier. While passages of the sun into the various heavenly houses tends not to appear in the kalendars of the books of hours, the zodiac certainly does. Alongside zodiacal symbols are a set of vignettes drawn from late medieval pastoral life. Thus, these are the standard images:

  • January: Feasting
  • February: Sitting by the fire
  • March: Pruning
  • April: Garden scene
  • May: Hawking or boating
  • June: The hay harvest
  • July: Reaping the wheat
  • August: Threshing
  • September: Treading the grape
  • October: Ploughing and sowing
  • November: Gathering acorns for pigs
  • December: Killing the pig or baking bread (Harthan, The Book of Hours, 24)

In many books of hours, because of the small size, one month will take up two pages. Thus, the occupation will often appear on the first side of the month, the zodiacal symbol on the other. In cases like the one above where the whole month appears on one page, one image may be at the top and the other at the bottom. In our example, however, the artist has already laid out a much more ambitious artistic program which he has followed through the kalendar: in the upper left is a saint in the month preaching to an eager audience (except for January depicting the conversion of St Paul which falls then); in the bottom is a paired prophet and apostle holding hands, the prophet pointing to the ruin of Jerusalem/the Temple/synagogue. In the top center is a combination of the zodiacal sign and sometimes (but not always) the occupation of the month seen through the arch. Both are here in the case of December: the killing of the pig, and a capricornian goat emerging from the tower.

Needless to say, much of the attention given to books of hours by medievalists focuses here—they get to see how medieval artists depicted the occupations of daily life, how they dressed the people and portrayed them going about their business. Too, it gives us an idea of how the wealthy consumers purchasing such books wanted their artists to portray such activities…

As a liturgist, what I find both interesting and useful here is the color scheme used for writing the saints’ days. Red and blue alternate to provide visual contrast, but gold identifies the greater feasts from the lesser. Note the gold for St Nicholas, Our Lady (yes—the kalendar is written in French, not Latin…) , St Thomas (Ap.), Christmas, St Stephen, St John, Holy Innocents, and St Thomas (M.). Books of hours can be tied (sometimes only tenuously!)  to times and/or dioceses through a careful investigation of the specific saints appearing in the kalendars.

The Little Hours of the BVM

[image from the Little Hours of John de Berry (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, ms. lat. 18014) f. 21r]

These are likely the illustrations and manuscript prints that medieval-leaning church folk are most familiar with. I know I’ve got a bunch o these waiting to be hung around the house that M acquired from various museums even before we met.

The way that this pattern works is that each hour is preceded by an illustration from the life of the BVM relating to the Incarnation:

  • Matins: The Annunciation
  • Lauds: The Visitation
  • Prime: The Nativity
  • Tierce: The Angel’s Announcement of the Nativity to the Shepherds
  • Sext: The Adoration of the Magi
  • None: The Presentation in the Temple/Purification of the BVM
  • Vespers: The Flight into Egypt and/or Massacre of the Innocents
  • Compline: The Coronation of the Virgin (Harthan, The Book of Hours, 28)

The Annunciation tends to be the first picture in most books after the kalendar and is one of the most elaborate. Too, it’s quite common for the historiated initial below the miniature to feature the book’s commissioner at his/her devotions, looking up to experience the Annunciation. You can see Duke de Berry in the one above if you squint… Harthan notes that the Announcement to the Shepherds is often also an interesting one because, as with the occupational images, it provides an opportunity for the artist to create a classic pastoral image.

If you’re used to looking at medieval liturgical books and looking at feasts, you’ll notice something interesting here: the hours appear in a ferial pattern. Remember that a feast will begin with a First Vespers so the first office encountered will be Vespers, then Compline, and only then Matins. Since the cycle here starts with Matins, it’s a reminder that the Hours of the BVM were a daily exercise, used without regard to feast or ferial days.

The Penitential Psalms

[image from the Little Hours of John de Berry (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, ms. lat. 18014) f. 53r]

There’s quite a variety in the images before the penitential psalms. However, you can usually count on finding David somewhere in the scene. Typically, he’s the crowned figure holding a harp. In the example above, he’s hanging out in the historiated initial and there’s also a David & Goliath match-up occurring at the bottom of the page. (I’ll pass on commenting on the cardinal riding a rooster at the side of the page.)

The main miniature in this case is, of course, Christ surrounded by images of the four evangelists with their respective symbols. Given my own perspective, I’d interpret this choice of images as a reference to the medieval understanding of the omnipresence of Christ in the psalms, but that’s speculation on my part.

As the years wind on, one particular incident in the life of David does indeed become a standard image for the penitential psalms, which I happened upon by accident in some of my earlier research.


This is due, we’re told, to the superscription of Psalm 51: “To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” As a guy, I’d say that’s a reason but not the reason… I’m sure there’s a lovely dissertation waiting to be written on piety, lust, and the imaging of the female body in late medieval/renaissance devotional materials.

The Litany


[image from the Little Hours of John de Berry (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, ms. lat. 18014) f. 59r]

Harthan notes that it’s unusual to find miniatures connected with the Litany unless it’s a rare illustration of Pope Gregory leading a litany through the streets of Rome against a plague, or perhaps a saint hiding in the margin or in an initial.

There are none in the one we’re looking at, and the main decorative feature seems to be the spacer between the personage/saint being invoked and the abbreviated response on the far side of the page. Here’s another view from the next page:


Hours of the Dead

[image from the Little Hours of John de Berry (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, ms. lat. 18014) f. 217r]

Unlike the Hours of the BVM and some of the other supplementary hours, there are only three Offices of the Dead: Vespers [Placebo], Matins [Dirige], and Lauds [Requiem]. As Harthan notes, there can be quite a lot of variability with the images here. The first one that Harthan mentions is the one I’ve seen the most, an image of the Vigil of the Dead, the service that occurs in the church in the presence of the catafalqued body.  Here’s another:


I love the corpse in the historiated initial below the miniature…


The Suffrages of the Saints


[image from the Little Hours of John de Berry (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, ms. lat. 18014) f. 105v]

The Suffrages section is, after the Hours of the BVM, “the most profusely illustrated section in the book”  (Harthan, The Book of Hours, 31). It’s a series of prayers that, certainly in this example, have a miniature of the class of saint being invoked parallel with the prayer. This is also the source of the awesome miniature of the martyrs that I put up the other day.

Concluding Thoughts

The effect and impact of the images in the Books of Hours form an integral part of the piety that they shaped. These are only the essential texts. When we added in the secondary and accessory texts, we’ll find even more images that specifically went with them. While there are certain scenes and stories from the Bible that are familiar to us, I think it’s hard to calculate how much of the late medieval popular biblical knowledge came from looking at these images. Particularly once we add in the Hours of the Cross/Passion, there is a cycle of incarnational moments and a cycle of passional moments that serve to communicate in pictures the work of the Incarnation and Redemption in a way that has dropped out of modern Anglican piety. Likewise, the images around death serve both as a reminder of mortality and a means of bringing to mind the dead who remain inextricably linked with us—through Baptism—in the Body and Mystery of Christ.

1 thought on “Books of Hours: Images II

  1. Sean+

    Thank you for the great amount of work you put into this. Most interesting! And beautiful. I especially am grateful to have all the pieces drawn together, so to speak.

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