Depicting Devotion: Illuminated Books of Hours from the Middle Ages

Washington University Libraries, Department of Special Collections, St. Louis, Winter 2001-2001

Table of Contents
Books of Hours
I Calendar
II Gospel Lessons
III Hours of the Virgin
IV Hours of the Cross
V Additional Prayers to the Virgin
VI Hours of the Holy Spirit
VII Penitential Psalms
VIII Office of the Dead
IX Accessory Texts
X Peacocks and Eggs

Online Exhibitions
Special Collections Home

Section III: Hours of the Virgin

The Hours of the Virgin sanctified the day by establishing the following times of prayer (with Matins and Lauds said together), and each hour was accompanied by an illumination (see table for hours and their standard illumination). These images draw one's attention to the life of the Virgin and her role, even her co-suffering, in Christ's life. The illuminations do not illustrate the text; rather, they encourage one to meditate on the life of the Virgin as one reads the prayers, psalms, and hymns of the hour.

The psalmist proclaims, "Seven times a day I have given praise to thee" (Psalm 118: 164). The Hours of the Virgin afford the opportunity for the laity, not only the clergy, to praise God seven times a day. The Officium Parvum Beate Marie Virginis , or "Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary", originated in the Breviary (the service book for the clergy). "What had started as an accretion to the Breviary became the favorite prayerbook of layfolk everywhere" (Harthan Books of Hours 13).

Matins: Annunciation to the Virgin MS 2
Northern France (probably Paris), ca. 1420
strong resemblance to the work of the Boucicaut Master, though not his work;
probably produced by a follower or in the workshop of a follower
19.6 cm. by 13.5 cm., BX2080/L77/early 15th C.

Matins: Annunciation to the Virgin
The Virgin Mary devoutly kneels with her prayer book open. The Angel Gabriel, who brings the good news, holds a scroll upon which is written the beginning of Luke 1:28 -- “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” Between Mary and Gabriel stands a white lily, which is commonly pictured with Mary to symbolize her purity. God the Father appears in the upper-left corner, with rays of splendor emanating from his mouth. The Holy Spirit, represented by a dove, descends from God to Mary.

Lauds: Visitation MS 10
Probably Flemish, (1st-) 2nd quarter of the 15th C.
very eccentric artist
22.5 cm. by 16 cm., BX2080/R5/15th C.

Lauds: Visitation
Who is greeting whom? In the visitation scene, Elizabeth, the future mother of John the Baptist, meets Mary, the future mother of Christ. Behind them is the house of Zacharias, Elizabeth's husband. As the illustration seems to reflect, it is unclear whether Elizabeth greets Mary, or Mary greets Elizabeth. Latin texts have Elizabeth proclaiming what would become the popular Magnificat hymn ( Magnificat anima mea Dominum ). Greek texts (though unavailable to illustrators before 1516) present Mary as the speaker.

Prime: Nativity MS 7 France, ca. teens or 1520s
resembles work of the Master of Morgan 85; possibly the work of a follower of the Master of Petrarch's Triumphs
16.3 cm. by 11.5 cm., BX2080/R57/ca. 1530

Prime: Nativity
In this depiction of the Nativity, we see Mary and Joseph beholding the infant Christ, upon whom shines the star of Bethlehem; a donkey and a bull participate in the adoration. Shepherds, identified by their characteristic bagpipe and staff, come to worship the Infant. Behind them is the town of Bethlehem.

Terce: The  Annunciation to the Shepherds MS 5
Flemish, ca. 1460
stylistically related to Loyset Liedet
19.3 cm. by 13.2 cm., BX2080/L79/ca. 1450

Terce: The Annunciation to the Shepherds
An angel announces the birth of Christ to the shepherds and holds a scroll that reads Gloria in Excelsis Deo , “glory to God in the highest.” The shepherds are easily identified by the sheep, their staves, and pastoral bagpipe.

Sext: Adoration of the Three Magi MS 8
Probably Parisian, late 15th C., could be ca. 1490s
very standard late 15th C. style, stylistically similar to work of Jean Bourdichon
17.5 cm. by 11.7 cm, BX2080/L75/late 15th C.

Sext: Adoration of the Three Magi Typically a star guided the Magi to Bethlehem and represents Divine guidance. Melchior, the older of them, with crown removed in reverence towards the Infant, brings Frankincense in a chalice; Balthasar brings Myrrh; Caspar brings Gold.

None: Presentation in the Temple MS 6
Paris ca. 1450
possibly the work of a follower of the Bedford Master
20 cm by 13 cm, BX2080/R72/ca. 1450

None: Presentation in the Temple
40 days after Christ's birth, Mary presented the child and made an offering, according to Mosaic custom. The high priest receives the child while the figure behind Mary brings the customary offering of doves.

Vespers: Flight into Egypt MS 9
France, late 15th C. (possibly even early 16th C.)
stylistically mechanical and workmanlike
17.5 cm. by 13 cm., BX2080/L73/late 15th C.

Vespers: Flight into Egypt
Mary, Joseph, and the infant Christ flee to Egypt. Soldiers follow, but are prevented by the wheat fields. Legends told of how freshly harvested fields sprouted forth wheat to help the Holy Family escape. They fled to escape Herod's slaughter of the young children, an event frequently represented by a decapitated child in the background. In this particular illumination, a broken golden statue is depicted instead. Recalling an apocryphal Biblical text popular in the middle ages, this depiction tells of the idols in the temple suddenly breaking when the Virgin and Christ entered.

Compline: The Coronation of the Virgin MS 1
Northern France (more provincial than Parisian), early 15th C.|
resembles work of Master of the Margaret D'Orleans; possibly work of a follower
20.4 cm by 14 cm., BX2080/L71/early 15th C.

Compline: The Coronation of the Virgin
Christ blesses Mary, while an angel holds a crown above her in readiness. Before the fifteenth century, illuminations displayed Christ bestowing the crown; later depictions show an angel crowning the Virgin.

Top of Page ~ Previous Page ~ Next Page