Wednesday, 12 October 2016


Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
The Nativity scene is at the first hour of the day. The Virgin is shown kneeling before her son at the threshold of the stable with beams of golden light direct on to the child by God the Father in Heaven. The shaft of light is symbolic of The Incarnation of the Word. The dove flying in the rays makes it a symbol of the Trinity. The ‘oriental’  setting is suggested by Arabic lettering on the Virgin’s mantle and Josephs is depicted wearing a peeked turban. The shepherds  look to the skies for the celestial singers proclaiming Peace on Earth. 

Geraldine Barry and Sally Diserio of the Calligraphy Society of Victoria presented papers and special works from the Society’s Library for a very special  Spiritual Reading Group session, held in the Carmelite Library on Tuesday the 16th of August. Geraldine very kindly revisited her paper, at our request, and here are her words on late medieval Books of Hours.

What I love about the Books of Hours is that they were the precious, personal possession of their owners. They date from the Middle Ages, and were produced roughly from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries in surprisingly large quantities. Some of the most exquisite examples are now housed in museums,  but many are still privately owned. Either way, it is testament to their special place in the everyday lives of their owners that they have been cherished and preserved. Christianity is a book-based religion, and they have their place in the western Christian tradition.  

The Books of Hours were prayer books used by the laity for private devotion.  Originally they developed from the Psalter used by monks and nuns (psalter/ psalms) and then developed into an abbreviated form of a breviary (the book of Divine Offices used in monasteries). Over time they transformed into illuminated collections of texts, prayers and psalms. They usually contained the Hours of the Virgin starting with the Hail Mary at and were said at the eight canonical hours of the day. The very early ones were written in Latin but gradually vernacular languages were interspersed with the Latin and that increased over time. Also the content changed but generally the story they told was either the Nativity, starting with the Annunciation, or alternatively the Passion of Christ. Fairly typical contents would include: -

·        A calendar of Church feasts
·        An excerpt from the 4 Gospels
·        The Little Office of the Virgin Mary
·        The 15 Psalms of Degrees
·        The 7 Penitential Psalms
·        The Litany of Saints 
·        An Office for the Dead
·        Various other prayers 

The size of these books varied; some were small and would have comfortably fitted into the owner’s pocket for personal devotions; some were larger and were probably intended for use in family chapels. Many were owned by women and sometimes given as a wedding gift from the groom to his bride, and, as previously mentioned, were frequently passed down through the family. 

However, not all books remained in the possession of the original owner. There are titillating surviving examples of change of owner when circumstances or family fortunes changed. For example, as spoils of war: King Henry VII after defeating King Richard the third gave Richard’s Book of Hours to his own very devout mother, Margaret Beaufort, who ‘personalised’ it with the inclusion of her name.  Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII wrote loving notes to each other during their courtship on the pages of her Book of Hours. 

Writing in them wasn’t only done by Royalty; the books contain  examples of people using them for writing all sorts of notes and lists including autographs of notable visitors to their houses and alphabets to teach the children how to read (books in general being in short supply before mechanical printing was established).[1]
Prior to the advent of the printing press, all stages of book production were done by skilled craftspeople. Unlike the ecclesiastical books, such as bibles, which were produced by monks and nuns in monasteries, the Books of Hours were manufactured in lay workshops. The text was written by scribes on pages made from parchment or vellum, which were prepared from processed animal skins, usually sheep skins and the more expensive calf skins. Pens were made from bird quills - commonly goose, swan and crow. [2]  Inks were made from a variety of natural pigments and the common colours were black, brown, red and blue, depending on the pigment and process. 

Manuscripts can be dated from the calligraphic hand used. By the 13th century the earlier scripts were gradually replaced by the Gothic script.  It generally replaced the earlier more rounded scripts because it was quicker to write and more compact. (Maybe there was also an element of saving to be considered as it was more economical because more words could fit on a page and vellum and parchment were expensive to produce.)  

Though the books were not mass produced, there was an element of factory production going on by employing specialist craftsmen for each component of the process. The stationers often had template pages for the customer to select from. Pictures, illumination, stories - this varied from quite sketchy drawings to magnificent works of art – depending on the wealth of the patron. And a patron was always needed because the books were made to order. From basic to grandest, every Book of Hours was bespoke so each has something which makes it unique (true for most of their history until the late fifteenth century introduction of the printing press).  

Essentially, all Books of Hours were picture books. The pages and the miniature artworks were ‘illuminated’–a term derived from the Latin ‘Illuminare’ meaning to enlighten or illuminate and usually referring to decorating a manuscript with luminous colours, particularly gold (also silver, but less so, because it tarnishes). The application of gold - either leaf or raised gold - is known as ‘gilding’.  In religious books gold was used by the illuminators to enhance the ‘message’. 

After the ‘establishment’ of Christianity under the emperor Constantine in the early fourth century A.D, it became the accepted Universal religion in the West. And the ‘message’ was a new message that required a new artistic depiction. Thus a new way of looking at pictures developed because the Christian message required a style of artistic representation better suited to the Christian narrative. Gradually the classical forms from the ancient Greco-Roman pagan world were mainly dispensed with. Therefore when you look at mediaeval artworks, including the miniature illuminations in the Book of Hours, the notion of a subjective view point is discarded. They were looked at as individual scenes and one detail to another, never as a ‘totality’. Very often the events in the picture could not have taken place in the same historical timeframe and sometimes the patron of the art work appears in them as part of the ‘action’. The spiritual world and the real world co-existed in works of art, as it did in the daily lives of the people. Their understanding of what constituted the supernatural world and the natural world led logically and appropriately to, say, inclusions of the Holy Spirit or people who had died. These would not have seemed strange or out of place. 

In addition to the religious motifs, from the fourteenth century onwards decorated borders were added usually painted with flowers and plant designs; complete with their own symbolism. It was understood that plants expressed God’s beautiful creations and therefore appropriate that that they should accompany devotional texts- especially in Books of Hours.    

Once the Church established beyond dispute the text for the Bible –the canon of scripture[3] - all other apocryphal gospels (the ‘unaccepted’ books) were banned: the Faithful had to abide by the Canon of the New Testament, but the apocryphal gospels remained the source for many of the details of Jesus’ early life and his ancestry and provided a rich source of details for works of art[4]. The illuminations in the Books of Hours incorporate many details derived from these ancient sources though some are incomprehensible to us now. However, examples from these apocryphal gospels, familiar to us today are in the Christmas crib scene: the ox and the ass; the three kings; the shepherds ‘adore’ the child; celestial light in the stable. 

Alongside the direct representations of Jesus, Mary and the Saints there developed a lot of indirect imagery in paintings and other art forms. Symbol and iconography [5]were used because it was useful for explaining very complex ideas to a largely illiterate population; it helped the people to understand difficult concepts such as the Holy Trinity. God the Father is very often depicted as a venerable old man, God the Son is shown in human form on the cross and the difficult one, God the Holy Ghost or Spirit is represented by a dove, bathed in celestial light. The iconic white and red roses among thorns represent the Virgin and the blood of the martyrs. Mary’s robes are blue, because she is the Queen of Heaven. Some of the iconography we can still understand, but the meaning of quite a lot is not so clear to us now therefore the deeper meaning in some of the details in artworks including those in the illuminations in the Books of Hours, are missed.

 I can’t help but feel that the popularity of the Nativity in the books is bound up with what people knew from their own experiences and could feel they had in common with God such as the birth of a child, childhood, joy and sorrow and love. One of my favourite illuminations is in an English Book of Hours dating from the fourteen century (need I say it is derived from the ‘banned books’?) It depicts Jesus in a very human way- behaving as a very naughty boy. He is turning the local children into pigs, and he doesn’t always turn them back into children in some versions of the story! It is not an isolated depiction of Jesus’ ‘bad behaviour’ in the childhood of Jesus from these sources). Undoubtedly people did feel close to the Holy Family; in a metaphysical sense the Holy Family was their family. They were intensely interested in the genealogy of Jesus; character from his genealogical table feature in many of the Nativity scenes (some of the ‘ancestors’ listed we would not easily recognise now) but their interest is reminiscent of our current trend in researching our own family trees. 

The Middle Ages was a violent period, perhaps not the most violent in history   but it experienced its share of misery including four Crusades, the most devastating manifestation of the bubonic plague[6] , The Hundred Years’ War, high, early mortality, and ‘heretics’ were dealt with brutally. It was also a deeply religious age.  Religion permeated the whole of life, nothing was ‘neutral ‘, there were no ‘shades of grey’, things were right or wrong, God or the Devil. Society was hierarchical: the Church and the State were two constituents ordained by and leading to God (in reality the powerful church controlled most of society). The vast majority of art produced was religious art, which is not really surprising because there was little demarcation between sacred and secular works: symbolism and representational conventions were deemed to be the obvious function of art during this period; the visual image was to teach by delighting, and inculcating a love of Christ by the image. 

One of the most famous examples of a Book of Hours is ‘Les Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry’. It was commissioned by Jean Duc de Berry around 1413. He was one of the greatest patrons of the arts and very rich; he could afford the best of everything –and he did. Painted on very fine vellum the book is made from two hundred and six bound sheets. The size of the book is roughly 29x21cm. It is one of the treasures in the Musée Condé, Chantilly in France.  Unfortunately the name of the scribe is unknown, however the painters of the illuminations are known; they were the three Limbourg brothers, renowned painters from Nijwegen in Germany.

Their subject matter in the miniature illuminations in ‘Les Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry’ was artistically ground breaking in the content of the calendar (a series of the year’s seasons). These miniatures depicted life in contemporary France in the early fifteenth century, never before seen like this in a work of art. The Duke, his court and his rural workers, the architecture of his castles all appears in the illuminations. It is a very fine example that epitomises the concern pictures played in private prayer and the aesthetic enjoyment they added to the devotional content of the books.  

There is something ‘fairy tale’ like and yet coherent about the pointed Gothic script, the tall, pointed, lacy architecture, the slim elegant figures dressed in their theatrical clothes, the idyllic rural settings and the air of courtly gentility contained in the artwork in Books of Hours. The Middle Ages, with its courtly code of chivalry and artifice of courtly love, was not as ‘idyllic’ as it was painted, but the spirit of the age was most memorably expressed in the building of the glorious Gothic cathedrals. Who could not be impressed by the religious fervour that collected the money and laboured to build them (often taking eons to complete)?  

As the fledgling printing industry became established and the output increased, paper printing drastically reduced the use of parchment and thus the diminution of calligraphers, illuminators and allied crafts. Initially the printers adopted the Gothic script and letters appeared in black type. [7] Some early printed books were a hybrid version of manuscript books, with spaces left for illuminations and decorated capital letters.  But by the late fifteenth- early sixteenth centuries printed Books of Hours were readily available and a cheaper option to a handmade book; this meant that many more people could own one. A thriving export business had developed, particularly in France and the Netherlands, which supplied the growing demand. There are many surviving examples of printed books from that period. 

In a small way the rise of a printing industry is illustrative of the social and economic changes happening in western society: literacy had increased and more people could afford to buy books, indicative of the weakening of the mediaeval feudal system that was gradually being replaced by a growing dependency on a cash economy. Also a different artistic momentum was gathering pace, foreshadowing the period we call the ‘Renaissance’, which introduced the ‘rebirth’ of the classical view of art works, long disregarded during the Middle Age.     

The history of the Books of Hours eventually turned full circle when, by the mid sixteenth century, only the  wealthiest members’ of society could afford to commission the books in manuscript form - written by a scribe on vellum and richly illuminated and bound within costly covers. One of the last known surviving examples was commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in 1546. 

Throughout their long history the Book of Hours seem to fit gracefully into their historical time frame. That so many of these little gems have survived is surely testament to the enduring pleasure and spiritual comfort their owners must have drawn from them and seen them as significant enough to want them to be handed down through the generations

·        The Social History of Art Volume 2
Arnold Haus. Published by Routledge 1989
·        The World of the Book
 Des Cowley Clare Williamson. The Miegunyah Press
            State Library Victoria
·        Gothic  Architecture  Sculpture Painting
Editor Rolf Toman.  Publisher Ullmann & Könemann
·        Calligraphy and Illumination
Patricia Lovett. The British Library London
Books Borrowed from the Calligraphy Society of Victoria’s Library and provided as examples for the talk and discussion at the August 16th Spiritual Reading Group meeting
·        The Mediaeval Flower Book.
Celia Fisher. The British Library 
·        The Illuminated Page: Ten Centuries of Manuscript Painting
in the British Library .
Janet Backhouse. University of Toronto Press. 1998  
·        An illumination: The Rothschild Prayer Book and Other works from the Kerry Stokes Collection c. 280-1685
Australian Capital Equity 
·        Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
Musée Condé, Chantilly. Thames and Hudson. Paperback edition 1989

[1] Gutenberg’s printing press was in operation around 1453.
[2] Contemporary calligraphers who have made their own quill pens often express a preference for writing with a quill rather than the modern dip pens.

[3] Codex Sinaiticus (4th C. AD)
[4] These details originated in the early traditions in a period when Christianity was just a collection of very disparate sects. 
[5] A symbol is a concept that has no reality in a visual, physical shape. It is a sign for a Divine Reality in the Christian sense. Iconography is the study of the form of visual symbols (iconology, the study of their meaning).  
[6] The Black Death in 1348 decimated towns and villages throughout Europe. It was one of the contributing factors in the relaxing of the rural feudal system.
[7] Eventually the Gothic script was replaced by the upper case letters derived from Roman lettering and lowercase letters from the Humanist script based on the earlier Carolingian script and provided the basis for scripts used today.