Spine of Book   BOOK OF HOURS AT   Spine of Book
RANDOLPH-MACON WOMAN'S COLLEGE

HOME Images Book of Hours Comparisons Les Très Riches Heures
Book Production Paintings Book Market & Preservation Acknowledgements Citations and References

 

Comparisons of Books of Hours

Atefeh Leavitt
22 April 2003

Books of Hours played a key role in Medieval and Renaissance prayer.  The prayers written in a Book of Hours were often surrounded and embellished with ornate illuminations; even the simplest Book of Hours has some illuminations.  Books of Hours ranged from ornate to simple, and were widely used.  Between the mid-thirteenth to mid-sixteenth century, Books of Hours were commissioned and produced, bought and sold, bequeathed and inherited, printed and reprinted more than any other text, including the Bible (Wieck 9).  In this paper, I will attempt to compare the Lipscomb Manuscript, a relatively simple Book of Hours, with other similar Books of Hours.

Use

The medieval user of a Book of Hours sanctified his/her days with prayers from his/her personal Books of Hours.  Each book contained prayers for every part of the day, and for every aspect of life.  For example, dawn was celebrated with the “office of Lauds (Morning office),” (Hypertext).  There were prayers for times of day: noon, evening, night, eating, sleeping, even for dying.  In addition, many of the days of the year were feasts: Christmas, Nativity, “Feast of the Purification of the Virgin,” multiple feasts surrounding the events of Christ’s Passion (Entry into Jerusalem, Last Supper, Betrayal, Arrest, Crucifixion, and Burial) (Hypertext).  Each feast had special prayers associated with it.  The Book of Hours also had a special meaning to the family.  Not only was it probably the only form of art a middle class family would own, but it also functioned as the site of family record keeping (Ashely). In this sense, the Book of Hours served a central role in every family as well as a personal role with every reader.

General Structure

All Books of Hours are organized according to a similar structure.  Each begins with a calendar of the four seasons and important days in each, which is followed by short extracts from the four gospels.  The content of the book, while differing slightly with each, is made up of the Hours of the Virgin, which is eight sets of devotional prayers to the Virgin Mary.  The thought was that the Virgin would plead the reader's case to her son, who could not deny his own mother what she asked (Weick 9).  “The Hours of the Virgin” are then followed by sequences of other hours like, “The Hours of the Cross,” and concluded with an “Office of the Dead” (Hypertext).  More elaborate books of hours included more prayers.  While the Lipscomb Book of Hours is one of the simplest Books of Hours, it is still organized according to these guidelines.

Detailed Structure

Within this general structure, there are also a number of consistencies between Books of Hours--beginning with the calendar.  The calendar was divided into twelve months with each day of the month identified not by number, but by the feast celebrated on that day in the Christian Church (Hypertext).  The Lipscomb Book of Hours has such a calendar, which is similar in appearance (and probably substance) to the calendars of many other Books of Hours.

Calendar page from the Wellesly College Book of Hours Lipscomb Book of Hours Calendar page from the
Wellesly College Book of Hours
MS27
(left)
 
Lipscomb Book of Hours
(right)

On the left is the November calendar page from a Book of Hours from the Wellesley College Library, and on the right is a calendar page from the Lipscomb Book of Hours.  Both pages are similarly laid out with different days of the month given different feasts, embellished block letters for the name of the month, and different colors attributed to different words on the page.  “The usual practice was for feasts to be written in black or brown, and for feasts of special importance to be written in red” (Hypertext).  This practice can be seen in both calendars.  The Lipscomb Book of Hours also has blue lettering.

The practice of embellishing and enlarging the first letter of the first word on the page was very common and can be seen throughout the Lipscomb Book of Hours as well as other Books of Hours of all levels of decoration.  As illustrated in the Lipscomb manuscript, the letter was often accompanied by additional floral or pictorial ornamentation.  In many Books of Hours, the space in the letter was filled with a picture of what the prayer was about.  For example, in a prayer to the Virgin, the first letter would feature a picture of her.  While the Lipscomb Book of Hours does not have any pictures, the first letters of many of the pages are very ornate, often decorated with gold leaf, and fine detail inside of the letter.  Because Books of Hours were not paginated, these ornate beginnings and illustrations served as a way to show were new sections began (Wiek 22).

Another similar structural feature in many of the Books of Hours, that was also present in the Lipscomb Book of Hours, is the use of a bi-colored bar at the end of the some sentences.

15th Century Flemish Book of Hours from Brandeis University
(left)
 
Lipscomb Book of Hours
(right)
15th Century Flemish Book of Hours from Brandeis University Lipscomb Book

All of the manuscripts I compared to the Lipscomb Book of Hours had a red and blue bar with ornate detail inside of it.  Its use was presumably to denote the end of a sentence or the end of a prayer.  Below, the page on the left is a 15th Century Flemish Book of Hours from the Brandeis University Libraries Special Collection, and the page on the right is from the Lipscomb Book of Hours.  A striking similarity can be seen between the two pages in the use of large beginning letters, and the use of a red and blue bar at the end of the sentence or prayer.  We can also see a number of words written in red, perhaps to emphasize their importance, as with the calendar events.

Paintings and Illumination

The general character of the paintings in the Lipscomb Book of Hours is delicate and ornate.  It is clear that great care was put into the creation of each of the illuminations.  While not every page has an illumination, there are quite a few.  And, while no two illuminations are the same, they all seem to be variations on a theme of flowers, leaves, and berries.

There are also a number of similarities between the illuminations in the Lipscomb Book of Hours and other Book of Hours’ illuminations; the colors and shapes used seem to be almost exactly the same.  As the books become more ornate, they seem to include more colors, more illumination, and full-page illustrations.  The colors used in the Lipscomb, and other comparable Books of Hours were red for the flowers, green for small leaves, blue and gold for large ornate leaves, and black and gold for the detailed vines.

Lipscomb Library Book of Hours 15th Century French Book of Hours
from Wellesley College Lipscomb Book of Hours
(left)
 
15th Century French Book of Hours
from Wellesley College
MS27
(right)

A number of similarities can be seen in the Lipscomb Book of Hours (left) and the 15th Century French Wellesley College Book of Hours (right).  Both illustrate the use of gold in the illuminated letter and the use of the color red to emphasize a specific word.  There are also a number of illustrative similarities that can be seen when comparing these two Books of Hours.  First, is the blue and gold leaf-shape illustrated above.  Not only does this form appear repeatedly in the Lipscomb Book of Hours, and others like it, but also in more ornate and extensive Books of Hours.  There is also a red five-pointed flower that can be seen in the Lipscomb Book of Hours and an a number of other illuminated manuscripts.  Finally, a small red berry, most probably a strawberry, appears in almost every Book of Hours.  It can be seen in the Lipscomb Book of Hours and others like it, as well as more famous Books of Hours such as the Rohan Hours, the Hours of Charles d’Angouleme, the Hours by the Master Maite Francois.  One famous Book of Hours was even nicknamed the “Strawberry Hours” after the fruit in the borders (Wieck).

Words and Pictures

The Book of Hours served as an interesting intersection between the written word and images—both integral parts of a Book of Hours.  Books of Hours seem to be obviously created for reading, but “until 1400, Books of Hours were entirely in Latin” (Weick 10).  While the lay-speaker of French or Italian would understand more than a reader of Latin today, the fact still remains that Books of Hours were not in the vernacular.

Latin Text
Lipscomb Book of Hours

The Lipscomb Book of Hours is also in Latin.  Because of this, the images must have gained more importance as conveyors of information.  In fact, according to Wiek, “[Their] success was initially due in part to the cycles of small border vignettes…” (22), which served as visual aids.  However, it is also interesting to note that the middle classes--who were unlikely to be able to read Latin, probably bought less ornate Books of Hours, like the Lipscomb manuscript.  The Lipscomb Book of Hours does not contain figural images, only ornamentation.  While historians today put the most emphasis on the illuminated pages, the Lipscomb Book of Hours and many others contained a majority of only textual pages.

One other point of interest and comparison is the lettering used in Books of Hours.  The Lipscomb Book of Hours, and virtually every other Book of Hours I found, used a simple Gothic script.  It was only in this Book of Hours (right) from the University of Pennsylvania that I found any deviation from that norm.  The ornate style of this script seems to replace the ornate border decorations found in the Lipscomb Book of Hours and others like it.  However, the script seems to be very uncommon.

Book of Hours from the University of Pennsylvania
Book of Hours from the
University of Pennsylvania

In conclusion, when placed on a spectrum, the Lipscomb Book of Hours seems clearly to sit at the simpler end.  Yet, it sits in the company of many others like it, and has some of the distinct qualities of some of the greatest Books of Hours, from structure, to coloring, to strawberries.

 

These pages are the work of the students enrolled in Art 238, "Art and Medieval Mentalities," taught by Professor Christine Hamza during the Spring Semester, 2003.

The format of this site was last updated:  October 2, 2017.