Facing Devotion: A Fifteenth Century Dutch Book of Hours

Far from only containing local books, Worcester Cathedral Library is home to treasures from further afield. One such item is a Book of Hours from the Netherlands which, through uncertain means, eventually ended up in Worcestershire.

 

Top Photo

Lavishly decorated page from a 15th Century Dutch Book of Hours, with intricate red and blue border-work; gold illumination; impressive historiated initials; and a miniature depicting the Virgin and Child. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester    Cathedral (UK)

The Book of Hours dates from the mid-Fifteenth Century and is written in the vernacular, Dutch, rather than in Latin; this was more common on the continent than in contemporary England. It is a luxurious object: meticulously written by a single scribe (using a formal bookhand, Gothic Textualis), carefully illustrated with miniatures and impressive borders, opulently adorned with gold. This is all done on incredibly fine vellum, blemish-free, suede-like to the touch and almost see-through in places. The lack of visible errors testifies to the skill and effort of the scribe as well as the time and money that must have gone into the book.

 

 

Heart of Gold

Detail showing the Sacred Heart and four surrounding hearts (all in gold) with their wounds. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

 

Not all of the production is quite so perfect, however. At several points in the manuscript, there is smudging of coloured ink and imprints where facing pages have been pressed together before fully dry: clearly the work of  a craftsman in a hurry! These little imperfections are interesting and useful in themselves, though, as they tell us about the process of the book’s construction. While most of the expected catchwords (words in the lower right of the last page of a quire – a collection of folded pieces of parchment – which match the first word of the next quire, so that the various bundles of material could be assembled in the right order) are missing, probably as a result of the 17th Century rebinding and trimming, a few small ones are visible and there is no smudging of black ink. This suggests the main text was written on loose pieces of parchment which were then assembled and bound into codex form. The smudging of colours indicates that the reds and blues were applied after binding, here by someone in a rush to finish the job and get paid.

 

 

Smudges

Evidence of smudges and imprints where the facing pieces of parchment were pressed together before the red ink could dry. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Books of Hours developed from the medieval psalter, and provided a member of the clergy or the laity with a range of devotional information including the calendar of saints’ festivals and prayers for recitation at various times of the day. They were highly personal and personalised objects, often tailored to the original owner’s location, sex, needs and preferences. This Dutch Book of Hours, for instance, opens with the religious calendar for the year; it contains festivals for saints like Boniface, Lebuin and Willibrord, who were instrumental in spreading Christianity across the Low Countries in the Early Middle Ages. The other contents, while notable for being in the vernacular and written in a precise, accomplished hand, are nothing particularly extraordinary – the real worth lies in the aesthetics of the book.

 

Impressive Christ page

Detail showing the Resurrection of Christ. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

The images above are indicative of the high level of care that went into producing this beautiful manuscript. Gold is liberally applied throughout: photos cannot quite capture the experience of seeing gold illumination in the flesh (almost quite literally, given the manuscript is made from animal skin) as it sparkles when the light catches it in different ways. The visual impact of the book as candle-light danced across the page must have been spectacular. There is consistent skilled penwork in the creation of red and blue borders and historiated (decorated) initials, like the ‘A’ and ‘H’ above. While miniatures appear only at the beginning of sections, they are detailed, rich and expressive. This is typical of the de luxe, high end Books of Hours that were produced for discerning clientele from the mid-thirteenth century onward.

 

Faces

The artist responsible for the historiated initials was fond of inserting faces into letters with a bowl in. I counted 23 initials like this in the book; note the tonsure of those in the centre and on the right. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Such luxury blurs the lines between private contemplation and conspicuous piety. This Book of Hours, like many others, is simultaneously a tool to structure one’s religious life and a public means of demonstrating wealth and piety. While there is minimal evidence of usage – there are, for instance, no glosses, annotations or marginal comments, as found commonly elsewhere – we should not mistake this for a frivolous item, expensive for the sake of being expensive. Just as grand cathedrals proclaim belief, so too could the creation and ownership of a beautiful book be conceived as an intimate act of devotion.

Chris Rouse

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