Above: Details of illuminations from Folio 30r, Folio 54v, and Folio 57r from the Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry, 1405–1408/9. Herman, Paul, and Jean de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France by 1399–1416). French; Made in Paris. Ink, tempera, and gold leaf on vellum; 9 3/8 x 6 5/8 in. (23.8 x 16.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1).
The essential text of any book of hours is the Hours of the Virgin, also known as the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is a devotional work composed of a set of psalms interspersed with lessons, prayers, and brief phrases of praise and petition. It was first written in the ninth century for the use of the clergy, but adapted over time for the laity, and was extremely popular from the mid-thirteenth through sixteenth centuries. By the end of the period, printed books rather than manuscripts dominated. The “hours” refer to the eight canonical hours of the day: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. These hours were based in the ancient Roman systems for time, and were the hours of prayer in the Divine Office, chanted in monasteries and by the clergy, beginning with Matins and Lauds, which were sung before dawn. Books of hours were also used to teach children to read; the word “primer” comes from “Prime,” the first daytime hour. Read more »