The French Book of Hours: Tradition and Innovation – An Exhibit at the Southwest Collection

funeral service

We love our exhibits here at the Southwest Collection, and so we’ve installed a new one showcasing items from our Rare Books Collection! Entitled “The French Book of Hours: Tradition and Innovation,” it displays the titular volumes of personal devotion that divided and classified time according to the liturgical cycles of the medieval church. Of course, the displayed items are replicas–the originals are far too valuable to expose to damaging UV light for any length of time. Even so, they’re a sight to behold.

Books of Hours were popular for several centuries, and were commissioned by and created for specific lay owners. Each is therefore unique, especially in regard to their artwork.  Still, many contained common elements, which often included the Office of the Dead. Two of the Books of Hours we have on display were created for Jean, Duc de Berry (1340-1416): the Grandes Heures (1409) and the Très Riches Heures (begun ca. 1412, finished ca. 1489), and it is their examples of the Office of the Dead upon which we’re focusing here.

Consisting of a collection of the church’s official prayers, the Office of the Dead seldom contains more than one illustration. Rather, it traditionally depicts a funeral service in which a priest or some other religious figure recites prayers over the dead. The image at the beginning of this blog comes from the Très Riches Heures, and depicts twelve monks seated around a coffin beneath a table decorated with the Duc de Berry’s coat of arms. The woman standing in the doorway may not be simply a nun, but the Duchesse de Berry herself mourning the death of her husband.

animals2

The images above and below are armorial images of a wounded swan and a bear holding the Duc de Berry’s flag. They are embedded within the border of the page of the funeral service in the Grandes Heures. Occurring in the context of the Office of the Dead, they could be homages to the early deaths of the Duke’s sons.

animals1

angle view into church

Here is another image from the Grandes Heures: an illustration of the Mass for All Souls. It is representative of the traditional depictions of the Office of the Dead, in this case providing a view into an interior where monks pray over a coffin covered in black cloth.

DEATH_Take_all

The page above is replete with illustrations of historical and liturgical events. But what would a one of these pages be without the customary representation of death? Below the central miniature, which contains a corpse in an open casket, is a scene intended to warn the viewer that death will eventually take us all. That’s heavy stuff, but because this was illuminated in the years not long after repeated visitations by the Black Death, this was not an uncommon motif.

Corpses

This final illustration is a unique departure from the conventional images more commonly accompanying the Offices of the Dead. For one thing, it depicts an exterior burial scene, complete with excavated and partially decomposed corpses. It is possible that this image represents Duc de Berry’s personal relationship with death.

Our Rare Books collection is impressive, and these Books of Hours are among some of its most fascinating. If you’d like to see some of our other, similar materials, why don’t you stop on by and let our Reference Staff see what they can arrange for you? At least head over and check out the exhibit! It’s one-of-a-kind.