The Art of Devotion

Join us on a tour through a medieval Book of Hours

By University of Reading Special Collections

Horae BVM [Book of Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary] (1415/1435)Original Source: University of Reading Special Collections

What is a Book of Hours?

Books of Hours were prayer books of private devotion for lay members of the Church, which could be read at home or on special occasions. Books of Hours were the ‘bestsellers’ of medieval times, becoming by far the most popular and numerous kind of illuminated manuscript.  

Horae BVM [Book of Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary] (1415/1435)Original Source: University of Reading Special Collections

The Eales Book of Hours

This example was produced for Paris use, possibly by a follower of the Bedford Master, at the Pedrizet school near Paris, between 1415 and 1435. Written in Latin, with some prayers in French, it is a typical example of its kind, although some miniatures and text are missing.  

Horae BVM [Book of Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary] (1415/1435)Original Source: University of Reading Special Collections

Calendar - labours of the month

As with most Books of Hours, the manuscript begins with a perpetual calendar of the Church year. Each month is illustrated with a miniature of the labour of the month, for example, harvesting corn in August as shown here.

Horae BVM [Book of Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary] (1415/1435)Original Source: University of Reading Special Collections

Calendar - signs of the Zodiac

The calendar is written in French and lists the saints and feast days for each month in red and blue ink, with particularly important days in gold.  There is also a miniature representing the sign of the Zodiac for each month, including Sagittarius, as shown here.     

Horae BVM [Book of Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary] (1415/1435)Original Source: University of Reading Special Collections

Gospel lessons

The calendar is followed by Gospel lessons by the four evangelists, John, Luke, Matthew and Mark. This Book of Hours only contains the miniature for the first reading, that of John. He is shown on the isle of Patmos, writing the Book of Revelation, with his symbol, an eagle.

Horae BVM [Book of Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary] (1415/1435)Original Source: University of Reading Special Collections

The Hour of Terce

The Hours of the Virgin form the central core of a Book of Hours. These prayers and psalms to the Virgin Mary are to be said or sung throughout the day at the canonical ‘Hours’. Of the four ‘Hours’ miniatures in this manuscript, the Annunciation of the Shepherds marks Terce. 

Horae BVM [Book of Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary] (1415/1435)Original Source: University of Reading Special Collections

The Hour of Sext

The Hour of Sext is marked with a miniature of the Adoration of the Magi. In this decorative scene, the eldest of the Magi is seen kneeling to present his gift and to kiss the Child’s hand. The attention to detail extends to the depiction of a hole in the roof of the stable.

Horae BVM [Book of Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary] (1415/1435)Original Source: University of Reading Special Collections

The Hour of None

Christ’s Presentation in the Temple illustrates the Hour of None. Here, the Christ Child is shown being presented by his mother to the high priest Simeon. A handmaiden holds a candle for the procession of lights following the ceremony (from which the name Candlemas is derived).

Horae BVM [Book of Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary] (1415/1435)Original Source: University of Reading Special Collections

The Hour of Compline

The final Hour of Compline is marked by an image of the Coronation of the Virgin, the last momentous event in her life. The Virgin is shown kneeling as she is crowned as Queen of Heaven by her Son, who is seated on a throne, while two angels play stringed instruments.

Horae BVM [Book of Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary] (1415/1435)Original Source: University of Reading Special Collections

Office of the Dead

The Office of the Dead is a section of psalms and readings to be said at a funeral and to be recited daily as a reminder of one’s mortality. The miniature depicts a burial scene with a priest and mourners. A charnel house filled with skulls is shown in the background. 

Horae BVM [Book of Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary] (1415/1435)Original Source: University of Reading Special Collections

Memorials of the Saints

The manuscript concludes with the Suffrages or Memoria to Saints, illustrated with miniatures. These are appeals to the saints for aid from God through each saint’s intercession. St Michael the Archangel is shown holding the scales of judgement, weighing the souls of two figures

Horae BVM [Book of Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary] (1415/1435)Original Source: University of Reading Special Collections

Memorials of the Saints

St. Margaret was a particularly popular saint in the Middle Ages. She was imprisoned with a devil, in the form of a dragon, who swallowed her. However, she was saved by the cross that she carried, which upset the beast’s stomach that then miraculously opened and released her.  

Horae BVM [Book of Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary] (1415/1435)Original Source: University of Reading Special Collections

Memorials of the Saints

On the following page of the manuscript is a miniature of St. Geneviève, shown holding her symbol, a candle, which was continuously snuffed out by a devil with bellows and then relit by an angel, as the saint made her way to evening prayers.  

Credits: Story

The manuscript was donated to the University of Reading in 1981 by Dr Nellie Eales, a former Lecturer in Zoology at the University, and a student, colleague and friend of the late Professor Francis Joseph Cole, Professor of Zoology. Dr Eales conducted research on the manuscript, identifying fourteen species of wild flower depicted in the ornamental borders and enquiring into the methods by which colours were made. Although it is known to have belonged to a book collector, Henry White JP DL FSA, and was among the books from his Library sold by Sotheby's in 1902, its earlier history has yet to be explored.
Find out more about this Book of Hours and view the complete digitised version via our Virtual Reading Room.  

Related collections

Discover our European Manuscripts Collection.

References 

De Hamel, Christopher, A history of illuminated manuscripts. 2nd ed., 1994. 
Wieck, Roger S. The Book of Hours in medieval art and life, 1988. 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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