The medieval Book of Hours evolved out of the monastic cycle of prayer which divided the day into eight segments, or "hours". Those of: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Compline, and Vespers. By
the early fifteenth century, the format of the Book of Hours had developed to satisfy the demands of private, as opposed to communal, devotion. These portable books are smaller in format than
their monastic forebears, designed for use by individuals, with a liturgical system somewhat less complicated than monastic liturgy and more "user-friendly." A Book of Hours invariably begins with a
liturgical calendar, listing feast days in chronological order along with a complicated method of calculating the date of Easter.The seven Penitential Psalms are usually included as well, and
additional prayers (devoted to particular saints or personal issues) according to the desires and needs of the owner.
In Books of Hours are preserved some of the finest works of medieval art. Each section of the manuscript traditionally begins with an illuminated miniature that complements the prayers, to
stimulate contemplation and meditation in the reader. Because they
were expensive and spectacular works of art, the ownership of these
manuscripts was limited mainly to royalty, nobility and the very
wealthy. They are often adorned with coats of arms, and portraits
of patrons may sometimes be found within the miniatures. As their
popularity increased, an efficient system of book production and
trade developed to match the demand for Books of Hours.
Professional scribes produced the texts in one location, the
miniatures were painted in artists' workshops, and the two brought
together in the bookbinder's hall. Patrons could choose the texts
and miniatures they wanted, or purchase complete, generic
manuscripts in stationers' book shops. A thriving economy developed
around the production of Books of Hours, especially in centers such
as Paris, Bruges and Utrecht.
See our inventory of Medieval Manuscripts for
What is an illuminated manuscript?
An illuminated manuscript is a book written and decorated by
hand. Its name is derived from the Latin manus meaning hand and
"scriptus" meaning writing. Manuscripts which were decorated with
gold, silver or bright paint ,are called illuminated, from the Latin
"illuminare" meaning to lighten or brighten up.
A large number of manuscripts are covered with painted ornaments
which may be presented under several forms:
* initials of chapters or paragraphs, ornamented sometimes very simply, sometimes on the other hand with a great profusion of interlacings, foliage, and flowers; these are developed along the
the whole length of the page and within are sometimes depicted persons
or scenes from everyday life;
* paintings on the margin, in which some scene is carried over
* borders around the text (interlacing colonnades, etc.), the most remarkable example is that of the evangelistic canons of the Middle
* full-page paintings (or such as cover only a part of the page),
but forming real pictures, similar to frescoes or easel pictures;
these are chiefly found on very ancient or very recent manuscripts
(fourteenth and fifteenth centuries);
How were illuminated manuscripts made?
During the medieval period, books were written and decorated on
parchment, a type of animal skin. Most parchments came from cow skins, which were prepared through an elaborate process that involved soaking, scraping, drying and treating the skins. The
finest quality parchment, noted for its thin and supple character,
was called vellum. Once the necessary number of vellum skins were
prepared and cut to size for pages, they were then marked along
both margins with small pinholes. Using these holes as a guide,
lines were then inscribed or drawn on the page to establish the
layout for the scribes and decorators.
Following this, a calligrapher or scribe would write on the
parchment with a reed or feather quill pen. In the early Middle
Ages, the best quills came from several varieties of geese found
off the coast of England. The scribe used an ink derived either
from carbon soot or gall nuts. In one method, carbon soot from
beeswax candles or linseed oil lamps was combined with gum arabic
to produce an indelible black ink. In the other, gallnuts, the
swollen nodules produced by certain insects living in oak trees,
were mixed with iron salts, making an ink that eventually turned
brown from exposure to the atmosphere.
While the main body to the text was usually written in black or
brown ink, colored lines of writing, called rubrics (from the Latin
rubrica meaning red), were most often, but not always, written in
red. Rubrics served as instructional guides to the reader,
providing descriptive headings and marking divisions in the text.
Rather than write original works spontaneously onto the page,
medieval scribes, more often than not, copied their work from model
texts, called exemplars. When the text was completed, the
manuscript was decorated or illuminated in the blank spaces the
scribe had intentionally left for the illuminator.
How were illuminated manuscripts decorated?
The illuminator, who was a specialist distinct from the scribe,
had a repertoire of visual motifs which he, or she, employed to
decorate the manuscript according to the nature of the text and the
expense of the commission. Letters that began new chapters or
important passages in the book could be decorated or historiated.
Decorated letters were embellished with geometric, foliate, and
zoomorphic designs, or with mixed elements of all three.
Historiated initials, deriving their name from the French
"ystoire", served as frames that enclosed small figural or
To further enliven the text, the margins of the page were often
adorned with decorated borders. Their decoration varied from small
line drawings of a whimsical character, known as "drolleries," to
elaborately painted floral patterns filling the entire border. In
some instances, small scenes were incorporated into the border in
the form of medallions called roundels or rectangular panels in the
For more expensive commissions, paintings known as
miniatures were often included in the decorative program.
Miniatures are named not for their small size but from the Latin
word "minum", which is a red pigment used in paint. Miniatures
enhanced the beauty of the book with narrative and symbolic scenes.
Their functions ranged from illustrating the text and dividing the
book into sections, to serving as devotional icons and aids to
study and prayer. Within this context, a diverse range of regional
and personal styles developed; making each manuscript unique in
both style and content.
The paint used to decorate manuscripts and paint miniatures came
from a variety of sources including oxidized metals as well as
vegetable and animal matter in a tempera base. Vermilion was made
from mercury and sulfur, while ultramarine blue, a pigment as
expensive as gold, was made from crushing lapis lazuli, a
semi-precious stone imported from Afghanistan during the Middle
Ages. Materials were very expensive, and sometimes substitutes for
real gold were used.
Before the thirteenth century, medieval manuscripts were
initially produced in monasteries by monks working in the
scriptorium, or writing room where books were made. More than five
hundred monasteries existed in England alone by the twelfth
century, and a typical monastic library might possess over three
hundred books in its library. By the beginning of the thirteenth
century, the growth of towns and the establishment of universities
in Paris, Oxford, and Bologna led to the rise of secular scribes
and artists who served students and professors as well as the
Later in the fourteenth century, a rise in literacy and the
development of an upper-middle-class created a large demand for
illuminated manuscripts. The production of illuminated manuscripts
of prayer books for personal devotions, called Books of Hours,
The medieval artist's palette was surprisingly broad. In addition
to the substances listed below, unlikely-sounding substances such
as urine and earwax were used to prepare pigments.
Red Mercury(II) sulfide (HgS), often called cinnabar or
vermilion, in its natural mineral form or synthesized; "red lead"
or minium (Pb3O4); insect-based colors such as cochineal, kermes
and lac; rust (iron oxide, Fe2O3) or iron oxide-rich earth
Yellow Plant-based colours, such as Weld, turmeric or
saffron; yellow earth colors (ochre); orpiment (arsenic sulfide,
Green Plant-based compounds such as buckthorn berries;
copper compounds such as verdigris and malachite
Blue Ultramarine (made from the rock lapis lazuli) or
azurite; smalt; plant-based substances such as woad, indigo, and
folium or turnsole
White Lead white (also called "flake white", basic lead
carbonate (PbCO3)); chalk
Black Carbon, from sources such as lampblack, charcoal, or
burnt bones or ivory; sepia; iron and gall
Gold Gold, in leaf form (hammered extremely thin) or
powdered and bound in gum arabic or egg (called "shell gold")
How do manuscripts acquire value?
Medieval and renaissance illuminated manuscripts have never been
without substantial value. Because of their striking beauty and
great allure, many have been considered treasures from the time of
their creation to the present day. In the inventories of kings and
dukes who commissioned them, manuscripts were listed among their
most precious objects with great care. Many illuminated manuscripts
were made for or collected by the world's most powerful men and
women, who possessed expensive and refined taste.
Almost ten centuries ago, lavishly illuminated biblical
manuscripts or treasure books were made for the Carolingian and
Ottonian emperors of Germany. These illuminated Gospels numbered
among the most valuable items in the imperial treasury, where they
were stored and displayed with other treasures to proclaim the
wealth and status of the owner. It is no coincidence that one such
book, the Gospels of Henry the Lion, sold at Sotheby's auction
house in 1983 for almost 12 million dollars - the highest price
ever paid for a work of art at the time.
See our inventory of Medieval Manuscripts for
Later generations of medieval royalty, especially in France,
commissioned and collected a variety of illuminated manuscripts.
Among the greatest of these medieval bibliophiles were Jean, Duke
of Berry, and Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. The libraries
they formed have become legendary, and their contents now
constitute the nucleus of many of the world's greatest
To the modern collector, illuminated manuscripts represent the
finest examples of Western painting from the medieval period Their
jewel-like quality inspires a passion which transcends time. Such
noted figures as John Pierpont Morgan, Collis Huntington, Henry
Walters, Robert Lehman, and John Paul Getty Jr. have all avidly
collected important medieval and renaissance manuscripts and
Today, manuscripts are collected in the form of complete books,
known as codexes, and as single leaves (individual pages) and
cuttings (cut-out portions of pages). High-quality examples are
uncommon and of considerable value. The collecting of single leaves
and cuttings dates back to at least the eighteenth century when
many miniatures were separated from their texts to be appreciated
and displayed independently as small works of art by celebrated
collectors of paintings and drawings. In England, an import tax on
books by weight encouraged the wholesale destruction of many large
heavy Italian manuscripts, from which the illuminated initials were
Illuminated manuscripts retain significance today not only for their great aesthetic appeal, but also for their depth as sophisticated cultural objects which may be appreciated in a great variety of ways. As great drawings, illuminated manuscripts
represent some of the finest artistic production of the medieval period in its original unrestored state. This is in contrast to panel paintings of the same time which have often been heavily
restored and cost several orders of magnitude more than
manuscripts. Even textual pieces with minimal painting are highly
valued as some of the best examples of the waning art of
calligraphy. Stories of the sale and purchase of great manuscripts
are among the most colorful and legendary in the history of the
world's most renowned auction rooms.
See our inventory of Medieval Manuscripts
Acanthus - A type of leafy plant commonly depicted in
Antiphonal - The book containing the principal music sung
by the choir during the Divine Office.
Bifolium - A piece of parchment which is folded to create
Binding - Animal skin, cloth or metal covering wooden
boards that are sewn together with the vellum leaves at the
Book of Hours - A very popular type of text during the
Middle Ages used for private devotions. It contains a calendar as
well as psalms, prayers, hymns and biblical readings for recitation
during the eight canonical hours of the day, known as the Hours of
Border - The margin around the text, which is often
illuminated with foliate designs
Breviary - A liturgical book used for the celebration of
the Divine Office.
Choir Books - The general term for service books
containing the music sung by the choir, e.g. Antiphonal and
Codex - A collection of written pages stitched together
along one edge, the book form still in use today.
Cutting - A section of a
leaf, often containing illuminated initials which have been cut
from a manuscript.
Decorated Initial - A
painted initial with geometric or naturalistic designs. See also
Historiated Initial, Inhabited Initial and Zoomorphic Initial.
Folio - A leaf of a manuscript that is numbered on only
one side, usually the recto.
Book hand - A type of script common in many medieval
manuscripts of the 14th and 15th centuries which consists of
rectangular letter forms.
Hours of the Virgin - The core text of the Book of Hours
containing reading and devotions to the Virgin Mary. The eight
hours are Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and
Humanist Script - A type of script reminiscent of
classical carved writing, noted for its clarity.
Inhabited Initial - An illuminated initial which contains
a human or animal figure.
Leaf - A single page of a manuscript. The front surface,
which appears on the right side of a two-page opening, is called
the recto, and the back surface, which appears on the left side is
called the verso. Leaves are most often written on vellum.
Miniature - An independent painting in a manuscript which
generally illustrates the text. The name derives not from their
relatively small size but from the Latin word minum, which is a red
pigment used in paint.
Missal - The service book containing the texts necessary
for the recitation of the Mass in Christian liturgy
Parchment - The material derived form animal skins upon
which most western manuscripts were written before the 15th
Psalter - The Book of Psalms with a calendar and other
devotional texts used in the Christian liturgy and for private
Rinceaux - A type of fine branched ivy decoration
frequently used in border decoration.
Roundel - A round narrative painting contained within the
Rubric - Colored lines of writing (from the Latin rubrica
meaning red), were most often, but not always written in red and
served as instructional guides to the reader, providing descriptive
headings and marking divisions in the text.
Scriptorium - The place in monasteries and churches where
manuscripts were made.
Vellum - A very fine type of Parchment known for its
Versal - The enlarged first letter of a word marking the
beginning of a section of text
Zoomorphic Initial - An illuminated initial comprised of