Les Enluminure’s current exhibition entitled “A Medieval Best-Seller? New Acquisitions of Books of Hours” indeed highlights the timeless popularity of these Books of Hours that have survived throughout the centuries. While they are truly rare and exemplary in the art and text they provide, their very essence rests on their being a popular form of reading during the Middle Ages. Indeed, they were an essential accompaniment for women and children alike, providing both spiritual inspiration through their words and visual delight through their illuminated paintings. From their inception in the 13th Century through to their flowering in the beginning of the 15th, Books of Hours were the handiwork of artists and scribes alike.
At the top of my list are three very special Books of Hours. Though all these books are, by their very nature, unique to the their owners, these exemplify a diversity in texture and aesthetics. Each has a history that allows us to peer into their pasts through their ownership, and then again into their very confluence of word and art. As Sandra Hindman, scholar and owner of Les Enluminares, aptly notes, “This exhibition chronicles how such compelling factors as rarity and artistry…continue to make Books of Hours such treasured objects as enchanting windows into the medieval realm.” And, so, we get a glimpse of what this engaging world allows us to see within their covers.
The small manuscript entitled the Bigot Hours (late 1470s – c 1480) for Francois le Bigot and Perrette d’Amours is one of the exhibit’s most significant new additions. In Latin, illuminated text on parchment, the French Book of Hours comprises 12 miniatures, (seven in camaieu d’or) by Jean Bourdichon. Bourdichon was painter to four kings of France and a disciple of Jean Fouquet. Accompanying these magnificent and important illustrations is the beautiful manuscript scribed by Jean Dubrueil. To look at this scribe’s work is to stare in wonder at it’s minuscular perfection. The regularity and order of each letter is so tiny and yet so perfect, the words themselves are art. Created , no doubt, through the use of a magnifying glass, the text is sublime. The Books’ binding, a French Renaissance “Fanfare” completes the artistic creation.
A most valuable addition to the show is the Book of Hours from Bruges, dated 1450. Replete with almost 400 folios, it includes almost 60 pictures. The more illustrations, the more expensive the Hours cost. It was a special commission, Sandra notes, with the owner and his wife represented twice within the manuscript. The numerous marginal scenes include a unique Hours for the Days of the Week. Richly colored illustrations adorn many pages, including 37 full page miniatures, 13 small miniatures, and 8 historiated initials illustrated by the Masters of the Gold Scrolls.
Perhaps, the most eccentric and, to me, exceptional Books of Hours is that created for A. Roux in 1886/7. It is a woven prayer book, meaning that it is entirely made of gray and black silk! To see it one would think it a Kelmscott edition. Indeed, it’s vintage is quite similar. The complex creation of this tome, identical to that of making fabric, is astonishing. Using the Jacquard system of punch cards, it is described as the “only woven book ever produced.” The process, like that of the computer, is highly progressive for its time. Rare, in more than one respect, this prayer book has approximately 30 recorded copies. It was originally submitted by the city of Lyons to the Universal Exposition of 1889, where it won the “grand prix.” Aesthetically, its illustrations mime those of Italian Renaissance painting and French manuscript illumination. In this regard, it resembles the customary Book of Hours. Yet, upon looking closely, its artistry is so complex and brilliant, that surely its designer, R.P.J. Herver was of another realm. Transporting one beyond the borders of the book, this book of Hours is truly illuminating and inspiring.
Lest you think these Books of Hours a too common purchase because of their popularity, think again. The Rothschild Prayerbook, ready for auction at Christies, is estimated to sell at between $12 and $18 million. Truly works of art, Les Enluminures Books of Hours are Medieval Bestsellers!