Book of Hours

Selections from the Nasher Museum of Art
April 1, 2008
Book of Hours, c. 1490, workshop of Jean Bourdichon, Tours, France. Ink, gilt, and tempera on vellum, 6 1⁄2 x 3 3⁄4 inches. Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art

Book of Hours, c. 1490,
workshop of Jean Bourdichon, Tours, France.
Ink, gilt, and tempera on vellum,
6 1⁄2 x 3 3⁄4 inches.
Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art

The Book of Hours was used in the late Middle Ages as a private prayer book for daily devotions. The text was adapted from the Psalter and the Breviary (a book used for religious services). Its great popularity reflected people's concern for a more direct and intimate relationship with God, without the mediation of the clergy.

In the fourteenth century, illustrated Books of Hours were commissioned by nobles and aristocrats and were produced by workshops headed by celebrated painters. By the fifteenth century, book dealers and lay workshops supplied the growing demand from affluent townspeople.

A Book of Hours was more than a compendium of prayers and devotional images. It provided its owner with a luxury object that expressed social status and served as a family reader used by mothers to educate their daughters. The Nasher's Book of Hours was probably originally owned by a woman, identity unknown, who is shown in prayer in one of the early pages.

The book displays the luminous colors and rich gold details for which medieval books are famous. It contains thirteen miniature paintings depicting the life of the virgin, the infancy of Christ, the crucifixion, and the torments of hell; a fully illustrated calendar with zodiac imagery and the labors of the months; and thirteen initials that are "historiated" or decorated with scenes or figures.

On this page we see the flight into Egypt of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, along with a hunting scene below, and a grotesque figure with bow and arrow on the side margin. These kinds of separate marginal images—scenes of everyday life and of the fantastical—were often incorporated into Books of Hours. Scholars refer to them as "marginalia."

The open-air, naturalistic landscape and apparent continuity between separate scenes on the same page are typical of this later medieval period.