Art of the Middle Ages & Renaissance
During the Medieval & Renaissance period, beautifully hand-written books (manuscripts) were lavishly decorated (illuminated) for use not only by the Church, but also for the select few of the laity who could afford them.
Books of Hours (personal prayer books) were the Medieval Bestseller produced from the early 1200s to mid 1600s. More Books of Hours were made during this period than the Bible! They were commissioned for use by a devout and status-conscious society and are not only works of art, but also cultural documents of their time. They reveal a unique combination of sacred and secular imagery - made of the finest materials, by the best craftsmen, for a small audience that could both appreciate and afford them.
How did one acquire these very expensive books? It was a far cry from simply visiting a bookstore, perusing through volumes of books, selecting one to purchase & taking it home. By the 15th century, professional workshops in western Europe & England specialized in the laborious task of scribing and painting these exquisite prayer books. The cost was determined by the amount of decoration the owner selected the number of miniatures (small paintings), decorated borders, illuminated initials, the number of extra prayers, etc. Gold was expensive, as was blue made from crushed lapis lazuli a stone found in present-day Afghanistan a treacherous journey even then. The prospective owner was expected to pay for his book in advance even though it might be years before its completion!!
The basic layout of a Book of Hours was the same throughout the western world. It opened with a Calendar that listed each day, and the special celebration for that day. Particularly important feasts were written in red hence the term Red Letter Day. Then would follow the Gospel Lessons readings from John, Luke, Matthew and finally Mark. In more ornate books, each Gospel Lesson was preceded by a miniature painting of the evangelist usually with his attribute (John the eagle, Luke the ox, Matthew the angel & Mark the lion). Next came the Hours of the Virgin, followed by the Hours of the Cross, Hours of the Holy Spirit, Penitential Psalms & Litany, Suffrages & Office of the Dead. Additional prayers and decoration were added depending on the amount the owner was willing, or able, to spend.
Individual Illuminated Manuscript leaves are in many major museums (such as the Musée Marmottan - Paris, J. Paul Getty - Los Angeles, Walters Art Gallery Baltimore, Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, Cleveland Museum and the Morgan Library New York). They are collected by individuals who appreciate the incredible time and phenomenal artwork involved in each and every leaf, and recognize the significance these books had on the spread of knowledge across the western world.