By drolleries we understand the decorative elements in the margins of a manuscript which appear as mixed creatures, either between different animals or between animals and human beings, or even between animals and plants or inorganic things. Our manuscript is densely populated with drolleries, in countless variations and combinations. Some of them recall the imaginative works of Hieronymus Bosch.
There are cocks with human heads, dogs carrying human masks, archers winding out of a fish’s mouth, bird-like dragons with an elephant’s head on the back and many more. And there are numerous scenes played by animals, like monkeys disguised as knights in tournament or little monkeys playing musical instruments.
Masterfully Executed Drolleries
Special emphasis was put on the aesthetic aspect of the decoration, particularly of the drolleries. In particular free-standing single elements often irritated because of their non-congruent contours, which on verso often looked like stains or like the shadow of the painted figures.
Some of the illuminators solved this problem by painting a completely different motive on the backside, but at the same place and in keeping with the same contours as on recto. In our Book of Drolleries, a phantasy flower on recto appears on verso as a figure playing a lute with turned-back peg-box.
Obviously, the illuminators attended to even the most minute details of the marginal decoration. Another unique feature of the drolleries is the illusionistic play on three-dimensional space. Leafing carefully through the book, one observes a most stunning aspect: some of the motives show their back-side.
When leafing backward and forward, one sees the front and the back of each motive respectively. The artists obviously used the most sophisticated tricks to bridge the gap between the two-dimensional medium of the book and the three-dimensional character of the things they wished to depict.
The Croy Hours begin with a calendar which on magnificently decorated double-leaves illustrates the course of the year. All other miniatures are of equally excellent quality. All pages with large-format illustrations are surrounded by richly carved bronze-gold Gothic frames.
The same framing system is used for the relevant opposite text pages thus providing a uniform visual impression when opening the book.
All 58 miniatures are of stunning quality and keep in line with the usual programme of a Book of Hours: the twelve initial calendar miniatures are followed by diverse artfully executed pictures related to the devotion in the face of Christ, of the Holy Cross and the Holy Ghost, and further by illustrations referring to an Office of the Virgin and to pericopes of the four Gospels.
The Office of the Virgin forms the core of the book around which the Penitentiary Psalms, an Office of the Dead as well as prayers dedicated to various saints are grouped.
A Most Fascinating History
This magnificent work was probably commissioned by a lady of the court of Habsburg-Burgundy. Because of an inscription showing the name of Guillaume de Croy, the book is also called the Croy Hours. Under the reign of John the Fearless and of his son Philip the Good of Burgundy, the Croy family held rather highranking positions.
They were among the most powerful and richest families of Burgundy. At the beginning of the 18th century, Prince Eugene of Savoy acquired the precious illuminated manuscript for his private library, one of the largest in the world. In 1738, the emperor Charles VI took over the library from Prince Eugene’s niece.
The miniatures of the Croy Hours are the work of two great masters of the Ghent-Bruges school, namely Gerard Horenbout who painted the sections on the Crucifixion and on Pentecost, and Simon Bening who carried out the remaining full-page miniatures.
The famous panel painter Gerard David must also have participated in the creation of the book, at least as an adviser. Some mysterious questions, however, still remain. In spite of most minute examination and research, it has been impossible so far to ascribe the calendar miniatures of the manuscript to a certain artist, as particularly the expressive faces are unique in the Ghent- Bruges school.
The work was not painted in a workshop; the masters had first executed the miniatures, and then the book was completed in a second stage. In spite of or even because of this complex production process, this lavishly designed Book of Hours is a most impressive synthesis of arts.
Work of the famous book-binder Ludovicus Bloc of Bruges, created at the beginning of the 16th century. Blind toolings show medallions decorated with monkeys, wild boars, deer, cattle, dogs, hares or squirrels as well as dancing peasants and musicians.
We have 3 facsimiles of the manuscript "Book of Drolleries - The Croy Hours":
- Croy-Gebetbuch Buch der Drôlerien (Deluxe edition) facsimile edition published by Faksimile Verlag, 1993
- Croy-Gebetbuch Buch der Drôlerien (Standard Edition) facsimile edition published by Faksimile Verlag, 1993
- Croy-Gebetbuch Buch der Drôlerien facsimile edition published by Coron Verlag, 1993