This splendid illuminated manuscript is named after the probable original owner, the Bishop Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca. When the Hours of the Virgin was conceived as a devotional book of lay private use, surely nobody foresaw how greatly successful it would become with the passing of the centuries (14th century and 15th century). When it was acquired by the bishop it is assumed to have been in possession of well-off bourgeois, secondary nobles and the most powerful kings and members of the royal families.
The book of choice of very important members of the Church
Besides, it is possible that it had been chosen for their prayers by different members of the church, just like the Bishop Fonseca. It belonged to a family of Portuguese origin, very well-known in times of the Catholic Kings, period in which some very important prelates were provided to the Spanish church. The monarchs relied on some clergymen – Fonseca is an example– to whom they helped to take part in a “cursum honorum” which was useful in delicate missions, making the most of their loyalty and, in the same way, their preparation in Law and Latin.
Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca was one of these men. Successively he occupied the episcopal sees of Córdoba, Badajoz, Palencia and Burgos (it seems he was even proposed as the archbishop of Santiago de Compostela, but he refused). As a representative of the Kings, he had to travel to the Netherlands, getting in touch with some artistic mean which was not the favourite for Spaniards at that moment. Taking advantages of these embassies, he purchased cycles of great already complete tapestries and ordered some others which he never got to see, altarpieces for a privileged space which prepared the altarpiece of the choir of the Cathedral of Palencia, rich vestments, etc. Above all, he got the book of Hours which carries his name. After his death, he left almost all the objects acquired to the cathedrals of Palencia and Burgos in his will, but The Hours are not mentioned. Maybe for its personal characteristics he preferred to leave it to his brother Antonio Fonseca, testamentary executor.
The realism of an excellent manuscript
The excellent and rich manuscript might have been ready when it was acquired and all that was left to do was to complete it with the heraldic addition that he used with generosity. It is a piece which could have been composed towards 1495 – 1500, ornamented with the rich repertoire of the Gante-Brugge school, which generates towards 1470 – 1475, started by the anonymous miniaturist known as the Master of Maria de Borgoña.
The rectangular margins were gold-platted or were painted imitating it. Over it there are representations of plants, animals, scenes with human characters, of a surprising realism which produced a marked effect of trompe l’oeil. The miniaturist conceives the scenery as something which should take up the whole folio, but that seems to be partially covered with a sheet (again the trompe l’oeil) in which we find the Saints of the month, some of them of universal worship and others chosen for being linked to those who ordered the codex or to the episcopal see where it is carried out.
There are abundant gender scenes, that is to say related to everyday life and of not exclusively religious content, with festivities, weddings, etc., prelude to those which by the mid 16th century will make Flemish paint famous. Actually, the images in the anonymous master known as the Master of the Oracional of 1500 are many and of noticeable quality. Some more personal and other more similar to the ones produced by the method of Gante-Brugge, such as the beautiful Virgin enthroned with the Child, surrounded by angels.
The masterpiece in miniature art
All this makes this one of those masterpieces produced in the Middle Ages. Names as famous and as illustrious as Gerard David, Alexander and Simon Bening, Gerard Horenbout, etc., belong to the school of Gante – Brugge. All of them have left an indelible trace in the history of miniatures. This school caused an important change in the conception of the miniatures and the borders. The characters are enlarged; the features of their faces are more blended so they can express feelings. But, above all, there is a fundamental change in the borders, in which we discover boundless imagination and special effects –just like the three– dimensionality of many animals which look almost as if they were in movement –that end up creating a new style. More than one art reviewer has wanted to see in the Bishop Fonseca’s Book of Hours the direct hand of some of these great characters of the Flemish miniature, due to its similarity of features and styles to another work that also belong to this school, as it is the case of, for instance, the Book of Hours of Rothschild.
At the moment, and until a new more comprehensive research authorizes a new hypothesis, prudence advises to continue ascribing the miniatures of Fonseca’s book, the majority of it, to the anonymous master of the 1500 Orational. However, we cannot disregard that future investigation may bring surprising links to some of these classic names, or with others of the stature of Memling, Van der Goes, or compositions directly inspired on Van Eyck paintings.
We have 1 facsimile edition of the manuscript "Book of Hours of the Bishop Fonseca": Libro de Horas del Obispo Fonseca facsimile edition, published by Siloé, arte y bibliofilia, 2011