This extraordinary book is made unique by the abundance and richness of its art and the near-flawless preservation of its pages. The combination of an extraordinary wealth of full-page miniatures, exquisite borders adorning every single page of text and the almost perfect condition of the manuscript make this Book of Hours unique. Created in around 1510 in Bruges, the time and place where the Flemish art of illumination was at its apogee, every page is a visual feast. Miniature follows miniature, while the profusion of floral borders delights the eye, each one a wonderfully observed masterpiece of naturalism. Beautifully preserved, this volume is one of the very finest extant Books of Hours.
The best-loved devotional works of the medieval world
Religious life in the Middle Ages was divided into eight hours of prayer: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Lay people followed a reduced form of the full religious day for their own personal devotion – the result was the Book of Hours. More of these have survived than any other form of illuminated manuscript, testament to their popularity and the esteem in which they were held. The wealthier the patron, the more personalised the collection of texts in the Book of Hours and the more rich and elaborate the decoration. By the late 15th century, Flemish illuminators had emerged as the most highly regarded, innovative and fashionable in Europe. The Fitzwilliam Book of Hours is a perfect example of their finest work.
A mastery of illumination
The Fitzwilliam Book of Hours represents the pinnacle of manuscript production. Although printed books were beginning to circulate, illuminated manuscripts were still chosen by their noble patrons as symbols of piety with which to display their taste and status. Their popularity led to ever more splendid and flamboyant schemes of illumination. By the early 1500s, traditional elements of Books of Hours (the calendar, scenes from the Passion and favourite saints) became richer than ever before; trompe l’oeil effects provided a feast for the eye; and realistic portraiture, landscape and architecture emerged as new preoccupations in fresco and panel painting. The Fitzwilliam Book of Hours is a bravura display of the best of these advances, representing the very finest work from the world’s centre of manuscript illumination.
The artist at the manuscript’s heart
The guiding light of The Fitzwilliam Book of Hours was an artist named the ‘painter of Additional 15677’. An innovative artist himself, he painted the majority of the borders and miniatures, excelling in trompe l’oeil effects, whether of architecture or of flowers, birds and insects. More impressive even than his technical artistry was his vision, which allowed him so successfully to combine the talents of other famous artists, plus at least two assistants, into one perfectly constructed whole.
The fruits of a remarkable collaboration
Three other artists contributed miniatures to this beautiful Book of Hours under the direction of the lead artist. Two of them have been identified by historians as ‘Masters’ of particularly fine Books of Hours – the Dresden Prayer Book and the Prayer Book of James IV of Scotland; a third as ‘Master’ of St Michael, named for one of the exquisite miniatures he created for this book. These masters were some of the most sought-after of the day, and their collaboration on one book is certainly an indication of the status of its likely commissioner.
Exquisite floral borders
The lovely vertical borders which frame the text pages are an unforgettable highlight of The Fitzwilliam Book of Hours. Masterpieces of trompe l’oeil, the painted shadows make it seem as if the insects, flowers and berries are literally scattered over the page. Beautifully observed, the borders are delicate and natural, but infinitely varied. Wild carnations, roses and daisies share space with wild strawberries, butterflies, snails and birds.
Pages of script as inviting as full-page miniatures
This is a book in which attention to detail is unsurpassed: the script (written in the iron-gall ink cherished by medieval scribes for its bold effect) has been created in a particularly beautiful cursive – the lettre bourguignonne beloved of the Burgundian dukes. There are flourishes and hairline arabesques, while at times the letters seem to vanish behind tiny tears in the parchment and then to reappear – the textual equivalent of the playful illuminations. Even the commonest decorated initials (several to every page) are masterpieces in miniature with delicately shaded curlicues in white, gold and red on a shell-gold background, while line spaces are filled with equally exquisite decorated bars.
Red velvet with clasps. 19th century's Victorian interpretation of the original one.
We have 1 facsimile edition of the manuscript "Fitzwilliam Book of Hours": Fitzwilliam Book of Hours facsimile edition, published by The Folio Society, 2009