The Berlin Hours of Mary of Burgundy and Emperor Maximilian is one of the most famous and beautifully illuminated manuscripts of Flemish tradition. The codex, written and illuminated in the last quarter of the 15th century, features 27 full-page miniatures, 16 ornaments, 11 larger and 36 smaller miniatures, all of superb quality. With its shimmering gold and neat use of colors, it represents a pinnacle of Flemish illumination.
Written in Latin, this book of hours contains prayers and devotional texts for private use. Produced between 1480-1482 in the Ghent area, it takes its name after the owners: Mary of Burgundy, and the Emperor Maximilian I of Austria.
The unknown illuminator of the Berlin Hours of Mary of Burgundy and Emperor Maximilian I
The illuminator has been subject to a long and contrasting speculation, it has been often suggested the name of Alexander Bening, Simon Bening's father. For a long time, this manuscript's illuminations were thought to be the work of the Master of Mary of Burgundy, the famous artist of Flemish book painting.
According to some, the artist of this manuscript might have been among the followers of the Master of Mary of Burgundy, however, only a mere copyist. Despite this, with its richly illustrated pages featuring magnificent paintings and ornaments, the codex is a small masterpiece.
Flemish book painting and its techniques
The borders feature an immense fantasy ornament and nature observation, so that an incomparable splendor arises from acanthus and flowers, fruits and butterflies. With plastic flowers, these borders surround immensely detailed picture frames with their minute representations from the Bible and the sacred history. The technique of trompe-l'oeil permeates the whole of the codex.
The scenes are dramatically depicted when it comes to passion and martyrdom, and lyrically, in depictions such as the Virgin and Child (fol. 284v.). The most famous depiction is the Three Living and the Three Dead miniature (fol. 220v.) where it is still dubious whether the miniature could have been inserted after the death of Mary as the last tribute of her husband Maximilian, or perhaps, in accordance to the best late-medieval sense, while Mary was still alive, wanting to demonstrate the high virtue of intrepidity, even in the face of death, paying homage to the duchess in a very decided manner.
Availability of templates and patterns of Flemish book painting
What is certain is that the artist, whoever he may be, based his depictions on patterns deriving from diverse artists. The Virgin with the musical Angels was copied, from the ground to the particularities of colors from a miniature by Simon Marmion (Book of Hours, fol. 34v.). This and other examples show evidence of the availability, at the time of this codex, of a body of new patterns, generated in the early 1470s, facilitating later productions such as the Berlin Hours of Mary of Burgundy and Emperor Maximilian I.
The script is an exquisite example of Gothic bastarda, a minuscule bookhand. Originated between France and the Low Countries, this script was widely used in the court of the Duchy of Burgundy, so much that it is also called lettre Bourguignone. Typical of the script is the uncial d and the double looped s.
Signs of ownership of the Berlin Hours of Mary of Burgundy and Emperor Maximilian
The owners of this codex were of course Mary of Burgundy, daughter of Charles the Bold, and the Emperor Maximilian I of Austria. The manuscript was possibly commissioned and made in occasion of their marriage in 1477. Signs of ownership run throughout the book:
- escutcheon with the arms of Maximilian, fol. 340v.;
- escutcheon with the arms of Mary, fol. 341v.;
- motto of Maximilian "Halt Mas", fol. 327v.;
- initials MM in many borders from fol. 158r. onward.
As many medieval manuscripts, the hours of Mary of Burgundy and Emperor Maximilian, lost its original binding, the current one dates to the 19th century.
We have 1 facsimile edition of the manuscript "Hours of Mary of Burgundy and Emperor Maximilian": Das Berliner Stundenbuch der Maria von Burgund und Kaiser Maximilians facsimile edition, published by Coron Verlag, 1999