Among the finest Books of Hours produced in fifteenth-century Paris, the Bedford Hours is a masterpiece of the Gothic International style. Named for its early owners, it is also known as the Hours of Anne of Burgundy and John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford. The manuscript preserves portraits of the couple executed by a prolific artist known as the Bedford Master.
Each of the nearly 300 folios has some form of illumination. Thirty-eight are dedicated to a full-page picture while the rest feature ornate, detailed vegetal borders enhanced with pictorial roundels—over 1,200 in total. Every page glitters with gold and vibrant colors making the Bedford Hours one of the most exceptional devotional manuscripts in medieval Europe.
The book contains the Use of Paris version of the common devotional text as well as a calendar embellished with the Labors of the Months and the zodiac. Also preserved is a dedication inscription on the occasion of the presentation of the book to a child of Henry VI of England in 1430. The gold and blue French captions describing the illustrations may have been added for his benefit.
A Medieval White Christmas
No folio of the Bedford Hours is without color and gold. A typical page sees the text surrounded by a border of delicate gilded ivy or lush acanthus and flowers. Among the foliage are up to five roundels containing narrative vignettes and lively scenes of nature or human activity. Each major section of the devotional text begins with one or more grand scenes, either full-page or within a decorated border.
The illumination is the work of an artist commissioned by the French elite, the Bedford Master, perhaps Haincelin of Haguenau. Of particular interest is the image on fol. 65r, a snowy landscape rarely seen in medieval art. Perhaps inspired by a similar wintry scene executed by the Limborg Brothers for the Hours of Jean, Duc de Berry, the picture shows the Nativity, not in Bethlehem but in the snow-covered mountains of Europe making this an early depiction of a white Christmas.
A De Luxe Book of Hours
The main text is a bold, black Gothic textura with gilded and embellished initials and line-fillers throughout. It sits within the wide, vibrant borders over sixteen lines. Each section begins with a large picture over three or four lines of text. Two additional lines of alternating colored lettering have been added at the bottom of illustrated pages as captions explaining the events and characters depicted. A de luxe manuscript is one made “with light.” The burnished gold and jewel-like colors of this lavish manuscript made for the royalty of France is the epitome of this.
Who’s Who of European Nobility
While the original patron is unknown—perhaps it was the dauphin, Louis de Guyenne—Anne of Burgundy took ownership by 1423 when the portraits of her and her husband were added. In 1430 the book was gifted to Henry VI upon his succession to the throne of France. In the mid-sixteenth century, it was owned by Henry II and Catherine de Medici.
Among later owners were Sir Robert Worsley, Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, and Margaret Cavendish Harley, Duchess of Portland. It was sold in 1815 to George Spencer-Churchill, Duke of Marlborough. Purchased by the British Museum in 1852.