The Croy Hours, made in Belgium at the dawn of the 16th century, begins with a calendar illustrating the course of the year on magnificently decorated double-leaves. 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 program 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.
Masterfully Executed Drolleries
Special emphasis was put on the aesthetic aspect of the decoration, particularly of the drolleries, some of which 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 a tournament or little monkeys playing musical instruments.
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 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 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 Pentecost, and Simon Bening who carried out the remaining full-page miniatures.
The famous panel painter Gerard David presumably participated in the creation of the book, at least as an adviser. Some mysterious questions, however, still remain. Despite 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. Despite or even because of this complex production process, this lavishly designed Book of Hours is a most impressive synthesis of arts.
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 high-ranking 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 binding was made at the beginning of the 16th century by the famous book-binder Ludovicus Bloc of Bruges. 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