Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, MS Vit. 25-3

Book of Hours of the Altarpieces Facsimile Edition

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Bearing traces of censorship from the Spanish Inquisition, the Book of Hours of the Altarpieces constitutes a masterwork by at least two French artists who took significant cues from Jean Fouquet and the Juvenal group. The common appellation of this masterpiece is a bit misleading and comes from the layout of the miniatures, where a main image is complemented by a secondary scene below much like an altarpiece would be supplemented by a predella. Several experts now simply call the manuscript the Madrid Hours.

Unfortunately lacking any clear evidence of its origin, the manuscript contains a calendar, the Hours of the Virgin, the Cross, and the Holy Spirit, the Office of the Dead, along with Litanies and Suffrages all written in Latin. The manuscript has lost several folios bearing some of its initial decoration, but what remains is nonetheless a masterpiece of French illumination. Forty-nine calendar miniatures and twenty additional full-page miniatures speak to what was clearly an ambitious decorative program, with miniatures in dazzling colors highlighted throughout in soft-shell gold.

Master of the Madrid Hours

The great quality of the miniatures had long attracted scholarly attention and speculative associations with many of the greatest artistic workshops in France. Most discussion centered around the work of the renowned Jean Fouquet and Jouvenal Group, with whom the artist responsible for the majority of the images could certainly be linked.

Given the failed attempts to unveil this mysterious artist, experts have simply named him after this spectacular manuscript as the Master of the Madrid Hours. The hand of a second artist, the Master of Jeanne de France, is also evident in at least two miniatures, and it seems that the two illuminators had collaborated on commissions before.

From the Loire Valley to Andalusia

Lacking any heraldry, an ex-libris, or any mottos, the wonderful manuscript unfortunately offers little information about its original patron. The "Obsecro Te" prayer on fol. 175r was adapted to include feminine forms while the mention of particular saints helps contextualize the book in the Limoges region.

The patroness is also likely depicted at the bottom of on fol. 175r. Wearing a tall read hennin and kneeling in prayer before a book laid out on green velvet, the lady is likely joined by her two daughters and the trio meditates in the presence of a heavenly choir.

An inscription bearing the name of Señor don Alonso Fernandez de Córdoba on fol. 2r moves the manuscript to southern Spain at the end of the 16th century. Married to Teresa Fernández de Córdoba y Hoces, Fernández de Córdoba was a knight of the Order of Santiago and served as ambassador to Charles V. His wife likely inherited the book, which did not escape the Inquisition completely unscathed.

A brother Lorenço de Fresno penned a note dating 1 November 1573 on fol. 194r, reporting that he inspected the book and returned to Dona Teresa after finding no issues with it. He had, however, expunged some lines from the penultimate page of the "Obsecro Te" on fol. 179r. The trail of the book goes quiet till it emerged in 1870 listed in the holdings of the Biblioteca Nacional de España in Madrid.

Binding description

Repoussé leather on board inlaid with gold and cobalt.

We have 1 facsimile edition of the manuscript "Book of Hours of the Altarpieces": Libro de Horas de los Retablos facsimile edition, published by Millennium Liber, 2005

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Manuscript book description compiled by Erene Rafik Morcos.
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Libro de Horas de los Retablos

Madrid: Millennium Liber, 2005

  • Commentary (Spanish) by Ruiz GarcÌa, Elisa; Abad, Julian M.
  • Limited Edition: 550 copies
  • Full-size color reproduction of the entire original document, Book of Hours of the Altarpieces: the facsimile attempts to replicate the look-and-feel and physical features of the original document; pages are trimmed according to the original format; the binding might not be consistent with the current document binding.

The facsimile is printed on treated and aged parchment-like paper. Folded and sewn in the traditional style using vegetable thread. Historical, artistic and paleographical study volume. Facsimile and commentary presented in a stylish case.

Distributed in Italy by Il Bulino, edizioni d'arte.


Repoussé leather on board, with gold and cobalt inlays.

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