The opulent Hours of Bishop Fonseca takes its name from its first known owner: Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, who probably served as bishop of Palencia at the time he owned the manuscript. It is a book of hours, a book of Christian private devotional texts preceded by a liturgical calendar. An outstanding example of the Ghent-Bruges style of illumination of around 1500, it features twenty-four historiated calendar borders; forty-six large miniatures, all with painted borders; and dozens of smaller images.
The bishop's book, together with the Hours of Isabella the Catholic and the Hours of Joanna of Castile, demonstrates that Spain's most powerful art patrons of the time held opulent Flemish manuscripts in particularly high esteem.
Although there is no true consensus as to the identity of the illuminators engaged in creating the manuscript, it is generally believed that at least three artistic personalities were involved. The Master of the Prayer Books of around 1500 and other luminaries of turn-of-the-century Flemish painting have been named as possible participants.
A Great Variety of Borders
Most of the painted borders are of the renowned Ghent-Bruges strewn-flower type, filled with fruits, flowers, insects, and birds that appear to cast shadows on the pages. There are also fictive carved frames, adorned with jewels, pearls, banderoles, and potted plants. The calendar is notable for its historiated borders that capture moments of rural and urban daily life, including some nude figures for the month of June.
The Hours of the Cross
The most intricate complex of figural painting appears at the beginning of the Hours of the Cross. A full-page miniature of the Crucifixion faces the opening of the text, which is heralded by a painted initial. The fully painted borders of the two facing pages present ten scenes from the Passion of Christ extending from the Arrest at the upper left of the verso and continuing around the miniature and text to the Entombment at the upper right.
Personalized for a Prominent Courtier
Rodríguez de Fonseca (1451-1524)—successively bishop of Badajoz, Córdoba, Palencia, and Burgos—was a royal insider who served as court chaplain to Isabella I of Castile. He had his coat of arms painted in the manuscript in two places. Also appearing in the manuscript are the Odescalchi family arms, thought to have been added at the behest of Benedetto Odescalchi (1611-1689), the future Pope Innocent XI. The book is preserved in a seventeenth-century luxury binding of tortoiseshell.