The Flowers Book of Hours by Simon Bening ranks among the most beautiful works of book illumination in general. It is an impressive example of Flemish book illumination which in the 16th century was clearly at its height. Among all Book of Hours, this masterpiece is distinguished by two special features: first by the loosely arranged decoration framing the text on each page with flowers and birds; second, by countless variations of page layout within one and the same manuscript. In terms of decoration and layout, this work clearly is the unsurpassed highlight of book art at this time.
Book of Hours as "Best Sellers" of the Middle Ages
The golden age of Book of Hours began in the Middle Ages. Originally they only contained Latin prayers and were used by aristocratic laymen as simple books of personal devotion. Later, increasing emphasis was put on a rich decoration and beautiful ornamentation.
The aesthetic aspect became more important than spiritual edification. The Flowers Book of Hours by Simon Bening is one of the most luxurious examples of its kind. Bening probably was one of the last great masters of his discipline.
A Star Miniaturist Simon Bening was born into a family of artists. Already his father was an illuminator, although no work has been clearly associated with him. Simon was without any doubt the most famous illuminator of his time.
He was born in 1483, presumably in Ghent. He seems to have been active since 1500. In the years before 1519, when he was granted the rights of a citizen of Bruges, Bening must have worked both in Bruges and in Ghent. He was married twice and had five daughters. He died in 1561 at the age of 78.
The Texts of the Book of Hours
As all Book of Hours, our manuscript begins with a calendar, followed by an introductory prayer and pericopes from the four Gospels, followed by seven individual prayers of a full hour relating to the Passion of Christ; the text follows closely the Word according to St. John.
The Office of the Virgin forms the core of the Book of Hours which is composed of biblical texts, such as psalms. The work is complete with the seven Penitentiary Psalms, a Litany, an Office of the Dead and several prayers dedicated to the Trinity, to the Virgin Mary and to various saints.
The text is written according to the usage of Rome and thus is valid everywhere. So this Book of Hours could be used internationally without any regional limitations. The manuscript is written in rounded gothic, a uniformal script, and probably goes back to a single hand.
The Fantastic Decoration
The way the artist decorated the text pages of the manuscript with single motifs, is particularly fascinating. Simon Bening liked the experiment and used all possible variations of motifs. The result is a multitude of decorative elements hardly ever seen in book illumination.
The individual objects are not framed and show hard shadows on the side. The viewer thus has the illusion that the objects are really disseminated over the whole page. A particularly impressive example are the little dragonflies which, apparently attracted by trompel’oeil flowers, now delude the viewer. The motifs used in the book range from flowers to animals, and the flowers appear in the luxurious colours unique in book illumination.
The Miniatures – The Work of a Creative Genius
Simon Bening based his work on an unusually wide range of sources, reaching from panel paintings by Hugo van der Goes to engravings by Schongauer. In addition, he treated these motifs in a very creative way, changing them, modeling them, combining them and adding on other individual motifs.
The miniatures, especially the calendar miniatures, not only depict major events but also everyday reality. Each motif seems to be interesting enough to be decorated in the utmost perfection, such as peasants on the field, carrying out diverse occupations, according to the season.
There is also room for pleasure and delight: boat and sledge rides, and even tournaments take place. Each leaf of this extraordinary work is a testimony to the masterful art of Simon Bening. His work is distinguished by an unequalled wealth of motifs and an unsurpassed sense of imagination.
We have 2 facsimiles of the manuscript "Simon Bening’s Flowers Book of Hours":
- Blumen-Stundenbuch von Simon Bening (Deluxe Edition) facsimile edition published by Faksimile Verlag, 1991
- Blumen-Stundenbuch von Simon Bening (Standard Edition) facsimile edition published by Faksimile Verlag, 1991