During the 15th century, the noble families of Castile, in imitation of monarchs such as John II and Isabella of Castile, became interested in good books and assembled great libraries, of which the most outstanding example was that of the Marquis of Santillana. The Zúñiga family were also great bibliophiles: one of its members, Juan de Zúñiga, was Master of the Order of Alcántara, and several fine works, including Jean de Breuil's Jouvencel (in French), which is to be seen in the Escorial, and probably the Book of Hours which is our subject here, were specially written and illuminated for him. A descendant of the Master, one Alonso de Zúñiga, made a gift of the book to Philip II, when he heard of the king's plan to assemble a library of manuscripts in the Escorial. The book is today exhibited among other works of art in Case 10 of the monastery library.
The codex is made up of 254 folios measuring 256 x 190 mm, and its contents are typical of the books of hours which were very widely used in the 15th century as an aid to the devotions of the laity. Most of these books were produced in the Netherlands and Italy but the Zúñiga copy was written and illuminated by a Spaniard from Castile. The author was obviously familiar with Flemish techniques, but also used certain French elements, along with some typically Spanish features, as in the representation of landscapes and the decoration of borders with Toledo Mudéjar techniques and the inclusion of inscriptions in imitation Arabic lettering.
The manuscript, written in Gothic script, contains 19 full-page miniatures representing major events in the life of Christ: the Annunciation (with the Zúñiga arms in the bottom half), the Visitation, the Nativity, the Angels' Announcement to the Shepherds, etc., all in the hand of the same master. The flames around the illuminations are all unique, with remarkably rich color. From folio 223 onwards, the capitals, which up to this point had only been ornamented letters, begin to enclose fine vignettes, tiny complete pictures. In the calendar with which the work begins, each month has on the top half a reproduction of work traditionally associated with that time of year and on the bottom half the corresponding sign of the zodiac. January, for example, has the sign of Aquarius and a man seated comfortably eating and drinking by a fire.