Evolution of the Book of Hours


Book of Hours: Calendar, in Latin folio A3

The Book of Hours came about in the later Middle Ages when laypeople wanted to have a prayer book that contained certain elements of the Breviary so that they could follow the Church’s program of daily devotion in their own homes. Additions had been made to the Breviary over time, namely the addition of the Little Office of Our Lady. This office eventually became the basis of the Book of Hours.
During the Middle Ages, the term "hours" did not denote a unit of time that was made up of sixty minutes and divided the day into twenty-four equal units; rather, it referred to the "Canonical Hours", the designated daily times for specific religious practice. The Night Hours of Matins and Lauds were recited between midnight and dawn and were followed by the Hours of Prime—Tierce, Sext and None—and then the Evening Hours of Vespers and Compline. Whereas the Canonical Hours in the Breviary concentrated on Christ’s Passion, the central theme of the Book of Hours was the life of the Virgin Mary and the works of the Holy Spirit.

Book of Hours: Raising of Lazarus, folio G7

While no two Books of Hours are alike, all include a Calendar (as shown above) that indicates the days for celebrating the feasts of the Church and of the saints. The Hours of the Virgin contain prayers, psalms, and hymns dedicated to the Virgin Mary; this section of the Books of Hours would often include illuminated pictures of significant events in the life of Mary, such as the Annunciation.

The Office of the Dead is another essential part of the Book of Hours; Christians believed that constant penitence was needed to prepare for the Divine Judgment, and the prayers contained within the Office of the Dead were considered necessary to prepare the souls of deceased loved ones for the afterlife. These prayers would typically be performed by mourners during funerals or last rights. In this book, an illuminated scene depicting the Raising of Lazarus precedes the Office of the Dead.  



Book of Hours: St. Michael the Archangel and St. John the Baptist folio 18v

Perhaps the most interesting part of a Book of Hours is the “Suffrages”: these were prayers to particular saints selected by the commissioner of the book. These sections would be highlighted with historiated initials depicting the saints. The Suffrages provide a glimpse into the beliefs of the individual who owned these books; moreover, details within the illustrations of these sections often point to the city or town they resided in. 

To the left can be found an illumination from a page of this Book of Hours: St. Michael the Archangel is pictured in a historiated initial slaying Satan as a dragon. Below this scene is St. Jean the Baptist holding a Lamb of God, a title he gave Christ when he came to the Jordan River to be baptized by John.  



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