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A breviary is a type of religious text used in the practice of Christianity. It is a compilation of shorter texts necessary for the celebration of the Divine Office, a cycle of prayers that are spoken or sung by religious personnel throughout the day and night. This particular fifteenth-century breviary contains the Night Office, also known as Matins, which were devotions that those belonging to medieval religious orders were to perform at specific times during the night throughout the year. It would have been accompanied by another book or set of texts used for performing the daytime devotions. As was common practice during this period, this breviary is divided into two volumes, one containing the services used during the winter season and the other containing services for the summer.

In the Netherlands during the late Middle Ages, clerics produced between sixty to seventy percent of all handwritten books. Some religious orders (such as the Augustinian Canons) saw the copying of religious manuscripts as an act of devotion because it combined physical exertion with spirituality. Saint Augustine himself appears frequently in passages throughout both volumes of this particular breviary, indicating that these texts were likely associated with a community of Augustinian Canons. These canons, much like monks, lived in religious communities that followed a particular set of rules for how to live a devout life. Unlike monks, however, canons were not cloistered and could choose to take on parochial duties, meaning that some canons were active within lay communities or worked within medieval parish churches and cathedrals. It is likely that Augustinian Canons produced these manuscripts and employed them in their daily observance, making these books integral to their way of life.

A distinctive feature of this breviary is the decorated initials that adorn the pages throughout both volumes. Intricately composed large initials, known as pen-flourished initials, display elaborate penwork and draw the observer’s eye. Red and blue ink dominate the composition of these initials both, with the colours weaving around each other but never actually touching. The blue sections of the letters are positioned next to the red flourishes, and the red sections next to the blue flourishes, which adds another dimension to the composition. The delicate penwork that extends outwards from the initials along the margins of the pages incorporates tiny drawings of eggplants; this “aubergine” style was based on another decorative style that incorporated drawings of radishes, and both are unique to manuscripts produced in the Netherlands. Smaller, less ornate initials—the plain initialsare also found in abundance throughout these manuscripts in red and blue ink. Aside from beautifying the page, both plain and pen-flourished initials serve a practical purpose, as they organize the sections of the text contained within the manuscript.

Wrapped in brown leather, the front and back covers of both volumes of this breviary are embellished with prints of flowers, acanthus leaves, and fleurs de lys medallions, which are positioned between criss-crossing diagonal lines. Both manuscripts have their original heavy wooden boards, and the parchment tabs attached to some of the pages mark the services that medieval Christians were to perform on Sundays throughout the year.


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