Private Devotion: Humility and Splendour

The spiritual life of individuals in the Middle Ages was conditioned by publicly performed ritual as much as by private prayer. Their devotional books developed out of texts central to the liturgical practices of religious communities. The most important among them were the Psalms, which constituted an independent liturgical and devotional book, the Psalter. They also provided the core elements of the standard prayer book from the mid-thirteenth century onwards, the Book of Hours. Some of these manuscripts belonged to clerical, monastic, and mendicant readers, but the vast majority were made for the laity. They received sumptuous illustration displaying the religious beliefs and worldly pursuits of their owners.


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Psalter
England, probably Peterborough, c.1220-c.1225

The graceful figures of Christ and the two female personifications (probably Mercy and Truth), the delicately incised gold patterns, and the painterly modelling of draperies and faces distinguish the work of one of the finest English illuminators of the early thirteenth century. Like many of his contemporaries, he remains anonymous, but the manuscript’s liturgical texts point to the Benedictine Abbey of Peterborough and to the patronage of abbot Robert de Lindesey (1214-1222) or his successor.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 12, fol. 12v

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Leaf from a Psalter
England, Oxford, c.1240

This is one of six surviving leaves from a Psalter illuminated by one of the first professional English artists to sign his work. William de Brailes is documented in Oxford between 1238 and 1252. He painted his portrait, holding a scroll with his name, among the souls rescued by Archangel Michael in the Last Judgement miniature. Hope of salvation blends with the wish for self-representation and lifts the veil of anonymity common to most medieval artists. Rich in moralizing and homiletic tones, his images unite biblical narrative and pastoral commentary.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 330.iii

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The Psalter and Hours of Isabelle of France
France, Paris, c.1255

David grieves over Absalom’s death on the left and recognizes Solomon as his successor on the right. These images are among the finest achievements of the artists, scribes, and patrons who transformed thirteenth-century Paris into the leading European centre of manuscript production. The volume was probably made for Isabelle of France (1225-1270), the devout sister of Louis IX who built Sainte Chapelle. It was conceived as a sister book of St Louis’s own Psalter, now in Paris. It is tempting to imagine brother and sister planning their prayerbooks together to celebrate the devotional fervour and intimate bond they shared throughout their lives.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 300, fols. IIIv-IV

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The Psalter of Simon de Montacute
England, Ely or Cambridge, c.1340 and late fourteenth century

King David composes his Old Testament lyrics in the initial to Psalm 1 and defeats Goliath beneath. The border contains the arms of the manuscript’s first owner, Simon de Montacute, Bishop of Ely (1337-1345). This original campaign of illumination, which belongs stylistically to the 1340s, was interrupted probably at the patron’s death. Completed towards 1400, the manuscript traces the development of illumination in East Anglia over half a century.

St John’s College, MS D. 30, fol. 7

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The Pabenham-Clifford Hours
England, c.1315

Books of Hours made perfect wedding gifts, displaying the aspirations and favourite pastimes of their patrons. The heraldic evidence, formerly associated with Sir Richard Grey and Joan Fitzpayn who were married by 1308, has been re-interpreted to suggest the marriage of John de Pabenham and Joan Clifford, which took place by 1315. This points to patrons among the gentry, rather than the aristocracy, and may explain the ostentatious illumination. The couple are shown clad in heraldic dress, praying to the Trinity and Christ at the beginning of the Hours of the Trinity, while the marginal menagerie and coats of arms celebrate their feudal alliances and worldly pursuits.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 242, fols. 28v-29

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The Psalter of Mary de Bohun and Henry Bolingbroke
England, London or Pleshey Castle, Essex, c.1380-1385

This Psalter is one of the eleven books made for the Bohun family between 1350 and 1394. It was produced around 1380 to celebrate the marriage of Mary (d. 1394), daughter of Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Essex, to Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV (1399-1413). It is illustrated with thirty-five scenes from the life of David, including the episodes with Abigail shown here. If the courtly refinement of architectural details and fashionable costumes was conditioned by the dynastic preoccupations of the Bohun family, the rich biblical narrative was the work of their learned artists, John de Teye (documented 1361-1384) and the other Augustinian friars who were ‘seconded’ to work on the Bohun manuscripts at Pleshey Castle.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 38-1950, fol. 78

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The Hours of Princess Elizabeth and Sir John Cornwall
England, London, c.1415-1420

This is one of the most richly illuminated English Books of Hours of the early fifteenth century. Each Hour is illustrated with a miniature and a historiated initial representing events from the Passion and Christ’s early life respectively. The Betrayal and Visitation shown here introduce the early morning office, Prime. The manuscript was completed for Elizabeth, sister of Henry IV, and her husband, Sir John Cornwall, who fought at Agincourt in 1415. A petition in the Litany, ‘grant our king and princes peace and true concord and victory’, finds its visual equivalent in the depiction of a king, almost certainly Henry V, kneeling at Mass in the prayer for peace.

Trinity College, MS B.11.7, fol. 32v

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The Hours of Philip the Bold
Paris, 1376-1379; Paris, 1390; Brussels, c.1450- c.1455

This is the central part of an exceptionally rich and complex Book of Hours, the Grandes Heures of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (1363-1402). It was copied by the Parisian scribe Jean L’Avenant (active c.1350-1386) and illuminated by a group of artists formerly named the Boqueteaux Masters after the ‘umbrella trees’ found, for example, in the Visitation miniature shown here. Leading among them were the Master of the Bible of Jean de Sy (active c.1350-c.1380) and the Master of the Coronation Book of Charles V (active c.1355-1380). Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (1419-1467), inherited his grandfather’s book and inscribed himself into the Burgundian dynastic tradition. Numerous prayers and miniatures by as many as twenty different artists were removed from other manuscripts and added to Philip’s Hours to create his private gallery of contemporary painting and a monument to his artistic patronage.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 3-1954, fol. 92

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The Hours of Lady Margaret Beaufort
France, Normandy, probably Rouen, c.1440-1445

The Adoration of the Magi displays the work of the manuscript’s main illuminator, the Fastolf Master (active c.1415-1450). He was trained in Paris and established himself in Rouen, but spent the last stage of his career in England. The manuscript was probably acquired by John, Duke of Somerset (d. 1444), when he was in Normandy as captain-general of the English army in 1443. Its first recorded owner is his daughter, Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby (1443-1509), and foundress of St John’s College.

St John’s College, MS 24. N, fol. 61

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The Hours of Isabella Stuart
Northern France, probably Angers, c.1431

This exceptionally rich Book of Hours was illustrated by the Rohan Masters, a group of painters active in Troyes, Paris, and Angers between 1410 and 1440. The leading artist painted the image of the Madonna and Child. He contrasts dense compositions with imposing individual figures, combines expressive close-ups with lyrical nuances, and transforms pictorial narrative into a visual drama. In addition to the twenty-four large scenes at main text divisions, there are five hundred and twenty eight border miniatures that graft secondary layers of meaning onto the traditional images. They form four cycles illustrating the visionary narratives of the Apocalypse and Guillaume de Deguilleville’s fourteenth-century French poems of the ‘Three Pilgrimages’. This complex programme was created probably for Yolande of Anjou (d. 1440), wife of Francis I of Brittany. Francis I’s second wife, Isabella Stuart (d. after 1495), daughter of James I of Scotland, inherited the manuscript and had her coat of arms painted throughout.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 62, fol. 141v

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Book of Hours
Flanders, Bruges or Ghent, c.1490

Like the most sumptuously illustrated Books of Hours of the late fifteenth century, this volume was a collaborative project between four highly accomplished artists. One of them, the Painter of Add. MS 15677 named after a manuscript in the British Library, was responsible for the display page. It introduces Prime in the Hours of the Virgin with the Creation of Eve within the initial and Emperor Octavian’s vision in the border. The Sibyl, clad in an exotic costume and headgear, reveals the apparition by pulling the text away - an illusionistic trick favoured by Renaissance artists. The superimposed planes of initial, text, and border transform the flat surface of the page into an object of tangible texture and depth.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 1058-1975, fol. 74

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Miniature from the Hours of Albrecht of Brandenburg
Flanders, Bruges, c.1522

This and five more miniatures at the Fitzwilliam Museum were among the numerous miniatures that once embellished a sumptuous Book of Hours made for Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg (1490-1545), archbishop and elector of Mainz, primate of Germany, and one of the foremost art patrons of his time. In the 1520s, his agent commissioned the manuscript from Simon Bening (1483-1561) who worked mainly in Bruges, but enjoyed an international reputation as the most widely admired illuminator from the Netherlands. Famous for his subtle handling of light, colour, texture, and depth, Bening was prized for his deeply moving devotional images, dramatic intensity, atmospheric landscapes, and vivid narrative unfolding beyond the confines of the miniature. In a cross-section of St Anne’s house, we witness the birth of the Virgin, its domestic details adding down-to-earth charm to the main subject and offering a glimpse into contemporary everyday life.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 294c

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The Hours of Lorenzo Strozzi
Italy, Naples, 1478

Few Books of Hours reveal so much about the people who commissioned and made them. The scribe, Alexander Antonii Simonis, signed and dated the manuscript in Naples on 7 September 1478. The arms and prayers reveal the identity of the patron, Lorenzo Strozzi (d. 1479), a member of the wealthy Florentine merchant class, who represented the Strozzi firm in Valencia Avignon, Bruges, and Naples. The book was illuminated by Cristoforo Majorana (documented 1480-1494), one of the leading Aragonese artists of the 1480s and 1490s. He enriched Neapolitan illumination with the Veneto-Roman architectural frontispieces. They open with spectacular monuments set in landscapes, hung with antique trophies, and partially obscured by the text suspended from their arches by busy putti.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 153, fol. 15

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Book of Hours
Italy, Florence, c.1490

This manuscript is among the most accomplished Books of Hours attributable to Attavante degli Attavanti (1452-1520/1525), one of the leading illuminators in High Renaissance Florence. The Annunciation and the Adoration of the Child unfold the Nativity story over a double opening. Centred within a neoclassical building and opening up to a distant landscape, the Annunciation miniature followes Alberti’s principles of geometry and vanishing point perspective prized by Renaissance architects and painters. Presenting the interior of Mary’s chamber as the meeting point of man-made and God-sent, the inner sanctum of the Incarnation, Attavante created a three-dimensional ensemble of architecture and nature permeated by the divine presence.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 154, fols. 13v-14

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The Medici Psalter and Hymnal
Italy, Florence, c.1480

Despite the ostentatious display of Medici arms and devices, the original owner of this refined manuscript remains elusive. This commission brought together one of the most accomplished Humanistic scribes, Antonio Sinibaldi (1443-1528), and one of the most versatile artists in late fifteenth-century Florence, Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora (1446-1497). Praised by Vasari as a painter and master of mosaics, but above all as an illuminator, Gherardo excelled in the depiction of topical architecture and landscapes. His delicate use of gradually receding depth and realistic details, such as the birds on the lake and the water mill at the foot of the hills, suggest familiarity with contemporary Northern painting.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 37-1950, fols. 1v-2

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The Primer of Claude of France
France, c.1505

Children’s books are among the rarest medieval survivals. Most children learned to read from a Psalter or a Book of Hours (hence its English name, Primer), but some had specially designed Primers. This one opens with the alphabet and the Creation story. On the left, St Anne and the Virgin present Anne of Brittany (1476-1514) to St Claude. Anne commissioned the manuscript for her daughter Claude (1499-1524) who appears in the final miniature. Upon the prayer-desk embroidered with Anne’s initial rests the Primer, a fitting gift from a royal mother to the future Queen of France. Like many of his gifted contemporaries, the artist, Guido Mazzoni (active 1473-1518), left Italy during Charles VIII’s invasion and became closely associated with the French royal family.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 159, pp. 1-2

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Book of Hours
France, Paris, c.1525

This Book of Hours is a splendid example of French Renaissance manuscript illumination. It represents one of the finest groups of sixteenth-century Parisian manuscripts. The fourteen de luxe Books of Hours produced in the 1520s and 1530s and assigned originally to the ‘1520s Hours Workshop’ have now been associated with Noël Bellemare (documented 1512-1546). A distinguished painter, illuminator and designer of stained glass, Bellemare worked in Antwerp and Paris. He led the workshop responsible for Books of Hours rich in trompe l’œil borders, Italianate tabernacle borders, and miniatures that draw creatively on Dürer’s prints and Antwerp Mannerist painting.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 134, pp. 52-53

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The Fitzwilliam Museum : Private Devotion: Humility and Splendour

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