Book of Hours

The Master of the Dresden Prayer Book


Active mainly in Bruges c.1465-1515, the Master of the Dresden Prayer Book was one of the most innovative and influential Flemish illuminators. He is named after another Book of Hours (Dresden, Sächsische Landesbibliothek, MS A. 311). He contributed only one image to the Fitzwilliam’s Book of Hours – the Agony in the Garden (fol. 15r). It exemplifies his mature work, typified by the integration of the main image and historiated border into a seamless narrative, and the varied palette with striking colour juxtapositions.

The Master of the Dresden Prayer Book who painted this page was a remarkable storyteller. He captured both the essence of an event and the tenor of its setting. He constructed pictorial narratives rich in detail and pulsating with energy. The Fitzwilliam image conveys the breathless pace of the incidents unfolding before the viewer and builds suspense through the contrasting moods and actions of the protagonists. The central miniature shows Christ praying in the garden of Gethsemane. The historiated border depicts subsequent events: Christ addresses the Apostles, confirms his identity to the soldiers, and allows them to arrest him, while St Peter is about to cut Malchus’ ear.

The elaborate border with sequential narrative, integrated with the main image, the use of extreme foreshortening and of raised angle of vision to overcome the limitations of space and format are all characteristic of the final, most mature phase in this artist’s career. The novelty of his palette, including bright oranges, teals, burgundies, rich blues, and sometimes black, often arranged in surprising combinations, further attests to the refreshing originality of his art. To obtain such a wide range of colours, the Master of the Dresden Prayer Book made use of numerous pigments and a number of mixtures, including some which set him apart from the other artists who decorated this manuscript. He was the only one to include ultramarine blue in his palette in addition to azurite and indigo. He used the latter mainly in mixtures, to obtain grey and purple-brown hues, and mixed red lead with lead-tin yellow in orange areas.