Finest hours

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
A devotional manuscript of the Middle Ages illuminates early spring, explains Stuart Frost

Jean Bourdichon


Born in Tours, France, Jean Bourdichon became official painter to four successive French kings at a time when their court was one of Europe's main centres of art. Bourdichon also worked on designs for coins, furniture, stained glass and jewellery, among other decorative works.

To the modern viewer, the original purpose of this painted manuscript leaf may be hard to fathom. The beautifully realised scene shows the figure of a well-to-do-man wearing luxurious fur-lined garments. The thickness of his clothing and his position next to a blazing fire suggest it is a cold time of year. He is inside a solid stone-built house with glazed windows. By today's standards, this might look rather spartan, but in 1500 it denoted the home of someone from the wealthier levels of society, with no problem in eating well even in a chilly time of scarcity: the bench and table in front of him are set ready for a meal.

Miniatures often retain vivid colours that have faded in other media from this period. Artist Jean Bourdichon has painted a scene which looks realistic, especially when contrasted with miniatures from earlier centuries. The room interior and the figure are drawn to give a strong impression of three-dimensionality. The details of the fireplace, the ornament running along the edge of the ceiling and the script are all Gothic in style.

Such painstaking details show the artist's great skill and the wealth of his patron. The man's gown has been delicately heightened with gold on the front and reflects the red flames of the fire on the back. Two gold fishes, painted against a background of stars and blue sky, represent Pisces, the astrological sign governing the end of the month of February and the first part of March. The elegant hand-written lines of Gothic script listing the feast of a saint alongside every day of February are in Latin, still the universal language of the Church when this miniature was painted. The saints' names are written alternately in blue and red, with gold letters reserved for the major feast days.

This leaf is a calendar page from a lavishly decorated book of hours, a prayer book designed to aid daily meditation. Such books tend to have a consistent structure, beginning with a calendar sometimes illustrated with the appropriate labours of the month, leisure activities, or signs of the zodiac. Such scenes can provide vivid insights into daily life at the time.

Only four of the calendar pages from this particular book of hours are known to have survived (the three others show JuneCancer, AugustVirgo and SeptemberLibra). A book of hours would also contain readings from the gospels, prayers, hymns and psalms.

From the mid-1200s onwards, the book of hours became the standard prayer book for lay people; most were not decorated, or not decorated to this standard. This particular leaf came from a book dedicated to the French king Louis XII.

The number of feasts indicated on the calendar highlights the importance of saints in medieval daily life. The book itself also included many pages devoted to the Virgin, testament to her importance in religion. The Virgin had become increasingly popular throughout the later Middle Ages, partly because she was seen as less remote than other holy figures. She features prominently in the other surviving miniatures from this book, which can be seen in an exhibition currently at the VA.

Before the revolutionary development of printing and moveable type in Europe, books were produced by hand. By the 1460s printed books were providing competition, but wealthy patrons such as Louis XII continued to provide a market for luxurious books. This particular volume may have been brought to England in the early 1500s by Mary Tudor, Henry VII's daughter and Louis XII's last wife (grandmother of doomed queen Lady Jane Grey).

From the 1520s, religious reform had a profound impact, not just on religious practice but also on art and books. Printing played a key role.

For example, many reformers attacked the popularity of saints and the Virgin, for whom there are few references in the Bible. In some Protestant countries images of saints and the Virgin were forbidden and destroyed. In England, Henry VIII's attack on the monasteries (1536) saw many monastic libraries plundered and dispersed. By 1700, the miniatures from Louis XII's book of hours had been removed and dispersed. Later collectors prized the illustrations above all.

Today, most of us probably view miniatures as art rather than practical religious aids. For the original owner, the quality of the illustrations was important only as part of a complete book with a religious function.

Recent research and collaboration between museums and libraries have enabled the surviving pages from this manuscript to be temporarily displayed together, so that people can have a sense of the original purpose and function of the book.

lThe exhibition, A Masterpiece Reconstructed: The Hours of Louis XII is at the VA until May 1.

A selection of original leaves from early manuscripts and printed books is available for use by teachers and students in the Print Room at the VA. For further information about the exhibition:

Online resourcesBooks lwww.getty.eduartexhibitionsbourdichon For a selection of 15 different books online (including a Qur'an and a Hebrew prayer book) visit the British Library's website: For more about medieval manuscripts including an interactive display showing how they were made:

lA Masterpiece Reconstructed: The Hours of Louis XII edited by Thomas Kren and Mark Evans, Getty PublicationsThe British Library pound;20 Illuminated Manuscripts and their Makers by Rowan Watson, VA pound;30 Stuart Frost is gallery educator at the VA

Lesson ideas

Art designhistory

Which days in the year are most important to students? What days do we celebrate now and why? Explore seasonal characteristics and create pieces of work inspired by a month or season. What activities would students use to characterise each zodiac sign today? Create a class calendar and explore differences between past and present.

Ask students to create an updated calendar page for any month summarising life today. Students could update the script, clothing and architecture shown in the scene, making it specific to themselves. Which festivals and holy days are celebrated in Britain today?

Is the miniature medieval or Renaissance in style? Compare this miniature with other earlier examples (see the VA's image database at

How has the artist created a convincing three-dimensional space and scene?

Religious education

Use the book to introduce a discussion about prayer in different faiths.

What is the role of religious books in different faiths? How are they decorated, produced and used?

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