The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge holds one of the largest and finest collections of Books of Hours in the world, with over 250 examples dating from the 13th to the 16th centuries. Amongst so many treasures, MS 1058-1975 stands out. This extraordinary book is made unique by the abundance and richness of its art and the near-flawless preservation of its pages.
The combination of an extraordinary wealth of full-page miniatures, exquisite borders adorning every single page of text and the almost perfect condition of the manuscript make this Book of Hours unique. Created in around 1510 in Bruges, the time and place where the Flemish art of illumination was at its apogee, every page is a visual feast. Miniature follows miniature, while the profusion of floral borders delights the eye, each one a wonderfully observed masterpiece of naturalism. Beautifully preserved, this volume is one of the very finest extant Books of Hours.
Religious life in the Middle Ages was divided into eight hours of prayer: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Lay people followed a reduced form of the full religious day for their own personal devotion – the result was the Book of Hours. More of these have survived than any other form of illuminated manuscript, testament to their popularity and the esteem in which they were held. The wealthier the patron, the more personalised the collection of texts in the Book of Hours and the more rich and elaborate the decoration. By the late 15th century, Flemish illuminators had emerged as the most highly regarded, innovative and fashionable in Europe. The Fitzwilliam Book of Hours is a perfect example of their finest work.
The Fitzwilliam Book of Hours represents the pinnacle of manuscript production. Although printed books were beginning to circulate, illuminated manuscripts were still chosen by their noble patrons as symbols of piety with which to display their taste and status. Their popularity led to ever more splendid and flamboyant schemes of illumination. By the early 1500s, traditional elements of Books of Hours (the calendar, scenes from the Passion and favourite saints) became richer than ever before; trompe l’oeil effects provided a feast for the eye; and realistic portraiture, landscape and architecture emerged as new preoccupations in fresco and panel painting. The Fitzwilliam Book of Hours is a bravura display of the best of these advances, representing the very finest work from the world’s centre of manuscript illumination.
The guiding light of The Fitzwilliam Book of Hours was an artist named the ‘painter of Additional 15677’. An innovative artist himself, he painted the majority of the borders and miniatures, excelling in trompe l’oeil effects, whether of architecture or of flowers, birds and insects. More impressive even than his technical artistry was his vision, which allowed him so successfully to combine the talents of other famous artists, plus at least two assistants, into one perfectly constructed whole.
Three other artists contributed miniatures to this beautiful Book of Hours under the direction of the lead artist. Two of them have been identified by historians as ‘Masters’ of particularly fine Books of Hours – the Dresden Prayer Book and the Prayer Book of James IV of Scotland; a third as ‘Master’ of St Michael, named for one of the exquisite miniatures he created for this book. These masters were some of the most sought-after of the day, and their collaboration on one book is certainly an indication of the status of its likely commissioner.
The lovely vertical borders which frame the text pages are an unforgettable highlight of The Fitzwilliam Book of Hours. Masterpieces of trompe l’oeil, the painted shadows make it seem as if the insects, flowers and berries are literally scattered over the page. Beautifully observed, the borders are delicate and natural, but infinitely varied. Wild carnations, roses and daisies share space with wild strawberries, butterflies, snails and birds.
This is a book in which attention to detail is unsurpassed: the script (written in the iron-gall ink cherished by medieval scribes for its bold effect) has been created in a particularly beautiful cursive – the lettre bourguignonne beloved of the Burgundian dukes. There are flourishes and hairline arabesques, while at times the letters seem to vanish behind tiny tears in the parchment and then to reappear – the textual equivalent of the playful illuminations. Even the commonest decorated initials (several to every page) are masterpieces in miniature with delicately shaded curlicues in white, gold and red on a shell-gold background, while line spaces are filled with equally exquisite decorated bars.
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Since the binding on the original manuscript, kept in the Fitzwilliam Museum, is a Victorian interpretation, a sumptuous new binding has been created for this Folio Society facsimile, using a pomegranate design present in several illuminations (see, for example, the miniature of St Barbara). The gorgeous fabric is a silk-woven jacquard embellished with gold weft, specially commissioned from Stephen Walters and Sons, a mill originally founded by a Huguenot silk-weaver in the 1720s.
The manuscript was photographed by Andrew Morris, widely recognised as one of the leading manuscript photographers in the UK, who captured the incredibly detailed, fine filigree gold lines. Printed by Beacon Press (who won the Fine Art Printer of the Year Award for their work on our limited edition of The Temple of Flora) this is a showpiece of the quality possible with new technological advances. The paper has been specially selected for its similarity to vellum, and the rich colours of the gold, the deep blue and the pastel shades of the flowers glow on the page.
Before binding, the edges of the book are stained deep blue and then gilded, to give them a subtle patina. The books are then hand-bound by Smith Settle, who have been entrusted with some of the finest binding work for the Society over the last few years.
Stella Panayotova, Keeper of Manuscripts at the Fitzwilliam Museum, has undertaken a detailed investigation into the origins of the manuscript, and her findings are presented in a fascinating commentary. Several clues in the manuscript suggest three avenues of investigation: a connection to Besançon in France, a special interest in the emblems of the Burgundian-Hapsburg royalty, and a strong personal devotion to St Anthony. There is even an unusual portrait of a high-ranking ecclesiastic in one miniature – could this be the very man who commissioned the work, immortalised in his own precious book of devotion? It is an absorbing detective story, using numerous tests to examine clues within the fabric of the book as well as more traditional scholarship.
Review by AliceF10 on 7th Jun 2013
"I've had this book for some time now, plenty of time to study it, however, as yet I haven't given it my full attention, having been so busy collecting other fine books. I find the binding an excellent..." [read more]
Review by wjcarter on 16th Jun 2012
"I have just finished reading the Fitzwilliam Book of Hours - with a magnifying glass! I have no ability to read the medieval Latin, but the illustrations on every page are so finely done that a magni..." [read more]