Depicting Devotion: Illuminated Books of Hours from the Middle Ages

Washington University Libraries, Department of Special Collections, St. Louis, Winter 2001-2001

Table of Contents
Books of Hours
I Calendar
II Gospel Lessons
III Hours of the Virgin
IV Hours of the Cross
V Additional Prayers to the Virgin
VI Hours of the Holy Spirit
VII Penitential Psalms
VIII Office of the Dead
IX Accessory Texts
X Peacocks and Eggs

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Section II: Gospel Lessons

Although it is difficult to ascribe a particular order to the sections of Books of Hours, the Evangelists (literally “those who announce the gospel or the good news”) frequently appear after the Calendar . The Evangelists serve as an introduction to the Book of Hours, and St. John appears first, followed by St. Luke, St. Matthew, and St. Mark. An illuminated portrait of each saint introduces a brief Gospel Lesson. These lessons, which are extracts from the medieval Missal—the service book used by the clergy—celebrate the Church's four great feasts: Christmas, Annunciation, Epiphany, and Ascension.

Standard iconography represents the Evangelists writing their Gospels, accompanied by their symbol. The illuminations in this case show St. John with his symbol the eagle. Literary texts and the historical interpretation of these texts created the symbolism associated with the Evangelists. In the Apocalypse (Revelation) of St. John a vision of the throne of God contains four living creatures and round about the throne, were four living creatures… And the first living creature was like a lion: and the second living creature like a calf: and the third living creature, having the face, as it were, of a man: and the fourth living creature was like an eagle flying. (The Apocalypse 4:6-7)

St. Jerome applied these symbols to the Evangelists with the following explanations:

the human-faced figure represented Matthew, because of Matthew's genealogy of the humanity of Christ; the lion-faced figure represented Mark, because of Mark's mention of the voice of the Baptist in the desert; the ox-faced figure represented Luke, because of Luke's mention of the Jewish priest Zachary; and the eagle-faced figure represented John, because of the soaring flight of John's prologue. (New Catholic Encyclopedia, v. 5, 654).

In some instances, the symbols stand on their own, but more frequently, the symbols accompany its Evangelist. Tools of the trade, the instruments a medieval scribe would have used, appear in the illumination. St. John holds a stylus while the eagle holds an inkwell in his beak. These portraits serve two primary purposes: to present the Evangelists in a recognizable depiction, and to represent the defining characteristic of each Gospel by its symbol (eagle, lion, ox, and winged man).

St. John with the chalice of snakes MS 1
Northern France (more provincial than Parisian), early 15th C.|
resembles work of Master of the Margaret D'Orleans; possibly work of a follower
20.4 cm by 14 cm., BX2080/L71/early 15th C

St. John with the chalice of snakes
The Emperor wanted St. John dead and thus gave him a cup of poison. Upon receiving the cup, the liquid miraculously turned into snakes, thwarting the Emperor's plot.

St. John on the island of Patmos writing MS 7
France, ca. teens or 1520s
resembles work of the Master of Morgan 85;
possibly the work of a follower of the Master of Petrarch's Triumphs
16.3 cm. by 11.5 cm., BX2080/R57/ca. 1530

St. John on the island of Patmos writing
Since the Emperor failed in his attempts to murder St. John (he also had St. John placed in a vat of boiling oil, and St. John survived), he exiled the Evangelist to the island of Patmos. It was here that St. John received the vision that would become the book of the Apocalypse .

St. John writing next to his symbol the eagle MS 10
Probably Flemish, (1st-) 2nd quarter of the 15th C.
very eccentric artist
22.5 cm. by 16 cm., BX2080/R5/15th C.

St. John writing next to his symbol the eagle

St. John on Patmos with demon stealing his writing instruments MS 6
Paris ca. 1450
possibly the work of a follower of the Bedford Master
20 cm by 13 cm, BX2080/R72/ca. 1450

St. John on Patmos with demon stealing his writing instruments
Demons often show up with malicious grins and engaged in devious activities. Here the demon tries to steal St. John's writing implements. In many cases, readers fearing the demonic images would rub out their distinguishing features in order to lessen their threats (this demon may appear faint either from the age of the manuscript or from rubbing).

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