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 VIII: Office of the Dead

Towards the end of the Book of Hours, one comes to the Officium Defunctorum , the Office of the Dead. This office differs from the Requiem Mass (which belongs to the Missal). The Office of the Dead includes “prayers said over the coffin as it lies on a bier in the church choir during the wake-night or vigils before burial” (Harthan Books of Hours 17). This concern over death may seem morbid, but to the pious reader saying his or her prayers, preparation for death is essential. The Office of the Dead helps one prepare in penitence for death so that at the Last Judgment one finds rest with the blessed rather than the damned. The Psalm that introduces this office evokes a longing for peaceful repose in the life to come:

Convertere, anima mea, in requiem tuam, Quia Dominus benefecit tibi; Quia eripuit animam meam de morte, Oculos meos a lacrymis, Pedes meos a lapsu. Placebo Domino in regione vivorum Turn, O my soul, into thy rest: for the Lord hath been bountiful to thee. For he hath delivered my soul from death: my eyes from tears, my feet from falling. I will please the Lord in the land of the living. (Psalm 114:7-9)

Three scenes from the church service for the dead are depicted; mourning figures next to the coffin identify that the illumination is the Office of the Dead. Frequently the illuminations at the beginning of this office portray the wake; mourners gather round a body in the church, saying the prayers for the departed (MS 5) . In a rare instance, the body is leaving the church (MS 10) ; finally, it is lowered into the grave. Skulls and bones appear on the ground and within the balcony of the church (MS 6) .

MS 4 Flemish, ca. 1480s-1490s stylistically closer to Ghent than Bruges 19.5 cm by 13.3 cm, BX2080/A4/ca. 1450 MS 4 Office of the Dead In addition to these depictions of the funeral service, illuminations may also show a “remembrance of death,” symbolized by a skull and a figure of death personified (sometimes literally written on a scroll, memento mori ).

Wake service MS 5 Flemish, ca. 1460
stylistically related to Loyset Liedet
19.3 cm. by 13.2 cm., BX2080/L79/ca. 1450

Office of the Dead
Wake service

Burial MS 6 Paris ca. 1450
possibly the work of a follower of the Bedford Master
20 cm by 13 cm, BX2080/R72/ca. 1450

Office of the Dead

Departure from the Church MS 10 Probably Flemish, (1st-) 2nd quarter of the 15th C.
very eccentric artist
22.5 cm. by 16 cm., BX2080/R5/15th C.

Office of the Dead
Departure from the church

Judgement Day MS 8
Probably Parisian, late 15th C., could be ca. 1490s
very standard late 15th C. style, stylistically similar to work of Jean Bourdichon
17.5 cm. by 11.7 cm, BX2080/L75/late 15th C.

Judgment Day
A death scene, full of symbolic figures: a young man stands in a gaping mouth, a common image of hell. One figure holds a stake (not the typical sickle that represents the cutting off of life), another a scroll upon which the evil deeds of the young man are written (the words peccata tua , “your sins” are legible). Frequently an angel fights with the scroll-bearing demon over the dead man, yet no angel intercedes here. Christ as judge hovers above the man for whom there is little hope. Although thematically related to the Office of the Dead , this illumination is found in the Accessory Texts (see the following section ).

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