Books of Hours are the most common
of medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts, but
volumes of such spectacular quality as Horae Beatae Mariae ad
usum Romanum are rare. Unlike ordinary liturgical manuscripts,
prepared for use in church by priests, Books of Hours are religious
compendia for private use, adapted from the Breviary for an extensive
lay public. Once considered, on the basis of its splendid Roman
script, to be the work of the calligrapher and first French royal
printer Geofroy Tory, this volume is now attributed to a workshop
of artists by whom Tory was himself influenced. This is the last
of twelve known manuscripts created by this remarkable consortium
This French atelier mingled elements of Italian Renaissance illumination,
German engraving, Flemish foliated borders, and Antwerp mannerism in
a distinctive style to decorate 113 leaves of vellum with a series of
twenty-six exquisitely finished small miniatures of saints and evangelists,
and another sixteen more or less full-page illustrations, each beautifully
rendered and brilliantly colored and marking a major division in the
The original book imaged for this digital edition:
9 1/4 x 6 inches (226 x 152 mm)
While the Horae Beatae Mariae ad usum Romanum from the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection at the Library of Congress is remarkable for its splendid illuminations, it is even more noteworthy for its 1524 date of completion. By this time printed Books of Hours were common, with over a thousand different editions having been printed in France alone by the 1520s. Close examination of the Rosenwald Horae reveals that the scriptorium that created it was clearly imitating printed texts. This can be seen in the extreme regularity of the script as well as “printers’ habits” that were adapted by the scribes, such as regular spacing of letters and minimal use of abbreviations. This represents a quaint reversal of the illusion created by the invention of printing in the Western tradition, when the earliest printed texts imitated calligraphed manuscripts.
The Rosenwald Horae Beatae Mariae ad Usum Romanum (Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1524) stands out among Medieval manuscripts for the sheer quality of its illuminations. Boasting 16 large and 26 small miniatures, the Rosenwald Horae retains its clarity of detail and brilliance of color nearly 500 years later. This reflects the high quality of the egg-based paints used, as well as the extensive pigmentation expertise the illuminators brought to their task. In Octavo’s Edition of the Rosenwald Horae, you can examine the splendor of these miniatures with Adobe Acrobat’s zoom tool, a modern version of the magnifying glass that was commonly used to admire these illuminations five centuries ago.
While the Rosenwald Horae Beatae Mariae (Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1524) stands out for its splendid illuminations, it is also unusual in its layout. In most Medieval Books of Hours, each section of the manuscript started on a new right-hand (recto) page, which enabled the final product to be customized for a particular patron or even updated by a later owner. In the Rosenwald Horae, however, several sections, including some major ones, begin with a few lines at the end of a page to fill space that would normally be left blank. This left no room for adaptability in arranging or replacing sections of the text, and it also seems slightly incongruous with the effort lavished on the illuminations.