Welcome to 31 Days of Medieval Manuscripts, a month-long series introducing the fascinating and brilliant world of medieval illuminated manuscripts.
Today’s manuscript is the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux, a selection that isn’t nearly as famous as yesterday’s Book of Kells but is widely known in art history. It’s one of the great treasures in the Treasury at the Met Cloisters. The Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux is an example of a book of hours, which was among the most popular types of books produced during the European Middle Ages.
Books of Hours
The book of hours came into being in the middle part of the medieval period. It quickly became very popular, to the point that it’s often termed the “medieval bestseller”. While the elaborate and well-illustrated books of hours you’ll see in museums were generally owned by the wealthiest members of society, humbler folks also owned less decorated versions that they might well have purchased ready made. Luxury books of hours can be supremely well decorated, and they give us lots of great material to study in art history.
A book of hours is a personal prayer book that sets forth prayers to say at each of the different canonical hours of the day. Intended for ordinary people rather than members of the clergy, it’s basically the lay person-friendly equivalent of the daily prayer regime followed by monks and nuns. The book of hours also includes other material, and you’ll meet some of that later in this series.
The Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux
Women were often the owners and readers of books of hours, and this manuscript definitely fits that bill. It was made for the young Jeanne d’Evreux, the future Queen of France, on the occasion of her wedding to King Charles IV of France. The artist was Jean Pucelle, one of the few medieval manuscript illuminators whose name and fame have come down to us in the present day. (Unfortunately, we don’t generally know much about the people who made most of these beautiful books.) As befits its royal provenance, the book is full of skillful and highly-detailed illustrations. You may be surprised by the lack of color and wonder if the book is unfinished, but this sophisticated and subtle grisaille (basically greyscale) style of painting was very much in fashion at the time. Combined with the twists of their bodies and folds of their clothing, grisaille makes these figures look a lot like the sculptures found outside many Gothic churches of the same era.
But here’s another surprise – the book’s size. The Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux measures 3 7/8″ x 2 13/16″ x 1 1/2″ when closed.1 Believe it or not, the images in this post are at least several times larger than the physical book! I remember my professor telling me this repeatedly, but no amount of knowing that fact prepared me for the shock of seeing the manuscript in person and realizing how tiny it truly is. When thinking about this book via large-scale digital photographs, it’s worth keeping in mind that each page is actually smaller than the palm of your hand.
The Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux contains two kinds of illustrations. The larger images with colored backgrounds depict religious scenes, especially involving Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the earlier French King Saint Louis. Meanwhile, the nearly 7002 smaller and more sketch-like illustrations in the borders and within the capital letters show some strange people and animals doing really weird things. They have no obvious connections to the religious text and can almost seem sacrilegious at times. They are marginalia, a fascinating but not-completely-understood feature of many medieval manuscripts. This particular manuscript has some of the most intriguing and controversial marginalia of the entire Middle Ages. We’ll have a post dedicated to marginalia later in the series, but for now, suffice it to say that many scholars have read some pretty shocking things into the illustrations within this seemingly innocent and pious little book.
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My thoughts on Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, a really excellent and informative book about twelve, world-class medieval manuscripts.
In one of my last posts, I promised that I would talk about non-architectural grotesques. So meet the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux, a fourteenth-century illustrated French prayer book by Jean Pucelle. It now resides at the Cloisters in New York, and I highly recommend going to see it. It is certainly not the only medieval…
The Cloisters is a museum of medieval art, but I think it’s more than that. To me, it’s also a sort of medieval fantasy land (in a good way). The museum building is neo-medieval structure that incorporates genuine pieces of Romanesque and Gothic architecture within it. Spending time there is a little like being transported…