31 Days of Medieval Manuscripts

The Office of the Dead – Day Thirty-One of Medieval Manuscripts

Belles Heures Office of the Dead

The Office of the Dead (f.99) from the Belles Heures of Jean de Berry. French, c. 1405-9. The Cloisters Collection. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (CC0 1.0)

Today is the last installment of 31 Days of Medieval Manuscripts. I hope everyone has enjoyed seeing and reading about all these beautiful books over the past month! I will miss constantly living in the world of medieval manuscripts, but I’m also really looking forward to having time to read and sleep and things like that.

An image of a funeral (f.125) from the British Library’s MS Additional 36684, Book of Hours (fragmentary), Use of St Omer, with prayers in French . France, N. (Saint-Omer or Therouanne); 1318-1330

I’ve had today’s post planned for quite a while, both because of its appropriateness for today and because I’m highly interested and reasonably knowledgeable about it. The Office of the Dead is a selection of prayers to be performed for the benefit of deceased souls in aid their passage into Heaven. The office was typically included in books of hours, frequently accompanied by some pretty creepy illustrations. I first became interested in Office of the Dead imagery while studying the Belles Heures of Jean de Berry. I wrote a pretty cool paper about the bizarre and largely-inexplicable illustration at the beginning of the Belles Heures‘s Office of the Dead (see the top-most image).

The Three Living and the Three Dead from the “De Lisle Psalter”. , c. 1310-1320. British Library MS Arundel 83 f.127v. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Along the way, I found that there are a lot of other types of scenes that often illustrate Office of the Dead prayers in books of hours. These include funerals and funeral masses, representations of legends like the Three Living and the Three Dead, and scenes of graveyards and animated skeletons in varying degrees of creepiness. In my opinion, however, none are quite as strange as the illustration from the Belles Heures. Why are there two skeletons in the same grave, and what are they doing?

This one is rather strange, too. The Office of the Dead from the Rohan Hours (French; 1430-1435), Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, M.S. Latin 9471. By The Rohan Master [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I don’t have any version of the paper I wrote online, though now that I think about it, I probably should. However, I did have a lot of fun writing “Creepy Medieval Manuscripts – Death, Demons, and Decapitation” for Headstuff.org last year. I can’t think of a more perfect topic to end 31 Days of Medieval Manuscripts on Halloween night.

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3 thoughts on “The Office of the Dead – Day Thirty-One of Medieval Manuscripts

  1. It’s alchemical in origin. Check out the images of rosarium philosophorum, especially for the image of the actual office of the dead.

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