For medieval Christians, worship was a colorful affair. Sacred spaces and devotional objects were adorned with brilliant pigments, dyes, and the gleam of gems and precious metals.
Upon entering a church or chapel, the faithful were greeted by vibrant paintings and tapestries, polychromed sculpture, enameled metalwork, and stained glass. This vividness extended to the interior of devotional manuscripts with miniatures—small-scale paintings that have a jewel-like quality due to their luminous colors, some of which were made from semiprecious stones.
Miniatures were a large part of the appeal of the Book of Hours, the bestselling book in the Middle Ages. It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that some of the earliest printed Books of Hours are illustrated with woodcuts and metalcuts that were overpainted in imitation of miniatures. These hybrid books demonstrate how the new technologies of printing were used to complement—rather than rival or replace—traditional methods of artistic production.
Books of Hours (or Horae, from the Latin for “hours”) get the name from the Hours of the Virgin: a set of devotional texts, usually in Latin, that in monastic practice are recited at the eight canonical hours of the day. Typically, each of the canonical hours has an image of a significant event in the life of the Virgin Mary: Annunciation (matins), Visitation [visit to Elizabeth] (lauds), Nativity [birth of Jesus] (prime), Annunciation to the shepherds (terce), Adoration of the Magi (sext), Presentation [purification in the temple] (none), Flight into Egypt (vespers), and the Coronation [Mary’s coronation in heaven by Jesus] (compline). A number of other texts contained in the Horae (including a calendar, gospel readings, Office for the Dead, and prayers to saints), as well as the page borders, often incorporated images.
At the turn of the sixteenth century, Parisian printers greatly expanded the market for Horae. Because of the costly materials and, especially, the skilled labor of scribes and illuminators, manuscript Books of Hours were too expensive for most people. Luxury editions—written on large, fine sheets of vellum and illuminated by established artists—were the reserve of royalty and the wealthiest religious institutions. With the advent of the printing press, Books of Hours became accessible to the members of the professional, merchant, and artisan classes. However, even printed Horae could be extravagant. The publisher Antoine Vérard made deluxe copies for King Charles VIII of France, his wife Anne of Brittany, and other members of the nobility, which were printed on parchment and embellished with elaborate overpainted woodcuts, illuminated borders, and additional miniatures. Printed Horae ran the gamut from these elaborate made-to-order volumes to smaller, simpler editions on paper—thereby appealing to the broadest market possible.
Printed Horae could be found in libraries across medieval Europe but Paris was the hub of production, which began in the 1480s. By 1530, more than 1600 editions had been printed. These books could look deceptively like their manuscript counterparts. Like other incunabula, they required some manual embellishment to be considered complete. Rubrication (use of red ink to supplement and emphasize text), multicolored capitals, and line ends had to be added by hand because printing multiple colors of ink was too time-consuming and expensive. In addition, Horae were frequently printed on parchment with overpainted prints, hand-painted borders, and even real miniatures. Sometimes the only indication that these books had been printed was the typeface.
The artists who designed illustrations for Books of Hours sometimes adapted motifs and compositions from contemporary prints. For example, a woodcut used to illustrate Horae printed by Germain Hardouyn was inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s larger, more detailed woodcut of the Flight into Egypt, which also portrays Mary and Jesus on a floppy eared donkey with Joseph striding ahead, a walking stick balanced on his shoulder. However, these woodcuts served different purposes. Dürer’s print is a stand-alone work of graphic art. Purchasers valued Dürer’s unique ability to translate the visual world into black line as much as they did the subject matter. For viewers of the anonymous woodcut, functionality was prized over innovation. In Horae, the Flight into Egypt marks the beginning of vespers service, the evening prayer of thanksgiving. In addition to making the volume a more beautiful and luxurious object, this woodcut serves as both a bookmark for the text and a prompt for spiritual meditation.
Another significant difference is that the woodcut in the Hardouyn Book of Hours was hand-painted in imitation of illuminated manuscripts. Certainly, contemporary prints—including prints by Dürer—were sometimes colored by hand, but the colors were usually applied in transparent washes with the white of the paper left showing in places. The woodcuts in this Book of Hours are painted like miniatures, with the printed lines completely obscured by layers of different hues of opaque paint, including white and gold. In other words, they are not so much hand-colored woodcuts as they are paintings with prints underneath. Horae with overpainted prints were something of a specialty of Germain Hardouyn and his brother Gillet, who employed an atelier of illuminators that painted the prints in their books in accordance with a house style.
The woodcuts in these Horae functioned like underdrawings, the lines of which illuminators were not obliged to follow exactly. This becomes apparent when comparing two pages made using the same woodcut, one from a 1526 edition and another from 1532. The painter of the 1526 impression preserved the medallion shape of the composition and depicted a mountainous landscape. In the 1532 edition, the composition extends to the edges of the rectangle and the figures are situated in a woodsy setting. Both painters chose similar palettes, owing to convention, but one detail stands out: the color of Joseph’s beard. Early Christian and medieval artists frequently portrayed Joseph as an elderly man with white hair, sometimes carrying a crutch. When shown as an older man, Joseph contrasts more with Mary, reminding viewers that he is not the biological father of Jesus. The illuminator responsible for the later impression, who gave Joseph an auburn beard, shows that not all artists felt obliged to follow tradition.
Printed Books of Hours could therefore be considered mass-produced originals. Despite their reliance on mechanical reproduction, they were nonetheless personalized objects that required the hand of a scribe or illuminator to be complete, giving each one an individualized quality.
Author: Maureen Warren, Curator of European and American Art, Krannert Art Museum, 2016.
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