Saturday, October 17, 2015

Devotion and the Book of Hours

One of the things to keep in mind with the Office of the Virgin Mary is its deep personal significance to the medieval devotee. Its ubiquity in everyday life meant that, as Roger Wieck puts it in Painted Prayers, “repeated on a daily basis from childhood to old age, the Hours of the Virgin became a familiar, steadfast friend.” Unlike the Mass, which, for the most part, involves little audience input, the Little Office, with its great variety of antiphons, versicles, and responses, was largely participatory. Nobody at the Office was a passive spectator; everyone, including the lay person, was expected to witness, to partake. As we discussed in class, participation in the Office was associated with a vow of service to the Virgin, and service to Mary demands a great deal. Recall the story of Peter Damian’s brother Marinus, in letter 106, who gained a visit from the Virgin herself on his deathbed by virtue of his entering Mary’s service through a combination of flogging, submission, and alms-giving. While reciting the Little Office, the participant might have been meant to recall the example of Marinus (or someone like him), keeping in mind the extreme humility with which the prayer is said. The expectation that one ought to prostrate themselves, body and soul, to the Mother of God likely enforced this sense of solitary devotion. As Rebecca Baltzer explains in “The Little Office of the Virgin”, the exceptionally personal nature of Marian devotion explains why the Book of Hours, a text whose body contained the Little Office, became such a prevalent artifact of the Middle Ages: no other rite required such a level of private devotion as to encourage possession of the physical text.

Though the focus of the class is the question of why the Office was performed, I’m left with this question of the physicality of the event, specifically how these Books of Hours were used. The great mystery here is what role the actual book played in the liturgy, and how people interacted with it. There is no way to account for individual preference or, as far as I know, to get a snapshot of the habits of the devout participating in the Office. Would the participant page through the book over the course of the prayer, reading along? Would they look at the ornate pictures that introduce each liturgical hour, focusing on them as a contemplative aid? Part of my question has to do with the observation that each Hour has a traditional association with a certain event from the Life of the Virgin. Per Wieck, Matins is usually associated with the Annunciation, Lauds with the Visitation, etc. This means that within the various scenes that make up the cycle, there are eight or so that are chosen to illustrate the Book of Hours, with some noted exceptions. Why these eight and not others? Why not depict the Crucifixion, the Pentecost, or the Assumption? I see these pictures, with so much care and labor put into them, as playing a significant role in devotional practice; their prominence within the book, I think, is not just a display of artistry or ostentatiousness, but something more significant.

In Peter Damian’s letter 17, the reader is given a list of historical and spiritual justifications (with the benefit of a thousand years of hindsight, we look at them as mnemonic devices) explaining the particular structure of the Divine Office: how many psalms are sung at what time, for what purpose, etc. Peter also pays special attention to how the Office should be experienced, what state of mind is particular for what psalm. I wonder if there is a similar justification behind the way the Book of Hours is decorated, whether the lavish scenes are meant to parallel or embellish the text of the Little Office.

The connection between Matins and the Annunciation seems straightforward enough. Peter’s letter suggests that during the Divine Office (and by extension the Little Office) at Matins, one should “expect Christ, the sun of justice, to dawn in our hearts.” Matins, then, is an anticipatory Hour. The corresponding Biblical episode has Mary herself gaining knowledge of Christ and anticipating His arrival. Moreover, at Advent, the Little Office’s prescribed three lessons collectively make up Luke 1:26-38, describing the Annunciation. Here the purpose of the Little Office, as with the Divine Office, is to await the arrival of Christ. As for Lauds, the accompanying scene is the Visitation. Of the psalms and canticles sung at this Hour, I find Psalms 92, 99, the Canticle of Three Children, and Psalm 98 all referring to the motif of the natural world rejoicing in God; in other words, the general theme is that of Creation gathering in order to laud the Creator (pun intended). Remembering that the antiphons to the psalms are addressed to Mary, we become conscious that the psalms and canticles are intended to be read as prefiguring Christ. Then the experience of prayer at Lauds ought to be of us (as creatures) leaping with joy in the presence of Christ, as did the unborn John during the Visitation (Luke 1:41), as a way of attaining God’s grace. Prime is joined with the Nativity, the arrival of Jesus into the world. What better way to represent this Hour, which is marked by songs of salvation? The three psalms, 53, 84, 116, are characterized by verses like “For behold, God is my helper and the Lord is the protector of my soul” (Ps. 53:4), “Show us, O Lord, Your mercy and grant us Your salvation” (Ps. 84:7), “His mercy is confirmed upon us” (Ps. 116:2). In general, I see the unifying aspects of the psalms and canticles sung at each Hour as matching the tone of the scenes with which they are associated. In this way, a reader contemplating the scenes is able to enter the right frame of mind when approaching the liturgy.

What I have here is only a relatively shallow analysis of the Office; closer reading might uncover more connections. While I found this exercise interesting, I couldn’t find any textual reason for the pictorial associations in the other Hours, Terce (Annunciation to the Shepherds), Sext (Adoration of the Magi), None (Presentation in the Temple, or Circumcision of Christ), Vespers (Flight into Egypt), and Compline (Coronation of the Virgin, or Death of the Virgin, but not the Assumption). Needless to say, I have no idea whether these associations resonated in the mind of the medieval Catholic, or if they’re products of my after-the-fact reasoning. Nevertheless, I believe, owing to the sheer prominence of these images within the Book of Hours, that such associations exist and can be extended to all the Hours. It would take someone who has bitten off more of the text, and chewed on it longer than I have, to find a fuller connection here.



  1. These are exactly the kinds of questions I hoped you would ask about what it was like to say the Marian Office, and particularly how to think about what having the Office copied and illuminated in the Books of Hours might have meant! My own take on the question you pose (how to read the narrative scenes alongside the actual texts) is that the visual images show us (literally) what can be seen "historically" of the mystery of the Incarnation, while the texts show us the spiritual or heavenly significance of the mystery. In answer to your question about why these images: like the Office itself, there are patterns but no fixed items (except the psalms at Matins), so in some Books of Hours, the alternate scenes you mention do appear. In the earliest Book of Hours extant from England, the Hours of the Virgin are prefaced by scenes of the Passion--exactly as Peter Damian suggested the Hours more generally might be. On the performance of the Office, our best evidence is the books themselves, including the images of the devotees often included in the more personalized copies (as, for example, the Hours of Mary of Burgundy that I passed around in class): we see the devotees kneeling before images of Mary, which suggests a posture and possibly a setting. We can also tell from wear on the books which Offices were most frequently referred to. But, of course, it is harder to imagine what went on in someone's mind, even if we can make a guess at his or her bodily posture. RLFB

  2. The question of how the Office of the Virgin was physically prayed, the interaction between book and reader, and the role of images is an absolutely fascinating one, and one which really cries out for more study. When we read commentaries on prayer and the liturgy, great emphasis is often placed on physical gestures and positioning, and it's a shame that we today tend to gloss over these things, which the participants thought of as vitally important, in favor of just looking at the words themselves (and often not even that!).

    Another question we might ask is what the effect of tying these event in the life of Christ to the rhythms of the day might be. Imagine if, over and over and over again, the association of the Annunciation and Matins was repeated, what new associations might spring into your head every morning? And how does this change the lived experience of everyday? Things get even more complicated when you consider that medieval authors also associated the monastic hours and the events of the Christ-story with the ages of history and the stages of an individual's life. How, then, does history and time operate for the medieval mind, and how does this shape their lives? I find this to be one of the single most fascinating questions in studying the Middle Ages.

  3. While I do agree that there is a greater motivation behind using the same eight illustrations in the Book of Hours, there also is an emphasis in "Painted Prayers" on tradition's impact on the consistency of images throughout variations on the Hours. On page 18, picture 47 indicates that a cycle for the Hours of the Virgin paralleling Christ's Passion does exist, however, it is ancillary to the traditional cycle of Christ's birth and infancy. But I think it's important to know that there was, in fact, a series that "includes the Agony in the Garden (at Matins), Betrayal (Lauds), Christ before Pilate (as here at Prime), Flagellation (Terce), Christ Carrying the Cross (Sext), Crucifixion (none), Deposition (Vespers), and Entombment (Compline)". While Mary could potentially be the main figure in some of those scenes, in others, she seems irrelevant. Therefore, in addition to the Hour's tradition of the eight illustrations surrounding Christ's birth, the lack of prioritization of Mary's character throughout the entire cycle of Christ's passion also makes the specific illustrations in the hours what they are.