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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

02/2013 manuscript  of the month

The daily prayer as a sacred peep show?

The Copenhagen Hours manuscript and its special layout

A book with pages presenting cutouts through which the reader can see pictures lying below – this is an idea that would nowadays rather be associated with children’s books. What does it mean then if such “peepholes” appear in a Christian prayer book, a so-called book of hours, from the early 16th century? Is this just a visual treat, as has been assumed until now, or is there actually more behind it?

Abb. 1: Kopenhagen, det Kongelige Bibliotek, Ms. Thott 541 4 fol. 46v-47r
(with a view of fol. 53r).

The so-called Copenhagen Hours, named after the Royal Library in Copenhagen where they are currently kept, can be ascribed to the workshop of the famous French illuminator Jean Poyer. This manuscript comprises 80 leaves measuring approximately 25.5 x 17 cm and is thus only slightly larger than the modern A5 format. The term “Hours”, an abbreviation for “book of hours”, derives from the Liturgy of the Hours which is a series of eight units of prayer performed at specific times of day. Initially this complex devotional practice was reserved for the members of the clergy. However, the emergence of this genre also allowed wealthy and educated lay people to participate in the Liturgy of the Hours, as it contained all the texts needed for this purpose in an orderly fashion.

The Copenhagen Hours can be dated to around 1500, a period when both handwritten and printed books were produced in Western Europe. To compete with letterpress printing, which had an insurmountable advantage when it came to production speed and low manufacturing costs, manuscript producers relied on high quality execution, intricate aesthetical presentation and complex layouts.

Therefore, one should bear in mind that, besides their spiritual merit, many books of hours represent a high material value. As precious and very expensive objects, they were often used to display their owner’s wealth and exquisite taste in art. They were also cherished as valuable presents and heirlooms. Especially wealthy people often owned several of these books. Today we cannot tell whether every book of hours was used for daily devotion, as many of the especially richly decorated ones remain in an almost unblemished state. Nonetheless it is obvious that most books of hours were produced to be used for performing daily prayers, and their layout is structured accordingly. Often pictorial decorations and texts are intertwined, forming a complex and elaborate relation.

Abb. 2: Kopenhagen, det Kongelige Bibliotek,
Ms. Thott 541 4 Detail of fol. 47r with a view
of fol. 53r.

The Copenhagen Hours is a good example in this context, as it features a layout that with only one exception is unique among medieval European books. Eight pages in the manuscript, contain rhomboid miniatures in the middle of both sides, adding up to a total of sixteen miniatures in the entire manuscript. The leaves between every two miniatures feature rhomboid holes in place of pictures. So when the Copenhagen Hours is opened two miniatures, opposite one another, are visible through the “peepholes”. Almost every cycle of prayers, i.e. a series of prayers covering several of the eight daily units, is accompanied by two miniatures. The perforated pages on top of the miniature form a kind of deep box picture frame on top of it. When reading the prayer texts and turning the pages, this box frame is removed bit by bit from the miniature on the right side while at the same time being built up again on top of the miniature on the left side. The reader is therefore under the impression that he is moving between the two pictures. With every page he is turning, he leaves the miniature on the left farther behind and comes closer to the one on the right. Presumably, the idea behind this special layout was to make the reader cover this distance again and again in the course of each daily cycle of prayers.

That this unusual layout was meant to be more than just an interesting visual treat becomes clear when one takes a closer look at the two miniatures accompanying the so-called Penitentiary Psalms (see images). They show David the king of the Israelites, from the Old Testament on the left and Bathsheba (the wife of David’s servant Uriah) on the right (Samuel book 2, chapter 11). The king is leaning out of the window and stares at the naked woman in the bath. There is a direct link between the pictures and the text they accompany, as it is David’s untamed stare that later turns him into an adulterer and murderer. According to the Judeo-Christian tradition he finally composed the verses which have later become known as penitentiary psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143) to atone for his sins.

When reading the prayers and turning the pages one seems to follow David staring intensely at the naked Bathsheba. The tension between text and images becomes almost tangible. While the prayers are supposed to be read to rid oneself of sin, the pictures and the layout rather seem to almost encourage the reader to follow David’s sinful example.

BARTZ, Gabriele and Eberhard KÖNIG (1998), Das Stundenbuch. Stuttgart/Zürich.
BÜTTNER, F. O. (2004): „Sehen - verstehen - erleben: besondere Redaktionen narrativer Ikonographie im Stundengebetbuch.“ P. 115-116, in: Ulla Haastrup and Søren Kaspersen (Ed.): Images of Cult and Devotion. Kopenhagen. P. 89-148.
HOFMANN, Mara (2004): Jean Poyer - Das Gesamtwerk. Turnhout. P. 98-100.
WIECK, Roger S. et al. (2000): The hours of Henry VIII: a Renaissance masterpiece by Jean Poyet, New York. P. 37-39.

Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Copenhagen (Denmark)
Signature: Ms Thott 541 4°
Book covers: red velvet over old wooden boards, pages: parchment, page measures: 25,5 x 17cm
Place of origin: France, presumably Tours. Date of origin: ca. 1500

Text by Rostislav Tumanov