The Cleveland Museum of Art
Master of the Old Prayerbook of Maximilian I and Associates, Ghent, Flemish
Ink, tempera, and gold on vellum
8 7/8 x 6 in. (22.5 x 15.2 cm)
Leonard C. Hanna, Jr., Fund
Acquired in 1953
© The Cleveland Museum of Art
Leonard C. Hanna, Jr., Fund
A personal, portable devotional book, a Book of Hours was used in the Middle Ages for daily prayer and psalm recitation. Commissioned by purchasers who ranged from merchants to nobility, the prayer books frequently included elaborate illustrations and textual ornamentation known as illumination. As the influence of Catholicism spread through Western Europe during the late Middle Ages, so did the demand for these often exquisite books.
One of the grandest examples of the prayer book is Queen Isabella's Book of Hours. Isabella the Catholic, sponsor of Christopher Columbus's explorations and reigning monarch during the height of the Spanish Inquisition, received this book of hours from a subject at the end of the 1490s. Prepared for her by the renowned Ghent-Bruges School of artists, the book's cover is emblazoned with her coat of arms and includes masterful illustrations throughout its pages. These illustrations take the form of miniature paintings, ornate initial capital letters, and margins and borders embellished with gold leaf or powder. The subject matter was taken from the Bible: For instance, there are vividly colored, exquisitely detailed renderings of "The Massacre of the Innocents" and depictions of St. Michael the Archangel.
While the texts in illuminated books served a daily religious purpose, the illustrations helped transmit artistic ideas and traditions throughout Europe. Unlike the elaborate painted altarpieces in churches of this era, the books were portable, allowing artists and others to see the styles prevalent in other parts of the world. Securely bound and printed on long-lasting animal skins, they have also survived the centuries better than larger works, many of which have deteriorated or been painted over.
Just as Isabella's Book of Hours was being created, the technology of movable type was transforming printing and the nature of books. Movable type helped bring to a close the golden age of the illuminated manuscript; the tradition had largely ended by 1560.
Queen Isabella's Book of Hours (c. 1497-1500) has been part of the permanent collection of illuminated manuscripts at the Cleveland Museum of Art since 1963.
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