Hours well spent

Hours well spent 'Annunciation' from The Coëtivy Hours, CBL W 082 f/21. © The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.
Visitors to the Chester Beatty Library have a chance to 
see one of the city’s religious and artistic treasures, 
writes Greg Daly


Today’s Divine Office is a simpler set of prayers than that which previous generations of Catholics were faced. Putting forward a new revised Liturgy of the Hours in 1970, Pope Paul VI said: “The Office has been drawn up and arranged in such a way that not only clergy but also religious and indeed laity may participate in it, since it is the prayer of the whole people of God.”

In the Middle Ages, on the other hand, lay people who wished to pray the Prayer of the Church would typically pray a simplified version of the Divine Office, according to Jill Unkel, curator of the Chester Beatty Library’s new exhibition ‘Miniature Masterpiece: The Coëtivy Hours’.

“A book of hours is a personal prayer book,” she explains. “The core text of most books of hours is an abbreviated, shortened, simplified version of the much more complicated Office, which are the prayers and hymns and psalms that are officially said every day, eight times a day, at particular times of day by monks and clerics in monasteries and cathedrals.”

 of hours

In the 13th Century, she says, simplified versions of the Office were developed which could be used by the lay public. “The Divine Office would be the more complex one and then the simplified one is called the Little Office of the Virgin or the Hours of the Virgin – there’s also the Hours of the Holy Spirit and the Hours of the Holy Cross and books of hours could include either or both of those as well,” she says.

Such books were immensely popular from the 13th to about the 16th Century, she says, with the quality of their workmanship varying immensely, partly because of the nature of handmade books, and partly because those commissioning them would have wanted different things, with heavily illuminated ones being highly expensive and typically the preserve of aristocrats or even members of royal households.

The 15th-Century Coëtivy Hours could hardly have been more expensive, given how extravagantly it was illustrated.

“This book of hours has 148 little miniature paintings,” she says, adding that the book’s more than 200 other pages haven’t been neglected. “Every single page has illuminated borders with these kind of scrolling acanthus leaves and little flowers – back and front, every page.  If you wanted to maybe cut the price of how much a book would cost you would only decorate the borders of pages that had actual paintings on them, and not also the text pages,” she says.

“And then on top of that within each border you have these little marginal creatures. You have humans – people in prayer, people sitting in the countryside. You have animals like apes, bears, dogs, cats and mice.

“And then I suppose the most interesting is that you have these mythological and supernatural creatures, so of course you have angels all  over the place because they’re messengers of God and it’s a religious text, but I think the thing that a lot of people find surprising is that you also have these half-human, half-animal hybrids so mermaids and centaurs and these other sort of nondescript half-animal half-human beings that  do quite human-like things so they’re playing musical instruments or they’re shooting bows and arrows or they’re interacting with humans and with other animals.”

Such illustrations are intended, she says, to be both entertaining and rewarding: “The creatures are limited to being in the margins, and so they’re outside of where the religious text is.  They’re slightly distracting while you’re reading but they’re also there to show the dangers of of turning away from the text and the prayers that you’re supposed to be reading to help you gain your eternal life in heaven.”

The book, she explains, was commissioned by the Admiral of France, Prigent de Coëtivy, following his 1442 marriage to Marie de Rais which gave de Coëtivy the confiscated de Rais lands – Marie’s father had been Gilles de Rais, executed along with two of his employees 1440 for the sadistic murders of an unknown number of children.

Describing the negotiation of the marriage as quite lucrative for de Coëtivy, who had worked his way up to the top of France’s aristocracy, Dr Unkel says the book was “symbolic of his new wealth”.

“The more illumination the higher the cost,” she says. “The cost will be per page and also for the materials, so the more expensive the actual pigments cost, the more expensive it is. The fact that there’s gold leaf and shell gold – painted gold – on almost every page is really indicative of how costly the book would have been.”

A book of such value would have been a powerful status symbol, she continues, opining that de Coëtivy would have shown it to people, and that a catalogue of his own library exists.

“We know that he also owned romances, histories, and books of hours that were made earlier that would have been handed down to him or that he would have acquired secondhand from a dealer. This one he commissioned himself, and  we know that because his arms are strewn throughout the entire book,” she says.

The book in fact features both the quartered de Coëtivy coat of arms drawn up following the marriage to Marie de Rais and the original de Coëtivy arms, painted over the quartered arms by Prignet’s prelate brother Alain, a cardinal who inherited the book when de Coëtivy died after being struck by a cannonball at the siege of Cherbourg in 1450. Over time abrasion and the effects of age have caused the original quartered crests to reappear.


It’s thought that the book stayed in the family in one way or another for centuries, being rebound by the Count of Bardi in the early 19th Century. “These seem to have been a branch of Bourbon family and it had probably passed through branches of the family over time,” says Dr Unkel. “It then wound up with a book dealer, then another book dealer, and then the collector Yates Thompson, a very famous collector who wanted to acquire the 100 most beautiful examples of European illuminated manuscripts.”

Despite its jewel-like beauty, the Coëtivy Hours ultimately did not meet his tastes, and he arranged to sell it by auction, before being prevailed upon by Edith Beatty to sell it to her for £4,000 – the equivalent of £200,000 (€225,000) – so she could give it to her husband for the sixth anniversary of their wedding.

“It was fitting, really, for it to be made to commemorate a wedding and then given again to commemorate their wedding,” says Dr Unkel.

With 144 of the book’s pages on display as of this week in the Chester Beatty Library, visitors will be spoiled poring over the illustrations, with, for instance, paintings of the Ascension adorned with angels bearing the tools of the Passion and the feet of Our Lord disappearing into the Heavens above Mary and the gathered Apostles.

The pictures are painted using a technique called demi-grisaille, which basically the artists who illustrated the book painted in greyscale and then added gold leaf and colour.

“What they’ve done is primarily painted the figures and their garments with a very white palette with occasional hints of colour and gold,” Dr Unkel explains, pointing out how embroidery or amour might be picked up in gold or the linings of clothing could be coloured. “For something that we call partially in grayscale there is an abundance of colour in the palette.  The white is very obvious as primary pigment, but when you look at them, there is a ton of colour in it – red and blue and green and yellow — and that tends to not be just highlighting features but settings themselves can be in a different colour if it’s in a landscape.”

The borders, she adds, tend to be very colourful, filled as they are with with scrolling acanthus leaves and recognisable flowers.

It’s interesting to look at a painting of St Luke painting an icon of the Virgin Mary, whose halo takes the form of a ring, as distinct to the rays coming from the saint’s own head. Sometimes these distinctions can point to different artists, but in this case, Dr Unkel says, the difference is intended to distinguish between the importance of the two individuals. “Mary’s more important, so she gets the ring,” she says.

While St Luke is shown working alone, that doesn’t mean the book was created that way, however.

“It’s definitely created in a kind of workshop,” Dr Unkel says. “How big the workshop is is a matter of a kind of educated guessing. There seems to have been at least two hands creating the main paintings – or at least the figures in the main paintings – so you’ve got at least two artists at the top of their game, and then maybe three assistants or apprentices who are also working on details.

“The borders are definitely being done by an apprentice, but the little figures inside them may or may not have been done by a more senior hand.  You can see different styles in the marginal figures as well. The text would have been written by someone else entirely, and the little illuminated capitals would have been worked on by an assistant artist,” she adds.

The illustrations follow a sort of narrative order, she explains, with images of the Annunciation being followed by the Visitation and the Nativity and so on, the Annunciation being striking for being represented in what appears to be a French church rendered in gold, with gold also being used to mark the angels wings and God’s rays coming from Heaven.

“The building is painted in a beautiful shell gold,” Dr Unkel says, marvelling at how the gold sparkles when viewed in person. “There’s a three-dimensional nature to it, it really pops off the page and really makes the image sparkle – and is supposed to make each image sparkle – with a heavenly light.”

Commenting on the apparently ecclesiastical background, Dr Unkel says the building is definitely medieval French architecture, with Mary placed in a religious context, cordoned off by sumptuous drapes to make an intimate space in a large building.

“The building itself,  which you can see both inside and outside, looks quite vast, and is probably a reference to Notre Dame cathedral which  would have been really close to where the artists were working from,” she says, adding that “the ceiling itself is painted with blue and small gold stars and that is something you can see even now in Sainte-Chapelle in Paris”.

Such a contemporary backdrop isn’t really surprising, she explains, noting that while Biblical figures may be depicted in loose robes, soldiers would often have been depicted in contemporary dress and in settings familiar to the audience.  “The painters who are working on them are looking at buildings around them – in Paris where they’re creating this, they’re looking at the architecture of the buildings they see every day and that informs what they’re including,” she says.

“This is not a new thing – a lot of artists would use the familiar in terms of settings,” she continues. “Architecture throughout the history of religious painting tends to be contemporary and I think that is partially because of what artists know – they’ve never been to Jerusalem, they’ve never seen a 1st-Century temple – but it’s also familiar to patrons who are looking at it. Setting in somewhere contemporary makes it easier to understand. “

Sometimes background settings could go beyond Gothic architecture, however, as an illustration of the Visitation shows. “The artists at this time and for a couple of decades had been really looking at the world around them and bringing that in,” Dr Unkel notes.

“You’re not getting a mathematical Renaissance perspective, but you’re definitely getting an effort at realistic perspective and you’re also getting an effort at realistic depictions of nature,” she says, pointing to use atmospheric perspective effects where things in the background turn to blue and fade out, and also the delicate rendering of light reflecting on water.


At the same time, she says, the book’s illustrations are at pains to remind readers that they are looking at a book. Just as the Annunciation miniature had featured three books in the image, along with the angel’s scroll, so a book appears in the Visitation scene, carried by the retainer at the right of the image.

“The lady’s maid who’s behind Elizabeth is holding a book by what looks like a tail,” she says. “These are called girdle books and they were really popular accessories for a lot of the aristocracy and the clergy – they had covers that were knotted at one end and you could tuck this knot into your belt or girdle and that way it could be worn and carried with you. With women, a lot of times, it was a Book of Hours that they carried with them.”

Aside from this placing Mary and Elizabeth in a contemporary noble context, this serves to drive home the importance of the text itself, Dr Unkel says.

“The book’s really important – part of that is because we’re in a book, and I think a lot of the time what they’re trying to do is to remind the reader that are not just meant to enjoy the pictures but are meant to read what is here because the words are going to help you live a better life, and help you get into heaven.

‘Miniature Masterpiece: The Coëtivy Hours’ is at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle from March 9th to September – cbl.ie

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