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Rare 15th century prayer book acquired by University

Monday 26 December 2016

book-of-hours-mainbodyA rare 15th century prayer book, often characterised as the ‘bestseller’ of the Middle Ages, has been acquired by the University Library’s Special Collections division.

The exceptionally fine text, known as a Book of Hours, was owned by a wealthy member of French nobility and is full of beautiful hand-painted illuminations in gilt and colours which still sparkle with vibrancy today.

A Book of Hours is a religious manuscript containing a calendar with the feast days of various saints, extracts from the Gospels and prayers – including those undertaken by professional religious men and women (monks and nuns etc) at particular times throughout the day, such as Matins in the morning and Vespers in the evening.

Its small size indicates it was designed for private rather than public use, and as it uses the vernacular for the saints’ names it was likely created for a lay person rather than a member of the clergy. 

The great cost of commissioning, probably specially trained monks, to skilfully hand paint the illuminations, as well as the beautifully detailed calligraphy, suggest the book was owned by a wealthy individual.

Highlights of the book include that the feast days are written in vernacular French (rather than Church Latin) using coloured lettering of red, blue and gold; and the distinctive feature of St Ursine, the first bishop of Bourges, being prominently inserted indicates that the book was ordered by someone in Bourges.

Believed to date from around 1470 to 1500 the French text appears to have never been owned by a Scot, and was certainly not made for use in this country. However similar books also manufactured in Rouen in Normandy were bound for Scotland: there are two in the V&A Museum in London and a similar text, also made in Rouen, was created for a Scottish woman living in Bourges and is currently in the British Library

Dr Julian Luxford, Head of the School of Art History at St Andrews, said: “The Book of Hours makes a very valuable addition to the University’s cultural resources. It will be useful for teaching and research in equal measure.

“Past experience shows that students respond very enthusiastically to such objects, and it is especially nice to be able to produce this manuscript alongside our English fifteenth-century Psalter, with its very different characteristics.”

The book contains beautiful images, particularly of Mary, such as the Nativity of Christ, The Adoration of the Magi and the Annunciation of the Christ’s birth by angels to shepherds.


Notes to news editors

Images courtesy of the University Library.

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office, contactable on 01334 462530 or proffice@st-andrews.ac.uk.