Jim Bugslag

title.none: Backhouse, Illuminations from Books of Hours (Jim Bugslag)

identifier.other: baj9928.0605.015 06.05.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jim Bugslag, University of Manitoba,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Backhouse, Janet. Illuminations from Books of Hours. Tononto: University of Toronto Press, 2005. Pp. 159. ISBN: $19.95 0-7123-4849-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.05.15

Backhouse, Janet. Illuminations from Books of Hours. Tononto: University of Toronto Press, 2005. Pp. 159. ISBN: $19.95 0-7123-4849-2.

Reviewed by:

Jim Bugslag
University of Manitoba

Undoubtedly the reason that The Medieval Review wanted this book reviewed was the same as my reason for accepting to review it, sight unseen: the name of its author, Janet Backhouse, a former Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library, who has written widely and perceptively on medieval manuscript illumination. It should be stated at the outset, however, that this book is not intended as a contribution to scholarship. Rather, Janet Backhouse has used her unparalleled knowledge of the British Library's manuscripts to select images for what is essentially a picture book. Her very short introduction to the volume introduces books of hours, their illumination, the collections of of illuminated manuscripts in the British Library, and the role of books of hours in the history of collecting and connoisseurship--all in a compact 8 1/2 pages! The rest of the book consists of full-page colour photographs of a remarkable variety of folios from books of hours in the British Library's unsurpassed collection of illuminated manuscripts.

Although the publisher touts this book as "an introduction to some of the most beautiful and historically interesting manuscripts in the collections of the British Library," the question is: an "introduction" to whom? The most satisfactory answer to this is "the general public," and I would not wish to denigrate the British Library's efforts to target this audience in its splendid publishing programme. The British Library has, indeed, published and continues to publish exemplary works of scholarship on its manuscripts. Its series, The British Library Studies in Medieval Culture, publishes solid and wide-ranging monographic studies of various aspects of medieval manuscript illumination. Another excellent series is their well illustrated, compact and affordable scholarly introductions to individual manuscripts. Janet Backhouse has produced several of these, ranging from The Lindisfarne Gospels (1995) to The Isabella Breviary (1993), and apropos of this book, also including The Bedford Hours (1990), The Hastings Hours (1996) and The Sforza Hours (1992). She has also written a more substantial "introduction" to books of hours under the title of Books of Hours (British Library, 1985). In recent years, however, the British Library has also taken considerable advantage of their manuscript collections, and of their copyrighted photographs of them, to produce a wide range of affordable illustrated books aimed at a broader market. Whether intentionally or not, this parallels a movement common to all British museums to make the cultural wealth of the country accessible to all and to dispell the widespread notion-- nowhere, perhaps more entrenched than with respect to illuminated manuscripts-- of art as the elitist preserve of the wealthy and cultured. Their growing series, Medieval Manuscripts (formerly The Medieval World in Manuscripts), is perhaps their most well-known venture of this sort. Each book explores a different aspect of medieval life through its depiction in manuscript illuminations. Janet Backhouse was one of the early contributors to this series with her Medieval Rural Life in the Luttrell Psalter (2000), and has since contributed Medieval Birds in the Sherborne Missal (2001). Although written by experts in their fields, these books emphasize accessibility for a variety of general audiences.

It is presumably for these same general audiences that Illuminations from Books of Hours is intended. Although on the small side, it is a lavish picture book which is delightful to flip through. For casual visitors to the British Library, it would make a satisfying souvenir. It would also make a splendid gift. And it could easily awaken new interest in Medieval and/or Renaissance art in someone who had little previous exposure to it. In all these things, it is good for Medieval Studies in general, for which a general humanistic awareness of Medieval culture among broad contemporary audiences should be a disciplinary goal. Yet, it remains to be seen whether the book can also be of more scholarly service.

Scholarly interest in this book must hinge on the plates, since the introductory remarks and meagre bibliography will not serve anyone but a general audience. Three factors are are pertinent here: selection, quality and organization. As far as selection is concerned, there appears to have been a determined effort to showcase as many manuscripts in the collection as possible. No more than one image per manuscript has been selected for illustration. Some of these, such as the De Brailes Hours and the Bedford Hours, are very well known, but the majority are not, and it is conceivable that some of these images might be useful in quite specialized research. Some of the photographs, in fact, were taken specifically for this publication and thus make the images they replicate easily accessible for the first time. A comparable variety encompasses the artists responsible for the illuminations, who range from the very well known (Perugino, Simon Marmion, Jean Bourdichon, the Egerton Master, etc.) or their associates, to lesser known hands (the Fastolf Master, the Master of Spencer 6, etc.), and to a rather newer sort of collective authorial identity (the Pink Canopies Group, the Gold Scrolls Group).

Most of the manuscripts are French, the majority by far emanating from Paris, with a generous range of provincial centres. Flanders and the Netherlands are also well represented. Continuing down the scale, Italy is represented by 16 manuscripts, and England by 10, although some of the Flemish manuscripts were done for the English market. Other regions are not well represented: a meagre three come from Spain, with only one each from the Rhineland and Austria. As far as the chronological range is concerned, the vast majority were made in the 15th century, the numbers increasing noticeably towards the end of that century, and this trend is continued into the early 16th century, as well. Manuscripts of the 14th century are disappointingly few (5 from the first half, and 6 from the second half), and the 13th century is represented by only 4 manuscripts.

Subject choice is quite wide (see the subject index appended below). There are, not surprisingly, five Annunciation scenes, and four each of the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Crucifixion, but many images are one- offs. One might have wished for more illustrations from the Office of the Dead, or other specialized image types, such as calendar scenes which are conspicuous by their absence, but the range of imagery is, none the less, impressive. Most of the images are full-page illuminations, but there are also some pages with a minimal amount of text. Nevertheless, the impressive range of uses and vernacular text versions which are represented here is perhaps not as useful as it might have been in a different format.

For a small and inexpensive book, the quality of the images is surprisingly high. Backhouse explains in her introduction that large-scale manuscripts were intentionally avoided because of the scale of the reproductions, which average about 12 x 8 cm. Details can be seen quite clearly with a magnifying glass, and the resolution is high enough to enable use of the images in Powerpoint presentations. Each image is identified with a plate number, its subject, its name or the patron of the manuscript, the use it follows, the artist's name or attribution (where possible), its country and sometimes city of origin, its date, the dimensions of the manuscript, and its pressmark and folio number.

The organization of the images, however, might have been made more user friendly. I have discovered no organizational principal beyond delightful variety. There is an index of pressmarks at the back, but the value of the book would have increased considerably with indexes of manuscript names, artists' names and subjects. The subject index that is appended to this review gives some idea of the complexity of finding things in the book. Despite this drawback, however, the access that this book gives to images, many not easy to obtain elsewhere, may conceivably be of interest to at least some medievalists, even if they were not the primary market intended for it.

Subject Index (by plate number)

Adoration of the Magi: 62, 68, 83, 101Agony in the Garden: 51Andrew, St: 121Annunciation: 1, 14, 90, 96, 111, 140Annunciation to the Shepherds: 34, 43, 100, 108 Anthony, St: 52 Anthony, St, Temptation of: 135Appearances of the Resurrected Christ: 109Arms of the Passion: opp. plates Arrest of Christ: 12, 132Avarice: 123 Barbara, St, with kneeling patron: 53 Burial Scene: 80Catherine, St: 10, 94Christ among the Doctors: 102Christ and the Woman of Samaria: 137Christ and Woman taken in Adultery: 28Christ before the High Priest: 116Christ before Pilate, with Pilate's wife describing the warning she had in a dream: 20Christ Cleansing the Temple: 75Christ feeding the 5000: 126Christ nailed to Cross: 45Christ Washing Apostles' Feet: 136Christ the Redeemer, blessing: 18Christopher, St: 72Coronation of the Virgin: 55, 85Crucifixion: 21, 33, 113, 133David and Bathsheba: 2David and Goliath: 29, 106David anointed by Samuel: 99David at prayer: 47David on horseback, fleeing the Lord's vengeance: 6David the Psalmist: 39, 131 Death confronting Pope, Emperor and King: 25 Death overcoming a Lady: 15 Death, the Grim Reaper: 103Death riding on a bull: 114Descent from the Cross: 30, 78Dives and Lazarus: 139Ecce Homo: 105Entombment of Christ: 46 Entry into Jerusalem: 41Eustace, St, Conversion of: 38 Fall of Man: 36 Flagellation of Christ: 8, 63, 132 Flight into Egypt: 24, 110 Fountain of Redemption: 57 Funeral Service: 130 Francis, St, preaching to creatures: 61 Gabriel greeting: 26 George, St, and Dragon: 31, 59 God the Father enthroned in Heaven: 13 Gregory, St, Mass of: 70 Harrowing of Hell: 16, 89 Hermes, St: 10 Herod ordering Massacre of the Innocents: 98 Holy Host of Dijon: 91 Jerome, St, in prayer before Crucifix: 22 Job, prosperous and blessed: 107 Job, mocked by his friends: 117 John B, St, Martyrdom of: 42, 82 John E, St: 56 John E, St, on Patmos: 3 Last Judgement: 54, 92, 112 Last Supper: 58 Lord's Prayer: 48 Luke, St, painting the Virgin: 37 Man of Sorrows: 40 Margaret, St: 44 Mark, St, Writing: 69 Mary Magdalen, St, with kneeling donor: 66 Mary Magdalen, St, Anointing feet of Christ: 81Matthew, St, writing: 17 Matthew, St, as a tax gatherer: 75 Meeting at the Golden Gate: 32 Michael, St, and the devil: 87 Nativity: 4, 95, 125 Nativity, with kneeling donor: 118 Noli Me Tangere: 79 Paul, St: 97 Pentecost: 27, 109, 137 Peter, St, Denial of Christ by: 132 Pieta: 67 Presentation of Christ in the Temple: 88, 134 Raising of Souls to Heaven: 84 Raising of Lazarus: 23, 73, 124 Resurrection of Christ: 9, 35 Road to Calvary: 50 Sebastian, St, Martyrdom of: 127 Temptation of Eve: 74 Thomas Becket, St, Martyrdom of: 11 Tobias (child patron?) with Angel: 138 Ursula, St, with 11,000 Virgins: 64 Veronica, The: 7 Virgin Mary, Assumption of: 86 Virgin Mary, Death of: 71, 119 Virgin Mary, Funeral of: 65 Virgin Mary, Marriage of: 104 Virgin Mary, Presented to the Temple: 77 Virgin Mary, Seven Sorrows of: 76 Virgin and Child, seated: 5 Virgin and Child, seated, with kneeling donor: 19, 128, 129 Virgin and Child, standing, with kneeling donor: frontispiece Virgin and Child in Glory: 93 Visitation: 49, 60, 115