For daily devotions

A leaf from a Book of Hours, handwritten on vellum, probably in Paris in about 1450 (195 x 130 mm)

We’ll never know who commissioned the Book of Hours from which this leaf comes, or who used it for their private devotions. It was probably created in France in the mid-15th century.Books of Hours were the bestsellers of mediaeval Europe, and many survive. Any home which had books at all had one of these. It was a compilation of religious texts and other information, such as a calendar of church festivals. At the heart of the book were the Hours themselves, a slimmed-down version of the regular daily cycle of services used in monasteries, here intended for private use by ordinary men and women.

This leaf carries a portion of the Office of Matins, the first service of the daily round. Part of a Hymn to the Virgin is followed by Psalm 8, beginning two lines from the foot of the first page with the words ‘Domine dominus noster quam admirabile est nomen tuum ...’ – ‘O Lord our God how excellent is thy name ...’.

The text is written on vellum in brown ink and the leaf has gilded initials and a decorated panel in red, green, blue and gold, so the book must have been bought by someone prepared to pay extra for these adornments. Gold leaf has been applied to the initials and in places on the decorated panel, and burnished by vigorous polishing with something hard like the tooth of a dog to bring up the shine.

detail of Book of Hours

Burnished gold leaf glints in sunlight on the initials and in the decoration. Strictly speaking only manuscripts embellished with gold in this way can be described as ‘illuminated’ rather than merely ‘decorated’.