From a printed Book of Hours

A vellum leaf from a Book of Hours printed for Antoine Vérard in Paris in 1498 (194 x 135 mm)  

(This leaf and the next are reproduced at twice the scale of the others on this site.)

Antoine Vérard began his career as a calligrapher and illuminator, supplying sumptuous volumes to aristocratic patrons who included the English king, Henry VII. He went on to become a prolific publisher of printed books, often illustrated. These were produced for him by a number of different Parisian printers, and sold in his shops in Paris and elsewhere. (At one stage he even attempted to break into the London market, but got off to a bad start when his first offering, called The Kalendar of Shepherds, was reputedly translated into English by a Scotsman who knew little French.)

Vérard published his first printed Book of Hours in 1486, and followed it with some 200 more editions of this popular book for private devotions before his death in 1512.  Because the decorative borders are printed, not hand-drawn, these Books of Hours could tap a large market of people who could not afford manuscript ones. Steinberg in Five Hundred Years of Printing praises the 'harmonious blend of neat lettering, elegant borders and delicate illustrations' of these Books of Hours – a sentiment not entirely justified, in my view, by this leaf. The text has been neatly underruled though the red and blue shapes that back the hand-drawn initials are uneven. Two of the illustrations are light and attractive, but the others are heavy and their subjects quite bizarre for such a book. The typeface itself, derived from French scribal hands, is easy on the eye and shows that Vérard and his contemporaries were establishing a distinctively French style in these books, very different from that of the original products of the Paris press, of which my previous leaf is an example.

With so many editions to choose from, it's not possible to deduce exactly which one this leaf comes from, but according to the vendor it was printed for Antoine Vérard in Paris and dated 5th August 1498. It is printed on vellum, and the text is in Latin not French. It follows the 'Use of Rome' – the version of the church's liturgy followed in that city.

The borders and illustrations on this leaf are metal cuts rather than woodcuts. They were printed from engraved metal plates which were less liable to wear and damage than woodblocks. Most of them have dark backgrounds, stippled with tiny dots and a few larger ones, which are characteristic of this technique. The other two, with  biblical scenes, are probably also metal cuts, but virtually indistinguishable from woodcuts.

I've not got far with identifying what's going on in many of these pictures. They may in any case have originally been used in quite different books. The cross-looking bird could be a basilisk, since this word appears in one of the captions, but whether a bird whose gaze means instant death would ever condescend to holding an inkpot for a saint (lower right, recto page), I cannot say. In the lower border, recto, the lady with the lamp and large serpent is described alongside as 'Sibil persica', the Persian sybil or prophetess. Another sybil, Europa, brandishes a sword overleaf. Sybils belong to the ancient world, but were adopted into Christianity because they were said to have foretold the coming of Christ.

Strange beasts lurking in some of the narrow borders closely resemble some of those found in illuminated manuscripts.