The Illuminated Bedford Book Of Hours At The British Library

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 28 March 2007
page from a medieval illuminated manuscript with an illustration of a a man praying on his knees and a border full of heraldic symbols

The manuscript dates back to the early 15th century. Courtesy the British Library

The British Library is displaying two masterpieces of medieval art together for the first time in an exhibition celebrating the 15th century artist, the ‘Bedford Master’, and the collections of the manuscript owners.

Running until July 2 2007, The Bedford Hours: Owners and Illuminators, brings the Bedford Hours and the Sobieski Hours together, both lavishly illustrated medieval manuscripts by the Bedford Master (so called in honour of his noble patron the Duke of Bedford).

The Bedford Hours is one of the most richly illuminated medieval works in the Library’s collection, containing more than 1,000 images, and the Sobieski Hours has been lent by Her Majesty The Queen for the exhibition. It normally resides in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.

“This exhibition sets the Bedford Hours, one of the most opulent and best preserved medieval manuscripts in existence, in a wider context.” says Mara Hofmann, curator of the exhibition. “It allows visitors to view the manuscript alongside works illustrated by the same artist and other illuminated manuscripts produced in early 15th century Paris.”

A Book of Hours is a collection of Christian prayers for recitation at different times – or hours – of the day. They contain short versions of the cycle of daily prayers and psalms recited by members of religious orders, all written in Latin.

page from a medieval manuscript featuring people in a castle and angels in the sky

The Bedford Hours is one of the most lavish medieval works in the British Library's collection. Courtesy the British Library

The Bedford Hours was owned by John, Duke of Bedford, and his wife, Anne of Burgundy. The Duke was the English Regent in France from 1422 to 1435 while Henry VI was in his minority. The Sobieski Hours is thought to have been intended for Anne’s sister, Margaret of Burgundy, so it is appropriate they are united for public display.

It had been thought that the Bedford Hours was made to commemorate the Duke’s marriage to Anne of Burgundy in 1423, as their portraits appear in its pages.

However, the book was probably begun about ten years earlier than that, for another patron. Emblems in the borders of the opening pages suggest this was probably a noble person of the circle of the French King Charles VI, perhaps his son the Dauphin Louis de Guyenne.

The Duke and his wife later offered the Hours as a Christmas gift to their nephew, the nine-year-old Henry VI, who was staying with them at Rouen before his coronation in France.

photo of a the manuscript facsimile open in the middle

This facsimile of the incredible manuscript is also stunning. Courtesy the British Library

The exquisite illustrations in the manuscript would have taken years of dedicated work to produce, with large miniatures and decorative borders of flowering acanthus, spirals of golden ivy and prowling dragons.

Known to have belonged to the future king of Poland, John III Sobieski, in 1683, the Bedford Hours contain an unusual poem called La Vie Sainte Marguerite, which might refer to its possible first owner, Margaret of Burgundy.

The identity of the Bedford Master remains uncertain, despite his having been among the leading and most prolific painters of his day. Some scholars tentatively identify him as the Alsatian artist Haincelin of Hagenau, recorded in Paris as a court painter to the Dauphin Louis de Guyenne.

The Bedford Hours and the Sobieski Hours will be displayed alongside other manuscripts produced by the same workshop and a selection from other workshops that are connected to the owners of the Bedford Hours, serving to demonstrate the tastes of high-ranking book collectors.

You will however need to have a high-ranking bank account if you fancy purchasing an edition of the British Library's facsimile of the Bedford Hours - it's priced at £6,995.

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