Collaboration and the Late-Medieval Book

Books of hours were the bestsellers of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, from approximately 1250 to 1550. Owned by members of almost every rank of society, from kings and queens to clergy, merchants, and young women, these illuminated manuscripts were prized family objects, passed down through generations. The RISD Museum recently acquired an illuminated book of hours made around 1510 in Rouen, France. Like all books of hours, RISD’s is a prayer book containing devotional texts meant to be recited by the owner at the Catholic Church’s eight fixed canonical hours of the day. These prayers, or Offices, are illustrated with 13 illuminations comprising the significant biblical narratives from the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ. In devotional practice of the period, images were a key element in guiding the believer toward a spiritual vision, and the prayers and illuminations in books of hours were meant to act as direct aids for personal spiritual communion with the divine. The subject matter of the illuminations in the RISD book is typical of most books of hours, depicting events thought to have taken place at the same time or hour of day as the canonical hour.

The first illumination accompanies a sequence of Gospel readings, and depicts the Four Evangelists. The illumination for the first canonical hour of the day (Matins) for the Office of the Virgin depicts the Annunciation to the Virgin, and is paired with a prayer in Latin, beginning with the phrase “Domine labia mea aperies” (Lord, open thou my lips).

Eight more canonical hours follow, and the prayers are dedicated not only to the Virgin Mary but also to the Holy Cross and the Holy Spirit, accompanied by illuminations including the Crucifixion, associated with the hour of Matins, and the Nativity and Annunciation to the Shepherds, both associated with the hour of Prime.

 The production locale of Rouen can be determined by characteristics of the book’s illuminations, namely, the particular style of the figures, landscapes, and borders. The liturgical content or “use” of the book—including the types and sequence of prayers and the calendar day dedicated to St. Austrebert, a local Rouen saint—places the intended owner in the vicinity of Rouen.

Books of hours were created through the work of a scribe, an illuminator (or illuminators), and a bookbinder. The very fine state of preservation of the RISD book, including its early purple-velvet binding, provides insight to how this collaboration worked in the process of assembling the book.

An early binding means that notations normally cut off in subsequent bindings are in many cases retained. When creating the book, scribes first copied the text, working on groupings of 8 or 10 vellum (animal skin) leaves called quires. The scribe’s prick marks, made to line up the red rule lines for text, are still visible on the edges of several of the book’s leaves. Roman numerals, appearing on the bottom right of some pages, aided in organizing the leaves within a quire and ensured that they were kept in order when passed on to a different workshop to be completed by the illuminator and border painter who would commence their work on the spaces left open by the scribe.


Catchwords—words added by the scribe at the bottom right of the last page in the quire corresponding to the first word of the next quire—are also visible throughout the book. These helped the bookbinder determine the correct ordering of quires after the book’s production was complete.

The collaboration between scribes, illuminators, and bookbinders apparent in the assembly of the book is also evident in its contents, which reveal the influence of the person who first commissioned it or used it. The original owner of the book appears as a well-dressed lady wearing red and holding a rosary in the final illumination. Shown kneeling, her hair covered, she is represented in attendance at Christ’s Deposition along with the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, St. John the Evangelist, and the two Marys. This anachronistic grouping presents the patroness in a perpetual and everlasting spiritual communion with the divine. The order and number of prayers and illuminations and even the script were probably specified by the owner. The inclusion of prayers to the Virgin, the Holy Cross, and the Holy Spirit confirm that she was concerned with performing multiple prayers at fixed hours throughout the day. The addition of prayers for the Office of the Dead, Litanies (short incantations to the saints), and Suffrages (prayers to the saints for forgiveness of past sins) mark her concerns as particularly focused on end of life. Unfortunately, we have lost this lady’s name: next to her is a 16th-century French abbot’s coat of arms, which has been painted over an earlier coat of arms. Such alterations are not unusual. Because books of hours were often passed down for generations, owners made changes to books that reflected their family name.

Just as the name of the original owner remains elusive, attributions of illuminated manuscripts are challenging due to the many different hands involved in one book and the absence of artists’ signatures. Given the style of the illuminations in comparison to other extant manuscripts, the Master of the Missal of Amboise le Veneur, an artist whose Christian name is unknown but who is associated with the largest workshop in Rouen during that period, probably had a hand in making the RISD book. The full, bracket borders, containing floral and scroll devices decorated with dragons, rainbow-colored birds, and hybrid creatures, were made by a different hand, and are typical of those painted by an artist named Jean Serpin (or Cerpin) and his workshop. Classicizing architectural borders, which frame some of the illuminations in the book, may or may not have been made by the same hand. The existence today of many comparable books with similar but not identical illuminations and border types suggests that the books were issued by the same workshop or group of workshops, a situation that makes attributions to individual artists difficult. In considering these works of art, it is important to break away from the modern notion that an artist should strive for originality and that a creator has ownership of his own designs. Late Medieval artists and particularly book artists were expected to work according to specific formulae, and pattern sheets designed by masters were made to be copied out at great speed by apprentices. Prayer books—by nature conservative—had to live up to established conventions.

Delaunay, Isabelle, “Le manuscript enluminé à Rouen au temps due Cardinal Georges d’Amboise: l’oeuvre de Robert Boyvin et de Jean Serpin,” Cahiers des Annales de Normandie 45, 1995: 212–244.

Emily Peters
Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs