Livro de Horas de Henrique VIII

Livro de Horas de Henrique VIII Luke Writing, f. 9r


Luke Writing, f. 9r

The Gospel Lessons in most Books of Hours – and such is the case in the Hours of Henry VIII – are illustrated with a cycle of evangelist portraits, one placed at the beginning of each reading. Thus the miniatures in the Hours of Henry VIII follow a tradition stemming from classical antiquity – and kept alive in the Middle Ages – of placing an author portrait at the beginning of his text. These four miniatures follow the iconography conventional for Books of Hours by showing Luke, Matthew, and Mark seated in their studies, writing their texts in bound codices. (Were they to be depicted writing on loose, unbound sheets—as was the actual practice in the Middle Ages and Renaissance—the evangelists would have looked like scribes, not authors.) John’s portrait is treated differently in this series, but this, too, was traditional. He is shown writing on a scroll instead of a bound book. And he does so not in a scholar’s study, but on Patmos, the island to which he had been banished by the Roman emperor Domitian (reigned 81–96) and where, according to tradition, he also wrote his Book of Revelation.

Each evangelist, as was customary, is accompanied by his symbol: an eagle for John, an ox for Luke, an angel for Matthew, and a lion for Mark. In Poyer’s Briçonnet Hours, the evangelists’ attributes interact with the authors, but in the Hours of Henry VIII, the symbols do not interfere with the serious business of composing the Gospels.

In addition to the tradition of author portraits for Gospel Lessons in Books of Hours, there were other, although less frequently employed, customs. These were to sometimes illustrate the four Lessons with episodes from the lives of the evangelists or with events actually narrated in the passages themselves. (This latter system, which might seem to us today to be the more logical of the two, in reality occurs more rarely.) The Hours of Henry VIII combines these two traditions. The border of the first Lesson illustrates an event from the life of the evangelist: John Boiled in Oil. Before banishing him to Patmos, the emperor Domitian had tried to rid himself of the evangelist by boiling him to death. In the border, one man raises the fire’s temperature with bellows to such a degree that the other tormentors must shield their faces from the heat of the blast. John, calmly praying in the tub, remains unharmed. The threat to his life is failing.

The next three Lessons illustrate in their borders events mentioned in the texts themselves. As was often the case in medieval manuscripts, the opening words of the passages seemed to have offered special inspiration for the images. The opening of Luke’s text (translated above) opens, “In illo tempore. Missus est Gabriel angelus a D[e]o in civitatem Galilee cui nomen Nazareth.” God the Father is given a prominent role in this Annunciation, directing both Gabriel and the Dove of the Holy Spirit toward the Virgin Annunciate. Matthew’s Lesson begins, “Cum natus esset Ihesus in Bethleem Iude in diebus Herodis Regis: ecce Magi ab Oriente venerunt Ierosolimam” (When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of King Herod, behold there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem). The border shows the Three Kings, accompanied by their entourages and coming from three slightly different places of origin, who meet at the crossroads en route to where the star leads them. The final Gospel Lesson, that of Mark, opens, “In illo tempore. Recumbe[n]tibus undecim discipulis apparuit illis Ih[es]us: et exprobravit incredulitatem illoru[m] et duritiam cordis: quia his viderant eum resurrexisse non crediderant” (At that time: Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples as they were at table: and he upbraided them with their incredulity and hardness of heart, because they did not believe them who had seen him after he was risen up). A scowling Christ levels a reprimanding gesture at the apostles as he upbraids them for their lack of faith and hardness of heart.

The contemporaneous viewer of the Hours of Henry VIII would have recognized, through their clothing, that the four evangelists lived in “olden times.” Each wears a loose, long generic tunic with long sleeves (only Matthew’s sleeves are short, but their embroidery makes them exotic). Each also wears a plain, if voluminous cloak. John and Matthew are bare headed, while Luke wears a bag hat (fashionable in the 1420s but by time the manuscript was painted, long out of date), and Mark sports an exotic turban, almost always a sign that its wearer was from the Middle East.

Perspectivally, Poyer depicts the studios of Luke, Matthew, and Mark with the clearly delineated spaces such as we saw with the interiors in the Calendar. In each case, the wall or portico in the back is parallel to the picture plane, and the floor tiles, whose alternating colored tiles dim as they recede, provide clear orthogonals. Lecterns, benches, and desks are constructed as squares or rectangles whose fronts and sides align with the picture planes and the receding orthogonals.

Roger S. Wieck.
Curator, Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts
The Morgan Library & Museum

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