Highlights from Medieval Manuscripts

In many ways, the illuminated manuscripts preserved by the Koninklijke Bibliotheek and Museum Meermanno testify to the Christian foundation of medieval society.

First, let us look at some figures. Put together, the two collections can boast almost 1,500 pictures of saints among their total of circa 10,650 recorded scenes. These 1,500 pictures are part of a total of almost 4,000 pictures with all kinds of Christian themes, and that is excluding the 4,500 illustrations of stories from the Bible!

Furthermore: on a total of a little over 410 manuscripts, the Prayer books, Books of Hours, Bibles, Gospels, the Breviaries, Missals and other liturgical texts, add up to almost 300 books. So, even if we ignore for example all theological studies, the contents of at least 75% of these illuminated manuscripts is directly related to private and public religious practices. Almost 45% of the illuminated manuscripts of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek and almost 30% of those of the Museum Meermanno are Books of Hours, making this by far the most popular book of both collections. A closer inspection of this type of book gives us a good idea of the all-pervasive influence of the church and its calendar on the life of medieval man.

The Book of Hours

The manuscript collection of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek perhaps contains a disproportionate number of Books of Hours, but there is no disagreement among students of the medieval book production that the Book of Hours was indeed the bestseller of the fourteenth and fifteenth century. A Book of Hours is basically a structured book of prayers. Main focus of those prayers is Jesus' mother, the Virgin Mary, whose cult had become enormously popular. The most important cycle of texts of most Book of Hours, therefore, is the so-called Hours of the Virgin. The copies of this text in the collection of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek alone, contain over 700 illustrations. The Hours of the Virgin is a set of prayers and readings to be recited by the layman or laywoman at more or less fixed moments ("Hours" or "Horae") of the day. They thereby imitated the canonical daily routine of prayers, readings etcetera, of the clergy. The precision with which the clerical routine was imitated did vary, of course. The following eight moments or Hours were reserved - at least theoretically - for religious exercise, at regular intervals, from dawn till dusk:

  • Matins
  • Lauds
  • Prime
  • Terce
  • Sext
  • Noon
  • Vespers
  • Compline

The opening pages of most Books of Hours are a quite literal demonstration of the role of the religious year in daily life. Books of Hours usually start with a calendar, listing the feast days to be observed by their owner. As this calendar page from a French example - Koninklijke Bibliotheek, manuscript 74 G 37a - shows, the names of saints' days and other holy days (holidays...) were written in different colours: red, blue, and gold. Thus the relative importance of the feasts for the owner and the diocese he or she lived in, could be indicated.

shows, the names of saints' days and other holy days (holidays...) were written in different colours: red, blue, and gold. Thus the relative importance of the feasts for the owner and the diocese he or she lived in, could be indicated.

Calendars often contained more than just the list of names of saints and feasts that mark the passage of liturgical time. Usually, two types of illustrations were included on its pages. Pictures of the signs of the Zodiac connected the religious year to the passage of astronomical time. The so-called Labours of the Month connected it to the seasonal activities. Here you see the sign of Aquarius on the right, while on the left the meal that traditionally symbolizes the 'labours' of January is shown. Both the Zodiac and the cycle of Labours are the theme of one of our galleries. When you follow the links to the database embedded in those galleries, you will see that other types of books, like psalters and breviaries, are also provided with calendars.

From Christmas to Pentecost

One of the main cultural trends of the second half of the twentieth century, at least in Western Europe, is the secularization of society. This does not seem to imply that the belief in the supernatural is disappearing as fast as officially registered Christians. It does mean, however, that the knowledge of the bible and the basics of the Christian calendar, has diminished in an unprecedented way. For the first time in centuries, many children, and also many adults, are unable to tell what events are exactly commemorated at Christmas, Pentecost, or Good Friday.

The diminishing belief in Christian truths may be regretted by some, yet welcomed by others, but the disappearance of knowledge about Christian culture is usually judged very differently. It is often seen as a symptom of the dwindling knowledge about European culture and history at large, and is therefore regretted by teachers as well as preachers. Obviously, broad cultural trends cannot be countered by a virtual exhibition of selected pictures of the Nativity or the Crucifixion of Christ. Still, our galleries also aim to offer sources that can be used for educational purposes. From Achilles to Zeus, from Absinthium to Zelentides

The fact that the church dominated medieval culture does not imply that the subject matter of the visual arts was limited to representations of saints or stories from the bible. The collections of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek and the Museum Meermanno provide ample evidence of this. We see historical events, from the Creation of the World to the Crusades, represented in Jacob van Maerlant's Spieghel Historiael. Medieval views on classical history can be studied with the help of richly illustrated sources such as the Memorable Deeds and Sayings by Valerius Maximus and St. Augustine's City of God. Dozens of Greek and Roman gods and heroes, depicted in medieval guise, are included in such books as the Livre d'Othéa by Christine de Pisan or the Histoires Troyennes. Illustrated literary texts like Giovanni Boccacio's Decameron is found here, as is the famous work on natural history and anthropology by Jacob van Maerlant: Der Naturen Bloeme. Two copies of this book, together containing well over 900 illuminations, are kept in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek.

Since miniatures, historiated initials, and border decorations were described to a considerable amount of detail, it is possible to filter the database for all kinds of monsters and wondrous animals,many of which will not be included in modern taxonomies, like the griffin, the harpy, the unicorn, the phoenix, and miscellaneous dragons. A small selection of these were brought together in a gallery of fabulous animals.

Holy helpers

Holy helpers

  • The veneration of saints is as old as the Christian church itself.
Labours of the month

Labours of the month

  • Psalters, Breviaries and Books of Hours opened with a Calendar listing the religious events
Signs of the zodiac

Signs of the zodiac

  • The religious feasts are the main contents of the Calendars of Psalters or Books of Hours
Christmas

Christmas

  • Records from the early fourth century show that by then the 25th of December had been accepted as the date of Christ's Birth.
Good Friday

Good Friday

  • Christ's shameful Death on the Cross and his triumphant Resurrection is a fundamental mystery of the Christian faith
Easter

Easter

  • Grief that prevails at the end of Good Friday turns into joy on Sunday morning, when Christ has left the grave
Ascension and Pentecost

Ascension and Pentecost

  • Two events are described that are still commemorated today throughout the Christian world
In the beginning: the creation of the world

In the beginning: the creation of the world

  • The beginning of Genesis, the first book of the bible, has always given rise to reflection and debate
Patience and strength: Job and Samson

Patience and strength: Job and Samson

  • Job, icon of patience and Samson, strength and weakness
Fabulous animals

Fabulous animals

  • Bestiaries and other texts on natural history are populated with animals both actual and fabulous.
Death by unnatural causes

Death by unnatural causes

  • It is tempting to think of medieval society as a violent society.
Devils and demons

Devils and demons

  • The devil may take on different guises in the illuminations we find in these manuscripts, but there are three basic ingredients
Virtues and vices

Virtues and vices

  • Visual stereotypes once used to express the strengths and flaws of human character and human behaviour