Acquired at Sotheby's, London
Date: Ca. 1465-1485
Size: 14 x 10 cm.
Call number: 77 L 58
A medieval Book of Hours is a manuscript that private individuals used as a reference for devotion, particularly during prayer. The manuscript often contained a calendar and a fixed collection of verses. This example was produced in the late Middle Ages in Arnhem and is decorated with luxurious amounts of gold, which is typical for fifteenth-century illuminations made in the Eastern Netherlands. The artist has in fact used two different types of gold in this design: shell gold and leaf gold. The shell gold, which is applied in liquid form with a brush, appears in the peacock's tail, for example. The leaf gold, which is applied in thin sheets on a layer of glue, appears in the decorated initial. Under the leaf gold, the artist has built up a layer of gesso, which gives the gold a three-dimensional form, thereby making it shimmer all the more.
We could call this method of decoration horror vacui, which is the Latin term for 'fear of empty spaces'. In this opening the artist has filled nearly every available space with colour, gold, and busy decoration. These colours, and the flashing light of the gold, make it easy for the book's user to find the text, which in this case is the Penitential Psalms.
The Psalms are said to have been written by King David when he felt remorse for having sent Uriah to his death in battle. This text is often prefaced with an image depicting David wallowing in repentance and playing his harp, but here receives a very different sort of image.
Namely, the artist has added a full-page design with the Lamb of God bearing a bannered cross staff, which is encircled in layers of burnished gold, red script, and a buzzing blue field of paint. The red text circumscribing the lamb states 'O, alre sachtmoedichste lam gods, ontfarme di over mi sunder' [O, most merciful lamb of God, have mercy for me, sinner]. The image is therefore about sin and repentance, but at the same time, it closely resembles a Eucharist wafer in its size, its round shape, and iconography. Wafers often had lambs stamped into them in their baking moulds. (KR)