The first part of a book of hours is a perpetual calendar, i.e., a calendar that can be used year after year. Major feast days are frequently distinguished by a different color of ink, sometimes gold, but more often red (hence the phrase “red-letter days”). Local saints days are frequently included in calendars and are a good indication of where any given book of hours was intended to be used. The calendar could also be used to record the births and deaths (obits) of family members of owners.
Other columns in the calendar include Roman calendrical dates (Nones, Kalends, Ides), and Golden Numbers (i-ix, linked to the cycles of the moon) and Dominical Letters (a-g) used to determine the all-important date of Easter, which is a variable feast.
Calendars are often illustrated by signs of the zodiac and traditional labors of the month. They are also characterized by distinctive patterns of ruling to accommodate the information they provide to readers.
Four gospel readings, extracted from the masses of four of the Church’s major feasts, outline Christ’s life on earth and his role as the agent of mankind’s salvation. They are: John 1:1-14 (Christmas), Luke 1:26-38 (Annunciation), Matthew 2:1-12 (Epiphany) and Mark 16:14-20 (Ascension). Sometimes only the reading from the gospel of John is included and sometimes these readings are illustrated by author portraits of the four evangelists, each with their respective symbol, based on early Christian readings of the Old Testament prophet, Ezechiel 1 (Matthew, the winged man; Mark, the lion; Luke, the ox; and John, the eagle).
Hours of the Virgin
The Hours of the Virgin are the central text in any book of hours. Each hour is composed of various antiphons and responses, psalms, hymns, canticles and prayers addressed to the Virgin Mary and appealing for her intercession. There are eight such hours in a day and they are meant to be used at seven different times during the day. Matins and Lauds at day break; Prime at 6 am.; Terce at 9 am.; Sext at noon; None at 3 pm.; Vespers at sunset and Compline before going to bed. Illustrations frequently depict joyous events in the Virgins life connected with the infancy of Christ. These include: Matins: Annunciation, Lauds: Visitation, Prime: Nativity, Terce: Annunciation to the Shepherds, Sext: Adoration of the Magi, None: Presentation in the temple, Vespers: Flight into Egypt and Compline: Coronation of the Virgin. This traditional infancy cycle is sometimes replaced, especially in manuscripts produced in fifteenth-century England, Flanders and the Netherlands, by another cycle which depicts the Passion of Christ. In MS Richardson 34, for example, Matins is illustrated by the Annunciation, but Lauds through Compline is illustrated by events between the Betrayal and the Entombment.
Hours of the Cross
The Hours of the Cross (which do not include Lauds) are shorter than the Hours of the Virgin and are addressed to the Cross. They are often prefaced by an image of the Crucifixion.
Hours of the Holy Sprit
The Hours of the Holy Spirit also do not include Lauds. In illustrated Book of Hours, they are often illustrated with an image of Pentecost.
The seven penitential psalms are psalms 6: Domine ne in furore, 31: Beati quorum, 37: Domine ne in furore, 50: Misere mei Deus, 101: Domine exaudi, 129: De profundis and 142: Domine exaudi). Images which introduce these psalms reflect their role as petitions to Christ in his role at the Last Judgment or their traditionally ascribed authorship to David.
Suffrages are addressed to saints as models of Christian behavior and include first an antiphon, a versicle and a response. Each suffrage then concludes with a prayer to God in which the life (and frequently death in the case of martyrs) and the virtues of the saint are linked to the purpose of the prayer and the request for assistance in leading a Christian life.
The suffrages are arranged in an order that reflects the heavenly hierarchy: the Trinity, the Virgin Mary and Michael the Archangel, John the Baptist, apostles, male martyrs and confessors (saints who died of natural causes), female martyrs and widows.
The number of suffrages and the saint to whom they are addressed can vary widely, but can give indications of the place of origin of the manuscript or the individual for whom it was made.
Suffrages are not always illustrated and the ones that are frequently reflect a personal preference by the commissioner of the book of hours.
The Litany is a list of saints with each name followed by the invocation “Ora pro nobis.” Pray for us. The order again reflects the heavenly hierarchy as in the Suffrages. Litanies rarely receive elaborate illustration.
Any number of prayers in Latin or in the vernacular can be included in a book of hours. Two prayers, “Obsecro te” and “O intemerata,” are regularly included. Variations in their wording can also help determine issues of localization. These popular prayers were also often illustrated. The first is addressed to the Virgin Mary and the second to the Virgin Mary and to St. John the Evangelist, the beloved disciple. Both prayers plead for their intercession with Christ. In both petitions the speakers refer to themselves in a gendered noun and this can be another indication of the commissioner of the book of hours.
The Passion of Christ is represented in books of hours in a variety of ways. There are sometimes Hours of the Passion, sometimes gospel readings describing the Passion, most frequently from John, as in MSS Lat 133, and sometimes the so-called Passion Psalms (psalms 21-30), as in MS Richardson 34. Along with devotion to Mary as intercessor, the Passion formed one of the principal foci of late medieval piety and devotion and hence often receives extensive elaboration in books of hours.
Office of the Dead
The Office of the Dead is recited before the Requiem or funeral Mass. It consists of three hours: Vespers, Matins (including three Nocturns) and Lauds. Illustrations to the Office provide profound insights into medieval attitudes towards death, transience and mortality. Typical subjects include the burial of the dead, funeral processions, and other macabre subjects.