Pomp and Circumstance: The Book of Hours of Mary of Burgundy

The Dukes of Burgundy had a long history of arts patronage that aided in shaping a powerful reputation for the dukedom. Flemish artists were brought to the court to create works for the members of the ducal family for generations and the influence of Flemish artists coming into France led to many artistic innovations. The Hours of Mary of Burgundy and it’s secondary illuminator, the anonymous Master of Mary of Burgundy, introduced a new style of miniatures that influenced the art of illumination for centuries to come. The Book is also a prime example of displaying noble piety and wealth as well as providing insights into the creation of pious imagery in Northern Renaissance art. It is for these reasons that The Hours of Mary of Burgundy is one of the most important illuminated manuscripts of the Renaissance.

The Valois ducal court of Burgundy began with the death of Philip of Rouvres in 1361. Having died without heirs, the Valois king John II of France named his son Philip the Duke of Burgundy in 1364. During the century between the beginning of the Valois ducal court and the birth of Mary of Burgundy, the court established itself as a powerful rival to the kings of France and England and a major center of the arts. Mary of Burgundy was the only child of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and his second wife, Isabelle of Bourbon. With no male heirs to carry on the ducal title, Mary’s marriage to Maximilian I in 1477 ended the Valois reign and the Burgundian dukedom entered the hands of the Habsburgs. 

Modern Society and Books of Hours: Exploring Meditation and Mindfulness –  Manuscripts at UGA
“Mary of Burgundy Reading her Devotions,” from the “Book of Hours of Mary of Burgundry,” 1477.

The location of Burgundy near the Netherlands allowed the court to utilize the best artists from Bruges and Brussels and the court quickly became a center for arts patronage. The powerful court sought out the best artists to create works that displayed the wealth and opulence of the Burgundian court. Art also served to create reputations for the Duke and his family. It was increasingly important for the women of the ducal court to establish a reputation for piety, which Mary would have witnessed during the first few years of her father’s third marriage to Margaret of Flanders. Following their marriage, questions arose about the new duchess’s morality. Through pious imagery and patronage of churches and monasteries, Margaret cast off these speculations. Mary may have quickly learned the importance of establishing her piety as she entered into the role of duchess. Upon the event of her marriage, a Book of Hours was commissioned to celebrate the wedding and to promote Mary’s image as a pious duchess. 

Binghamton gains two Books of Hours | Binghamton News
Parisian Book of Hours, 15th Century

The creation of Books of Hours came from the adoption of daily devotional patterns called the Office of the Virgin that monastic communities commonly practiced. Due to the time consuming nature of this practice, an abbreviated version of these rituals was created called the Hours of the Virgin. At certain periods throughout the day, there is a prayer or reading that corresponds with it. This daily practice of reciting one’s hours became a new devotional ritual that grew in popularity. Along with the hours, books also included a calendar with feast days, extracts from the gospels, prayers to saints and the Hours of the Dead. Other Hours were included as the Books grew in popularity and which hours to include in one’s personal Book of Hours was left up to the owner to decide, often with the advice of their personal chaplains. The painted miniatures that were placed at the beginning or throughout the sections were equally, if not more important than the text they accompanied. The images were a way for the owner to quickly identify the section of the book they had turned to. For example, if they see images of the Virgin, they knew they had turned to the Hours of the Virgin. Images were also believed to inspire more effective mediation than text, so including images provided multiple ways for reading and understanding the text. Finally, these books provide flexibility in one’s devotion. This included both in the way they practiced their devotion and where they were able to practice. The small size of the books made them easily portable so owners could bring them on pilgrimage, to church, or while they were away on business. Men often brought their Book of Hours to war. After the Battle of Luxembourg, Philip the Good’s men had to wait while their leader said his daily Hours and gave thanks. The books also allowed the owner to choose their favorite readings or meditate on their favorite images while still following the pious structure for the day dictated by the church. The Book of Hours became a central aspect of devotion during the Renaissance, particularly for nobility, such as the case of The Hours of Mary of Burgundy. 

The Hours of Mary of Burgundy is closely connected with the anonymous artist, the Master of Mary of Burgundy, who served as one of the illuminators for the manuscript. The principal illuminator was Lieven van Lathem, but it was the Master of Mary of Burgundy who made the book famous with his window-border miniatures. The Master of Mary of Burgundy has been recorded as one of the most influential manuscript illuminators of the period and his style had a great impact on later manuscript painting. Identified as coming from Ghent, the artist worked at the Burgundian court and illuminated a prayer book for Mary of Burgundy’s father, Charles the Bold, before creating his most well-known works in The Hours of Mary of Burgundy. He added depth to his landscapes with subtle changes in light and color and placed an emphasis on distant views. He also incorporated pastel shades which softened the images. These innovations set the course for a new generation of Flemish illuminators and he was a founder of the “Ghent-Bruges” school of illumination. His window-border innovation was revolutionary and has been celebrated by many modern scholars, but the trend was not carried on by future illuminators. Future generations of manuscript illuminators did adopt the Master’s idea to fill the whole page with the miniature. Scholars have drawn connections between the Master of Mary of Burgundy and another Ghent artist, Hugo van der Goes. They point to the Master’s elongated figures, particularly in the case of women, and the way the borders cut off the full scene so it is clear the depiction is only the section of a larger narrative. It was the Master’s innovations that made The Hours of Mary of Burgundy so famous and why it is considered one of the most important works of Flemish illumination. 

“Mary of Burgundy Reading her Devotions”
“Christ Nailed to the Cross”

The Hours of Mary of Burgundy was created near the end of the 1470s, most likely in 1477 around the time of Mary’s marriage to Maximilian and no later than 1482, the year Mary died. The Book contains a calendar, three Marian Prayers, the four Gospel extracts, the Mass of the Virgin, the Hours of the Cross, the Hours of the Holy Spirit, the Hours of the Virgin, Suffrages, the Penitential Psalms and Litany, and the Office of the Dead. The Book was created with luxury materials that marked it as a clear sign of wealth in the Burgundian court. It is made from ink, tempera, and gold on vellum. As noted above, miniatures accompany the text and larger miniatures mark the beginning of each of the sections. The two most well-known miniatures in the Book are Mary of Burgundy Reading her Devotions and Christ Nailed to the Cross

The first miniature, Mary of Burgundy Reading her Devotions, marks the beginning of the three Marian Prayers. In the miniature, a young woman, assumed to be the Book’s owner, Mary of Burgundy, is seated in an oratory. She is dressed in the fashionable clothing of the period, a rich golden gown with a matching hat. Around her are flowers and jewelry and a small dog sits on her lap while she reads her Book of Hours. The page of the book in the miniature is a page seen later in the section of Marian Prayers. She is seated at a window which looks out into a church where a woman, also assumed to be Mary, kneels before the Virgin and Child. Also before the Virgin and Child is a man who is assumed to be Mary’s husband, Maximilian I. This leads many scholars to believe the scene in the church is of Mary and Maximilian’s marriage.  

Detail of “Mary of Burgundy Reading her Devotions”
Jan van Eyck, “Madonna in the Church,” 1440

Images of the Virgin and Child in a church were common during the 15th century and one of the most famous examples of the subject is Jan van Eyck’s 1440 Madonna in the Church . It is possible the Master saw van Eyck’s work while the older artist was working on the Ghent Altarpiece or perhaps during a visit to Bruges. Images of the Virgin and Child in the church served as a way to have closer contact with the divine. In the case of Mary’s Book, she is shown having direct contact with the Virgin and Child. While reading her prayers, the image serves as a reminder that prayer can be used to converse with the divine. The book also reminds Mary that liturgy was an important avenue through which the devout could contact the divine, as well as serving as a gentle reminder to the young duchess that her piety was her duty to the public. Finally, the placement of oratory is considered strange. Most oratories at the time were placed at the side of the church, providing a side view of the choir and altar. In the case of Mary’s oratory, she is at the heart of the church and this placement remarks upon her central pious role as a symbol of religious devotion.

“Christ Nailed to the Cross”

The second most famous miniature is Christ Nailed to the Cross. This miniature is placed at the beginning of the Hours of the Cross. Once again, this miniature utilizes the window as the frame for the scene but this time does not include the owner in the frame. The window looks out over the scene on Calvary where Christ is being nailed to the cross. Around the windowsill is a variety of luxury items such as plush black and gold cushion, a rosary, and another example of the Book being painted into a miniature. On either side of the window are statues which depict Old Testament prefigurations of New Testament events. On the left is Moses rising the Brazen Serpent and on the right is the scene of the angel preventing Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. 

The two depictions of the Crucifixion, the painting in the book and the scene through the window, creates a contrast between what is real and what is artificial. The window serves as a way of separating the man-made devotional objects (the rosary, statues, the book) from the more important creation of the meditative vision made from the heart, soul, and mind by the pious reader as she reads the text. Yet, the owner of the book is absent. Removing the representation of the owner allows for the spectator to be an active participant in the scene. In the miniature of the Virgin and Child in the church, the owner, in this case Mary of Burgundy, sees herself in the image. The painted version of Mary is the one to interact with the scene which puts up a barrier to stop the real Mary from becoming an active participant. In the miniature of the Crucifixion, Mary would imagine herself as part of the scene as if she paused in her meditation on the Crucifixion in the book to image the moment before her eyes.

The Book, and particularly the two miniatures discussed, are clear examples of the Burgundian display of wealth and power both in the materiality of the Book and the imagery inside. The Book itself is made from luxury materials such as gold which would have been a clear indicator of the wealth of it’s owner, but the gold is accompanied by depictions of jewelry, brocade fabrics and lavish goods, such as those seen in abundance in both miniatures discussed. In the miniature, Mary of Burgundy Reading Her Devotions, the woman is dressed in the latest fashions of the period and the fabrics are a rich gold and black. The use of cloth-of-gold was closely tied with the court at Burgundy, especially in the case of Mary. At her birth, a special bedroom was made up with rich cloths-of-gold where she was born and she carried that forward to the birth of her own son. The patterns of the Burgundian cloth-of-gold would become integrated into the illuminated manuscripts that appeared shortly after the death of Mary of Burgundy. The court, particularly Mary, was known for these opulent gold fabrics and the appearance of the rich golden fabrics in Mary’s depiction points both to the family’s wealth as well as symbolizing the Burgundian court. 

The Hours of Mary of Burgundy was revolutionary in its time and is still praised by scholars of illuminated manuscripts as one of the most important manuscripts of the Renaissance. The windowed miniatures changed the course of manuscript illuminations and lead the way for full page miniatures and new forms of borders. The miniatures also provide insights into the character and religious life of the young Mary of Burgundy through reading of the images and how the images were used in religious practice during this period. Finally, the book and the miniatures were utilized to display and promote the wealth and influence of the Burgundian court through the use of gold, particularly the display of cloth-of-gold and rich materials. All of these factors contribute to why The Hours of Mary of Burgundy is still to this day one of the most important illuminated manuscripts of the Renaissance. 

-Claire Sandberg


Goehring, Margaret. “Taking Borders Seriously: The Significance of Cloth-of-gold Textile Borders in Burgundian and Post-Burgundian Manuscript Illumination in the Low Countries.” Oud Holland 119, no. 1 (2006): 22-40. 

Inglis, Eric. The hours of Mary of Burgundy: Codex Vindobonensis 1857, Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek. London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 1995.

Kren, Thomas, Scot McKendrick, and Maryan Wynn. Ainsworth. The Renaissance: the triumph of Flemish manuscript painting in Europe. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003.

Pächt, Otto. “The Master of Mary of Burgundy.” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 85, no. 501 (1944): 295-88. 

Smeyers, Maurits. Flemish illuminated manuscripts 1475 – 1550 ;. Ghent: Ludion Press., 1996.

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