Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Black Hours

           After the development of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-fifteenth century a slow segue towards an extreme spectrum between the printed book and hand copied manuscripts was initiated. The ability to afford hand copied manuscripts began to represent the pinnacle of wealth and status in the years following the spread of printed books out of Germany and into Italy and beyond. Fifteenth-century Bruges and the Dukes of Burgundy became the trendsetters of this period. Traders from all over the world came to the city to sell their products to each other. The trade of wool and cloth especially allowed Bruges to become an economic center, with the Burgundian court at the heart as influential trendsetters in fashion and art. The high concentration of talented artists such as Jan van Eyck combined with the attempt of middle class citizens to emulate the lifestyle of members of the court by means of patronage consequently turned Bruges into the hub of European book creation in the late fifteenth century. Pierpont Morgan Library MS M. 493, or The Black Hours as it is better known, is a product of these phenomena.
            The Black Hours is one of the less than ten surviving black parchment manuscripts. The manuscript itself is quite stunning; all of the over one hundred folios are dyed black. With the text written in gold and silver, and illustrated in a palette of blue, light pinks, light greens, and white, it is truly luxury item. This fifteenth century manuscript, probably produced around 1470 in Bruges, is styled after the influence of Willem Vrelant. Although the painter of MS M. 493 is anonymous, the influences of Vrelant are obvious in the styling of the figures and use of space. 
Folio 14v (lefts) Shows the Crucifixion and the influence of Willem Vrelant in the faces of the 

Creating black parchment was a very costly and delicate production. The Black Hours also includes fourteen full page illuminated miniatures. The black parchment provided a surface that was not ideal for some of the pigments to adhere, however the blackness of the background provides a striking and unique contrast between the rich blue and gold which border the folios of this manuscript.
Folios 22v-23r show the Virgin and child and an example of a lavishly decorated initial and border decoration with a winged creature, respectively

           Today the parchment of The Black Hours is very brittle and flaky. The delicate nature of the manuscript is due to the carbon used in the black dye. The stain created a smooth surface on the parchment which was not ideal for the other paints to adhere for long periods of time. To make the dye itself a gall from an oak tree would have been crushed up and placed in water or a more acidic substance like wine or vinegar, second, ferrous sulphate, known as copperas, green vitriol, or salmortis would be added to the oak gall liquid. Having been stirred the liquid would turn from brown to a dark black ink. This type of ink becomes even darker when exposed to the air and soaked into the parchment of a manuscript. This type of ink is relatively shiny and slick, which is why The Black Hours are still quite a dark black. The pages have not faded, but other inks do chip off the dyed surface. The manuscript is now being kept in the Morgan Library where it is carefully conserved and kept in a stable condition.
            The Black Hours is a product of the lavishness of the Burgundian court in Bruges. The sheer cost to produce this book, especially with all of the blue pigment and gold leaf illumination, exhibits the mindset of the laypeople in the fifteenth century. Being able to commission such a book would have gone a great length in displaying its commissioner’s high place in society.
Folios 4v-5r These calendar pages show the intense black color of the dyed parchment

1 comment:

  1. The amount of time and effort that must have gone into just the ink creation is absolutely staggering. The cost of the prepared parchment alone must have been truly astronomical. The result is completely stunning, however: this is easily one of the most striking manuscripts we have looked at all semester. Its dramatic stylistic flourishes do not seem to impede textual clarity, but it is still quite obvious that the intended point of the book is not personal devotion and prayer alone. The paintings are utterly lavish, and the decoration is intense: carefully planned out, beautiful, and perfectly executed. I wonder how such an object came to be in 'fashion' -- though very elite, there must have been some demand for them -- because, although it is easy enough to arrive at the idea of dyed parchment to make one's illumination and decorative program stand out, it is also possible that there was a historical precedent. I am reminded of the manuscript found in Charlemagne's tomb, written in silver ink on parchment dyed the imperial purple. It was clearly a status symbol, reaffirming the Roman roots of the Carolingian empire; I wonder if black manuscripts were after a similar tradition.