Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Black Hours - Pierpont Morgan Library M.493

            The “Black Hours,” refers to a Book of Hours that has been housed in the Pierpont Morgan Library & Museum in New York as MS Pierpont Morgan Library M.493 since the library purchased it in 1912.  According to the Morgan Library, an anonymous painter produced the manuscript in Bruges, Belgium in 1480. The Black Hours is a small book, measuring only 170 mm x 122 mm (roughly 6 inches x 5 inches), composed of 124 leaves of black-tinted vellum.  The Latin text of the Black Hours is written in silver and gold leaf in single 17-line columns of textura script.  Its pages feature 15 chartreuse (light green/yellow) panels, with initials and floral patterns drawn in yellow.  Fourteen full-page illustrations are drawn “in a restricted palette of blue, old rose, and light flesh tones, with dashes of green, gray and white,” (Pierpont Morgan Library) often featuring men and women in beautiful metallic silhouettes. Nearly every other page is framed in a beautiful blue marginal grounding and decorated with gold and silver vining, foliage, and grotesques. The painter takes particular advantage of the black background, generously highlighting and outlining figures in gold and silver.

            In a section of Masterpieces of Illumination dedicated to the Black Hours, Walther and Wolf observe, “Manuscripts completely immersed in black tint and written upon in gold and silver script … can all be localized quite accurately, namely to the southern Low Countries, today Belgium, and dated to the second half of the 15th century.”  (Walther et al., 372).  The Black Hours’ origin in Burges places it in a central city within the southern Low Countries that Walther et al. are referring to. Over the course of the first half of the fifteenth century, Burgundy emerged as an economic juggernaut, managing booming wool and garment industries as well as operating as a cosmopolitan market town that facilitated trade with a diverse array of European merchants, from Portuguese spice traders to the Hanseatic Guilds of modern-day Northern Germany, to the Genoese.  When Philip III (1396-1467) took up the post of the Duke of Burgundy in 1419, he resolved to set up court in Burges.  Philip’s court consisted of an impressive circle of artists and craftsmen, and Philip himself commissioned musical pieces, tapestries, jewelry, and the production of over 600 manuscripts, makng him the largest patron of manuscripts by volume in Europe at the time.  Philip’s heir, Charles the Bold (1433-1477), continued his father’s tradition of book collecting, adding hundreds of additional books to Philip’s collection.  The Black Hours’ date of production sets it squarely within the reign of Charles. 
            The style of the Black Hours draws heavily from the techniques of one of Burgundy’s most famous illuminators - Willem Vrelant.  A court favorite who set up his studio in Burges between 1454-1481, Vrelant and his circle used specific techniques such as silver and gold lettering, extreme drapery of clothing and illuminated highlighting, oblong, rectangular framing, and black vellum staining, producing some of the most famous manuscripts from this time.  Some of these examples include the Viennese Black Prayer Book and the Black Hours of Galeazzo Maria Sforza.  To produce these famous blackened pages, Vrelant and his guild wuld dip the vellum for the manuscript into an iron-copper solution.  The process was both expensive and time consuming, and the blackened parchment would only hold lead white ink, gold ink, or silver ink on its pages. 

            Which brings us to a discussion of how the Black Hours reflects certain historical processes.  For starters, the Black Hours was produced in Burges, Burgundy in one of the courts of its most powerful Duchies.  The Black Hours’ was produced in the style of a renowned Flemish artist, William Vrelant, who was active at the Burgundian court and thus a trendsetter in artistic production.  At a time when Burgundy functioned as the barometer of style for the rest of Europe in the realms of fashion, art, and high culture, manuscripts of such quality acted as both status symbol and movable capitol.  Those who could afford as well-made a manuscript like the Black Hours commissioned them in an effort to distance themselves from the growing literate middle-class, which around the same period begun patronizing printing presses a la Johannes Gutenburg. As Walther et al. note, “In contrast to the mass appeal of stiff vestments covered with sumptuous gold and precious stones, how very cultivated must the noble, almost mystical black colouring have appeared!” (Walther et al., 372). 


  1. This manuscript, when I first saw it, was absolutely stunning in its play of colors with the black vellum. The stained black vellum serves as almost a backdrop for the painted scenes, and truly makes the paint and illuminations stand out from the page. The restricted palette of the illustrator is interesting, as why did he limit his paint to just a few select colors? Maybe he thought these colors would serve the best to highlight the vellum, and too many colors might make the illustration too busy. The black background is used to it’s fully advantage, by truly serving as a striking background. With other vellum and illustrations that background is painted with scenes, but the background of this manuscript provides background that truly looked like they were etched in. They are illuminated in silver and gold to truly make the background gain more attention. We’ve seen other tinted vellum such as purple, as that symbolized power/royalty. The black vellum, while gorgeous, also gives a very dark and morbid tone as well, even if beautiful pictures fill the pages.This manuscript by far has been one of the most visually stunning manuscripts we have looked at. This has been one of the only black tinted vellum manuscripts I have seen, and I hope to find more manuscripts tinted in various colors.

  2. To see a manuscript in these colors is unexpected and breathtakingly beautiful. As Abby was saying the dyed vellum is striking and morbid, and I feel this gives its almost an incandescent and supernatural quality which physically demonstrates the religious importance book of hours held for lay readers.
    Another interesting point about the make of this manuscript is just how boldly the upper class was willing to go to create a separation from the middle class. Movements such as those are always backdrops to some of the most outlandish trends and art.

  3. The unusual coloration of this manuscript give in an unmistakeable aura of gravitas and authority, which makes sense given that it was produced at a time in which religion and its practice was one of the most important matters of daily life for millions of people across Europe.

    The striking coloration also makes this book stand out amongst its more traditonal, lightly colored peers. In a time when the upper crust of society would often compete through displays of wealth, looking wealthier and more powerful than one's peers was of capital importance. The extreme displays of wealth by the nobility, which were often coupled with sumptuary laws limiting what non-nobles were allowed to own or consume, also served to keep the middle class in their place and remind them that they would never be considered equals to the high born.

  4. The "Black Hours" is a wonderful example of the time period it was created in. After the invention of the printing press, manuscripts, for the most part, were oridinary and similar. One of the exceptions to this alterations in books was the "Black Hours." The "Black Hours" was produced for a member of the Burgundian court so the cost of the manuscript did not matter. The illuminator was able to use his imagination and create a truly unique manuscript. William Vrelant, the member of the Burgundian court, most likely wanted to acquire the manuscript as a collector's item. What I like most about the manuscript are the colors that vibrate off the page. They are truly eye catching and quite extraordinary. The uniqueness of this manuscript also catches me a bit off guard. I have not yet seen a manuscript quite like this before.