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).