The Connolly Book of Hours is an illuminated manuscript held by the John J. Burns Library. This manuscript was created in mid-fifteenth century France, a time and place when Books of Hours were produced and bought in great numbers. The absence of an owner portrait (a common feature in lavish Books of Hours), the small size of the book, and the fact that the manuscript’s miniatures feature a standard iconography for images suggest that the book was a more generalized, mass produced manuscript. It was therefore most likely owned by a family belonging to the growing upper middle class.
Books of Hours are Catholic prayer books that were intended to be used by the laymen and laywomen of the middle ages and Renaissance. They became enormously popular in Europe as a result of rising literacy rates, a growing concern for prayer in the home, increasing interest in the effects of art on private devotion, and a mounting devotion towards the Virgin Mary. Books of Hours served as private prayer books, primers for literacy, family record books, and finally symbols of wealth. The Connolly Book of Hours is an excellent example of such a prayer book.
The manuscript indicates both the increasing democratization of literacy, which was no longer restricted to the nobility and clergy, as well as the more streamlined production of manuscripts to meet the growing demands for books. The manuscript also includes sections written in French, in addition to Latin, the language of the church, demonstrating the increasing use of the vernacular.
Each section of a Book of Hours has a rich pictorial tradition, and is often illuminated, as is the Connolly Book of Hours. The Connolly Book of Hours is full of illustrations that show many facets of life. Thus the manuscript is a beautiful mirror of life in late medieval and Renaissance France.
This image of a funeral mass illustrates not only a typical medieval burial, but also the heightened emphasis on death due to the prevalence of disease. A group of priests are shown chanting over a shrouded corpse. The priests deliver the Office of the Dead, which was recited at funerals as well as by monks and priests on a daily basis. The laity were also encouraged to recite the office at home as often as possible to help a loved one’s soul out of purgatory and into heaven. In an age when the bubonic plague still haunted many, and diseases such as influenza killed people suddenly and frequently, the owners of the Connolly Book of Hours must have reflected often upon the Office of the Dead as well as its accompanying image.
Saint Sebastian was widely invoked as a protector against disease, particularly the plague. Because people feared sudden death by disease, Saint Sebastian became one of the most popular saints of the era. Saint Sebastian is shown here as he typically is: tied to a tree and pierced by arrows, a reference to the brutal punishment he endured and survived for being a Christian in the Roman Empire. Archers flank him on both sides, with their arrows pointed threateningly, ready to strike again. The pained expression on Saint Sebastian’s face as he undergoes this torture would have heightened the sympathy felt by viewers of this image. But the knowledge that he survived this horrific encounter would have given hope to the viewers, and would have reminded them of Saint Sebastian’s piety and endurance. Thus, the image would not only inspire the viewer to be a more pious Christian, but it would also encourage him or her to seek the aid of strong and persistent Saint Sebastian in combatting the ever present threat of disease.
A good example of how a Book of Hours would be used as a private prayer book can be seen in the miniature depicting the Annunciation. This scene depicts the archangel Gabriel announcing to the Virgin Mary that she will bear a child, the Son of God. Mary was believed to be inside her room, engaged in prayer when the Gabriel arrived to announce her pregnancy. In the miniature, Mary kneels in prayer, her hands clasped and her Book of Hours open in front of her on a prie-dieu (prayer bench). A vessel in the room contains white lilies, a symbol of Mary’s purity. Her diligent piety is clearly rewarded by the fact that the archangel Gabriel has come down from heaven to give her the joyous news of the coming of Christ. Mary is shown as a model for other women to follow, the exemplary pious woman.
In this period there was a growing emphasis on Marian images, shrines, and pilgrimages, what is now known as “the cult of the Virgin.” Mary’s importance is indicated most evidently by the fact that she appears in numerous images in a Book of Hours. Perhaps the image that indicates unmistakably her importance is the image of the Madonna Enthroned. Mary is depicted seated on a throne as Queen of Heaven, gazing at the infant Jesus whom she holds on her knees. The Madonna and Child are serenaded by two angels flanking them on either side, playing the lute and the harp. Mary’s and Jesus’ holiness is signaled by the golden haloes that surround their heads. Mary is highlighted as the primary holy figure of the piece by the fact that golden light, perhaps an allusion to God the Father, pours in from the upper left corner and points directly at her. Mary is not only shown in heaven, but enthroned in heaven. Her importance in this illustration is greater than even Christ himself, for it is believed only through Mary’s motherhood could Jesus save humankind. Mary plays an essential role in human redemption and salvation.
The Connolly Book of Hours has been digitized and is now a part of the Boston College University Libraries Digital Collections. If you would like to learn more about this beautiful manuscript, read the finding aid, browse the digital version of the Connolly Book of Hours online or contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or email@example.com.
- Annelise Corriveau, Arts & Sciences, Boston College Class of 2015
This blog post is drawn from the exhibit “Making History Public: Books Around the World: 1400 – 1800.” This exhibit was curated and organized by Professor Virginia Reinburg’s Fall 2012 HS600 class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries. From April – December 2013, the “Making History Public” exhibit is on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South. Stay tuned for more posts on this exhibit!