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Book of Hours

Breviary, Book of Hours

As a group, Books of Hours are arguably the most beautiful of all books. They are also some of the most expensive, with modest examples starting in five figures. One of the finest Book of Hours-the richly illuminated Rothschild Prayerbook-sold for a record $13.5 million (£8.6 million) in 1999.

Books of Hours are private devotional books that were enormously popular with wealthy Catholics in the fifteenth century. They were typically structured around the hourly prayers observed in monasteries, and devout Catholics were expected stop eight times a day and recite the appropriate liturgy.

Despite their strongly religious origin, the books served more as status symbols and fashion accessories than paths to heaven, a fact testified to in the large number of copies that survive in exceptional condition. Most Books of Hours are illuminated manuscripts, beautifully written out by hand on vellum, with ornate initial letters in each section, decorative page borders, and-in the better examples-delicate paintings, which are called miniatures.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word miniature comes from the Italian term for medieval book illustration. Since these illustrations were small, the English word came to refer to diminutive size. Another common English phrase related to Books of Hours is red-letter day. Books of Hours often included a calendar of holy days, and scribes typically indicated the most important days with red ink.

Tens of thousands of Books of Hours survive, making them by far the most common books of the Middle Ages. Today, as six hundred years ago, these manuscripts are sought for their beautiful illustrations and decoration, not their content, which is archaic and typically written in Latin. The price of a manuscript depends entirely on the number and quality of the miniatures.

The miniatures usually depict scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints. The settings, however, are not historical. Instead, the painters placed the figures in contemporary settings showing, for example, medieval castle towers in the background of a painting of the Crucifixion. Often it is possible to find a portrait of the original owner of a Book of Hours in one of the paintings.

While complete Books of Hours can be expensive, individual leaves written out and decorated by a scribe six centuries ago, can be found for little more than the price of a new hardcover book about illuminated manuscripts.

Ten Choices - Books of Hours

AbeBooks' sellers offer everything from complete manuscript Books of Hours to children's books inspired by these devotional works. Other opportunities include facsimile editions-the best of which are hand-finished with gold highlights-and some exceptional coffee-table books on the subject.

Most Expensive Book of Hours on AbeBooks

Most Expensive Book of Hours on AbeBooks

This Book of Hours dates from the Netherlands in about 1490. Its nineteen miniatures have been attributed to the Master of Edward IV. Most of the illustrators of illuminated manuscripts worked anonymously, but they can be recognized through their style of painting. They are usually referred to with a name based on one of their famous works. This master miniaturist is known for his work on a Bible for King Edward IV of England. $500,000.

This Copy

Printed Book of Hours

Printed Book of Hours

While it might seem counterintuitive, manuscript Books of Hours flourished in the years after the invention of the printing press. The reason? Printed books couldn't compete with the beauty of hand-illuminated volumes. By the sixteenth century, however, many publishers were churning out mass-produced Books of Hours, which were often hand-colored, like this one, printed in France on animal-skin vellum in 1520. $31,500.

This Copy

Middle Class Book of Hours

Middle Class Book of Hours

Richly illuminated Books of Hours made for the very wealthy tend to get most of the attention, but many of the books were more modest, intended for the upper middle class who could not afford to hire master illuminators. Nevertheless, the delicate calligraphy and decorative borders in this example makes it an attractive book at a lower (though still high) price. $24,000.

This Copy

Deluxe Facsimiles

Deluxe Facsimiles

Elaborate facsimiles of many Books of Hours have been made by European printers, often using gold ink highlights. Even details like wormholes and uneven page edges are painstakingly reproduced. This is a copy of an exquisite Spanish Book of Hours that once belonged to Leonora de la Vega, the daughter of the poet-soldier Garcilaso de la Vega. From $3,800.

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Russian Book of Hours

Russian Book of Hours

Long after Books of Hours went out of fashion in Western Europe, editions were still being printed in Russia. This is a rare example, printed in Kiev in 1739, for use in the Russian Orthodox Church. $3,200.

This Copy

Chromolithographs

Chromolithographs

In 1862, a Parisian publisher reproduced some of the most remarkable miniatures appearing in Books of Hours using the latest color-printing technology: chromolithography. The resulting book, issued in an elaborate binding, offers a beautiful survey of medieval art. From $1,500.

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Decorative Leaf

Decorative Leaf

If a complete Book of Hours is beyond reach, a decorative leaf (a single sheet, making two pages) is a nice alternative. Full-page miniatures can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Text leaves with decorative initials and borders can be found for under $1,000. This example, from France around 1485, is quite attractive on both sides. $750.

This Copy

Another Decorative Leaf

Another Decorative Leaf

This leaf from a French Book of Hours does not have an illuminated border, but ten of its initials are highlighted with liquid gold. $220.

This Copy

Tres Riches Heures

Tres Riches Heures

Arguably the greatest illuminated Book of Hours, the so-called Tres Riches Heures was commissioned by Jean, Duc de Berry early in the fifteenth century. It remained unfinished when he died and two generations of his heirs hired artists to continue the work. The Duc's Hours has been the subject of many books. Illuminations of Heaven and Earth is one of the most popular. From $50.

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A Child's Book of Hours

A Child's Book of Hours

A number of modern books have been inspired by medieval Books of Hours. In 1921, Constance and Noel Irving adapted the format into an illustrated children's book. From $80 (copies in the original dust jacket command a premium).

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A Key Reference Book

A Key Reference Book

There are a vast number of books about Books of Hours and illuminated manuscripts in general. The best single work on the subject is Christopher de Hamel's A History of Illuminated Manuscripts. From $15.

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