Depicting Devotion

Curated by Kevin Kalish, Department of English and Christina Linsenmeyer van Schalkwyk, Department of Music

Rarely does the opportunity come to peruse, page by page, through a medieval book or manuscript. This exhibit attempts just that. By following the arrangement of this exhibition, the viewer sees the structure and format of a Book of Hours writ large. Books of Hours, one specimen in the history of Illuminated Manuscripts, exhibit a vivid interplay between image and text. Washington University Libraries Department of Special Collections holdings of ten fifteenth-century French and Flemish Books of Hours offer a glimpse into this popular medieval genre.

The exhibition is arranged in order to introduce the viewer to the illuminations that accompany the essential texts found in Books of Hours. The illuminations introduce the sections of the text; as Roger Wieck describes them, "they provided the themes upon which to meditate; they were 'painted prayers'" (Painted Prayers, p. 22). Although there is much variation in the structure of a Book of Hours, their format may be generalized. See the list at right from Roger Wieck's book Painted Prayers. Please use the hand card to accompany your walk-through of the sections. In the last section, we have chosen to highlight two particular symbols evident in our collection that were not as much discussed in Books of Hours literature: peacocks and eggs.

The tall case next to section IV is separate from the overall exhibition order and displays the actual manuscripts. The manuscripts are again arranged in a "walk-through" order. Here, the complete descriptions of the books can be seen, as well as a contextualizing essay concerning the history of illuminated medieval manuscript.


Symbolism of Devotion

A semiotic reading of these images unpacks the layers of meaning relevant to medieval Christianity. The approach will be a basic one, primarily concerned with the image and its parts as identifiable symbols -- things that stand for something else. The illuminations in Books of Hours are an interesting case, because the illuminations do not gloss the text, but rather introduce relevant themes. Etymologically the Greek word sumbolon, from which "symbol" is derived, means a bringing together.

The symbolism in the illuminations, though obscure and unfamiliar to us now, told stories and presented images whose significance was evident to a seasoned medieval viewer. The illuminations in these Books of Hours depict Scriptural themes and narratives relating to Feast Days, such as the legends of the Virgin and Saints. The images illustrate scenes, characters and their identifying signposts. The following discussion will touch two large aspects of symbolism: 1.) the applied, practical form in which the symbols function to identify a person or object (such as Mary Magdalene identified by her ointment jar); and 2.) the expressive, imaginative form, where the symbol is a visual metaphor for an idea, such as an attribute (a crown representing glory, for instance) or a Christian message (such as King David embodying penitence). Practicality and spirituality are joined in these depictions, which use symbols as a visual language. The word of God is not only evident in the text, but within these manuals for devotional prayer the illuminations themselves present a means of Christian meditation.

Scriptural references are to the Douay-Rheims Version, since it most closely follows the Latin Vulgate.

Kevin Kalish, Department of English and
Christina Linsenmeyer van Schalkwyk, Department of Music