Hours of the Virgin
The main source of hymns and prayers that spread throughout the Catholic world
One workshop that specialized in producing small Books of Hours featuring miniatures framed by architectural borders seems (based on the dates of the saints’ feast days) to have operated in Flanders, probably in Bruges. One of the artists who worked here around the year 1500 was the Master of the David Scenes in the Grimani Breviary, who also painted the most beautiful illustrations in this Book of Hours.
The painting technique and the style of some of the miniatures and borders suggest a contact with the painter Simon Marmion, who created such masterpieces of decorative art that his contemporaries called him “the prince of book illumination".
Books of Hours
In the language of Catholic Liturgy, the term “Hours” refers to the Divine Office, namely the ensemble of prayers and hymns to be sung chorally or recited individually by all the clergy, secular or regular, at certain hours of the day and the night, today as in the past.
There are seven Hours of prayer, i.e. liturgical Hours: matins and lauds, prime, tierce, sext, none, vespers and compline. Matins are recited before dawn, compline after sunset. The sequence of hymns and prayers in those hours was called the cursus.
In the Middle Ages, when the cult of the Virgin and private devotion to her spread throughout the Church, a Marian Office appeared alongside the Divine Office. This Office of the Virgin was recited especially by lay people.
The Divine Office and the Office of the Virgin were recited together every week. Parts of them began to be excerpted and collected together for use in private devotion.
These collections formed the first core of a type of private prayer book that came to be widely circulated, especially between the fourteenth and the sixteenth centuries, together with the Psalter, which until then had been the main book used in private devotion.
This prayer book came to be called Book of Hours, or Little Office. Its essential parts were the Office of the Virgin, the Penitential Psalms, the Office for the Dead and the litanies, preceded by the Calendar. The Church never included the Book of Hours among its liturgical books, although much of its contents came from the Breviary.
However, the Book of Hours was the main source of hymns and prayers that spread throughout the Catholic world, such as the Salve Regina, the Stabat Mater, the Rosary (which originated because of the many Ave Marias that were included in the Little Office), even the Angelus Domini that is recited every day at noon.