Hours of the Virgin

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Catherine of Cleves Praying to the Virgin and Child
Annunciation to Joachim

Hours of Catherine of Cleves, in Latin
Illuminated by the Master of Catherine of Cleves

Utrecht, The Netherlands
ca. 1440
Tempera on vellum
7 1/2 x 5 1/8 in. (192 x 130 mm)

Purchased on the Belle da Costa Greene Fund and with the assistance of the Fellows, 1963

MS M.945, ff. 1v–2r
Item description: 

Created in Utrecht, The Netherlands, around 1440, the manuscript was taken apart sometime before 1856. Its leaves were shuffled and then rebound into two volumes to make each look more or less complete. The first part was acquired by the duke of Arenberg, whose descendants owned it until 1957, when it was bought by New York dealer H. P. Kraus, who sold it to Alistair Bradley Martin. This volume had been known by scholars as the "Hours of Catherine of Cleves."

Meanwhile, the second part had been acquired by the Rothschild family, who kept their manuscripts secret. In 1963 their volume was sold to the Morgan as yet another "Hours of Catherine of Cleves." Studying the newly acquired book (it became MS M.917) along with the Martin volume, Morgan curator John Plummer determined that they were actually two halves of one and the same codex. In 1964 the Morgan mounted an exhibition of both volumes, displaying all the miniatures via color transparencies. When a facsimile of the manuscript was published by George Braziller in 1966, the exhibition was repeated. Finally, in 1970, the Morgan was able to buy the Martin volume (it became MS M.945), and thus came to own both parts of this greatest of all Dutch manuscripts.

Both volumes have been disbound in preparation for rebinding the leaves in proper order.

Page description: 

Catherine's prayer book begins with a bang. The first thing one sees is Catherine herself, praying from her Book of Hours before the Virgin and Child. On the right, the narrative of the life of Mary commences with an angel's telling the Virgin's father, Joachim, that his wife is with child. The many rabbits symbolize the old man's newfound fecundity. In a parallel manner, the borders proudly proclaim Catherine's noble lineage: eight of her ancestors' arms fill the corners of the folios. Her own arms as duchess of Guelders are prominently positioned directly below the Virgin. In a heraldic act of defiance, she surmounts her arms not with her husband's crest but with the ox of her own house of Cleves.

Hours: 

Hours of the Virgin

The heart of every Book of Hours is the series of prayers called the Hours of the Virgin. Each Hour is composed of psalms plus hymns, biblical readings, and short phrases (antiphons, versicles, and responses). Ideally, these eight Hours were prayed throughout the course of the day:

Matins and Lauds at night or upon rising
Prime (first Hour) at 6:00 a.m.
Terce (third Hour) at 9:00 a.m.
Sext (sixth Hour) at noon
Nones (ninth Hour) at 3:00 p.m.
Vespers (evensong) in the early evening
Compline before retiring.


The Hours of the Virgin date back to at least the ninth century. By the late twelfth century, the Hours appeared in Psalters, prayer books popular with laypeople. With a rising economy and the growth of the merchant class, the thirteenth century saw an increase in lay literacy. By the middle of the century, the Hours of the Virgin "spun off" from the Psalter and formed the core of the laypeople's prayer book, the Book of Hours.

The Virgin Mary is, of course, not mentioned in the numerous psalms of the Old Testament that comprise much of the Hours. Framing the psalms, however, are prayers that offer a mystical interpretation of the psalms and reveal the role played by the Virgin in mankind's salvation.

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Image courtesy of Faksimile Verlag Luzern