Friday, September 30, 2011

Les Tres Riches Heures

October, from Les Tres Riches Heures de Duc de Berry
Tilling the Field, the Louvre in the Background

The autumn is truly upon us now, and as September is nearly over and October dawning, I thought I would offer the October page from a book called Les Tres Riches Heures, or The Very Rich Hours, first put together in the medieval era.  I will try to do this at the start of each month, so you might see a full year of these pages.  Do you know the idea of a book of hours?  The concept is a lovely one, and something to consider as part of breathing in deeply and savoring the rhythm of a day.   The book of hours was a devotional book popular in the later Middle Ages. It remains the most common type of surviving medieval illuminated manuscript. Like every manuscript, each manuscript book of hours is unique in one way or another, according to the whim and fancy of the patron who commissioned the work.  Most contain a similar collection of texts, prayers and psalms, often with beautiful illustrations, which can be used as a little devotional, and a way to pray through the hours of the day.  Illumination or decoration is minimal in many examples, often restricted to decorated capital letters at the start of psalms and other prayers, but books made for wealthy patrons may be extremely lavish, with full-page miniatures.  The typical book of hours is an abbreviated form of a prayer cycle recited in monasteries. It was developed for people who wished to incorporate elements of monasticism into their devotional life. Reciting the hours typically centered upon the reading of a number of psalms and other prayers.

The book of hours as a meditation tool had its origin in the Psalms, which monks and nuns were required to recite. By the 12th century this had developed into the breviary, with weekly cycles of psalms, prayers, hymns, antiphons, and readings which changed with the liturgical season. Eventually a selection of texts was produced in much shorter volumes and came to be called a book of hours.  I have always loved the way in which the book follows the seasons of the church calendar, and as you will notice over the next few months, each stunning page incorporates elements of the season at hand. Today, there is a movement to reintroduce some elements of monastic life into the spiritual life of ordinary believers, and this beautiful little custom, a kind of rosary in effect, is perhaps one example of what might be a meaningful addition to a diet of contemplative prayer and meditation. 

There are a number of very sweet aspects to this medieval practice.  Many books of hours were made for women. There is some evidence that they were sometimes given as a wedding present from a husband to his bride.  I think this is a particularly lovely custom, and find it hard to imagine a more fitting wedding gift.  A gift of this sort is a means of investing your intended spouse with riches that can't be measured in material terms, but call to mind the concept of Kairos, or in effect the gift of gentler hours, which were encouraged to be spent in meditation and prayer. To offer your wife-to-be a book of beautiful prayers, selected for her, seems a lovely start to a marriage. Frequently these books were passed down through the family, as recorded in wills.  They were treasures, as books were exceedingly rare, and since they were all hand made and decorated, they were very dear. Although the most heavily illuminated books of hours were enormously expensive, a small book with little or no illumination was affordable much more widely, and increasingly so during the 15th century. By the 15th century, various stationer's shops mass-produced books of hours in the Netherlands and France. By the end of the 15th century, the advance of printing made books more affordable and much of the emerging middle-class could afford to buy a printed book of hours.

Very rarely the books included prayers specifically composed for their owners, but more often the texts are adapted to their tastes or sex, including the inclusion of their names in prayers. Some include images depicting their owners, and some their coats of arms. These, together with the choice of saints commemorated in the calendar and suffrages, are the main clues for the identity of the first owner.

Often, I have wanted to make my own, and have it copied for my friends.  A beautiful example of this book of hours, and by far my favorite, is a medieval book first commissioned by the Duc de Berry, in the fifteenth century, called Les Tres Riches Heures de Duc de Berry.  It is perhaps the most beautiful example of an "illuminated" manuscript from the medival era in existence, that is, a series of texts, the letters of which are embellished and the borders intricately decorated.  Since I was a child I have been fascinated by the concept of a book of hours, and it was not long before I began to try to make my own. More than anything, I loved sitting at my desk in my bedroom, or on some high mountain meadow, with my pencils and paints, and attempting to "illustrate" the borders of calendar, something I have carried into my adult life, using watercolors and various themes to make an annual miniature calendar for my friends and family.  The last couple of years have been so busy, I have not had time to do one, but this year, again, I hope to do one in the spirit of a book of hours, incorporating a beautiful little liturgy.

Even the fashioning of the book has a romantic heritage. The principal work of illumination was sometime between 1412 and 1416 by the Limbourg brothers, who were known as highly gifted illuminators. The text, border decorations, and gilding were most likely executed by assistants or specialists who remain mostly unknown. The Limbourg brothers left the book unfinished and unbound at their, and the Duke's, death in 1416. The work passed to the Duke's cousin, the royal art lover and amateur painter René d'Anjou, who had an unidentified artist, the so-called Master of the Shadows, work on finishing the book, but even he did not complete it.   The October page, pictured above, is from this Master of the Shadows, quite a name for an artist!  The entire book was not finally finished until the 1440s.  When it was done, it included a generalized calendar (not specific to any year) of church feasts and saints' days, often illuminated, is a usual part of a book of hours, but the illustrations of the months in the Très Riches Heures are exceptional and innovative in their scope, and the best known element of the decoration of the manuscript. Most of them show one of the duke's castles in the background, and are filled with details of the delights and labors of the months, from the Duke's court to his peasants, a counterpart to the prayers of the hours. Each illustration is surmounted with its appropriate hemisphere showing a solar chariot, the signs and degrees of the zodiac, and numbering the days of the month and the martyrological letters for the ecclesiastic lunar calendar.  In this book are also little pictures and vignettes of important occasions and aspects of church history meant to be inspiring. Following is an illustration of the baptism of Augustine, one of the great minds and souls in the history of the Church.  You can see the beautiful lettering and highly decorative nature of the page.  They form a kind of icon, or window one might look through, to see the Heavenly Reality behind the image.

It would be equally fun to assemble a cookbook of hours, following the calendar year, which was particular to the traditions and pleasures and customes of our own families.  For some time, I have been collecting my favorite things to eat in a journal, as well as old family dinners and recipes, and I would like to make a little culinary book of hours, with menus for each month, published as a kind of liturgy of the table as a gift for my children.  In this way, the gentle, very rich hours passed a table would be even more meaningful, part of this liturgy of family handed down from one generation to another.  The hours are richer for the layers of meaning which these shared memories bring.  Last Christmas, a beloved aunt sent me a little package containing some of my grandmother's collected recipes, and when I paged through these, the memories of my grandmother flooded my consciousness with such clarity, almost as if I could touch her.  I know my aunt had a similar experience when she first discovered them.  These memories are our muses, for the muses were first born of memory.

Perhaps this is part of why we take the time to pray through the hours of the day, that in each hour, reciting some beloved prayer, God is able to draw nearer to our hearts because they are opened to him, not unlike my heart, opened to the memory of my beloved grandmother by the simple physical touch of a recipe she had also touched, and upon which she made margin notes so long ago.  We have inside of us a created memory of a kinship with God, for which we were created, and which was given us to act as Muse, born of memory in Kairos time, to awaken our hearts. Some of the richest hours of my life have been at table.  I know of nothing which reflects love more fully than the simple hospitality of the table with friends, or family, or even the stranger knocking at the door, the least of these as unto Him. With each season comes a fresh menu of riches that makes leaving the season behind a cause for joy for the anticipation of what is to come. I think that God has invited us to feast at his table, and our very rich hours with him, taking in food for our souls, brings life to the calendar, such that each month is a celebration of the seasons of our Life in Him.

I wish you all a lovely weekend of very rich hours. Tonight, I am going to make my famous meatloaf, which is made from ground pork, veal and beef, and augmented with fresh herbs, baked with rashers of bacon, and served with whipped potatoes, the way my American grandmother used to make them.  Over the weekend, I plan to roast a chicken with some polenta croutons, and for Sunday dinner, some braised short ribs. The season of braises has begun.  I will tell you about these meals in the blogs next week. A bientot, mes amis. Happy Cooking!

Post Script: I have a young, very promising (and well trained) theologian friend who has a new and wonderful blog, which you can find to the right of the posting here, Seeing More Clearly, Knowing More Dearly. Check it out. It's terrific.

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