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Over the centuries, Christianity has had a major influence on European art. Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, Da Vinci’s Last Supper and Boticelli’s Adoration of the Magi are a few of the many examples.

Similarly, art has also had an influence on Christian literature and this is particularly true in the case of the Book of Hours – a devotional book containing hymns, prayers and psalms that was popular in the Middle Ages.

The ‘hours’ referred to the eight canonical hours (four in the day and four nightly vigils) during which prayers were offered. Books of Hours were usually written in Latin, although many can also be found in Dutch.

Most of the initial Books contained very little decoration. However, from the 15th century onwards, many had jeweled covers, portraits of the owners as well as heraldic emblems for royalty. These ‘luxury’ Books were often commissioned; the Talbot Hours was commissioned by John Talbot, the First Earl of Shrewsbury and included a portrait of Talbot and his wife kneeling in adoration to the Virgin and Child.

Some of the most expensive Books had miniature cycles depicting the Passion of Christ (most probably used for Lent – the 40-day period of fasting preceding Easter), the Life of the Virgin, and even the signs of the zodiac! Many Books also contained simple rural and urban scenes which are an important record of life in the Middle Ages.

Although Books of Hours are no longer used as a devotional guides, some of the most lavish ones survive, including the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry) which took nearly a century to complete and can now be found at the Musée Condé in Chantilly, France. Some Books are also found in private collections, such as the beautifully illuminated Rothschild Prayerbook, which sold for $13.5 million in 1999.

— Marylou Andrew
Easter will be celebrated tomorrow.

First published in the Adbuzzzzz Section of The DAWN National Weekend Advertiser on April 24, 2011