Beneath the Lamentation of Christ, a stocky peasant man has pulled down his trousers and is mooning the audience.
He offers no explanation for his presence. Neither does the man standing—or rather, blossoming from a flower—to the right of the dead Christ. His silence may be explained by the fact that he has both hands in his mouth, pulling it open to stick out his tongue in a gesture recognizable across the ages.
These characters are just two of the many striking grotesques parading through the margins of The Hours of Simon de Varie, an illuminated book of hours from 15th century France. Here at the Art Library, we have a facsimile of it in our illuminated manuscript facsimile collection.
Perhaps as interesting as the images themselves is the fact that, at some point in the manuscript’s history, one of its owners evidently disapproved of the mooning man. It is the only image in the text that seems to have been intentionally marred, his twin cheeks barely visible beneath the streaks of paint. The outrageous cheekiness of this image make it an obvious target for elimination. Remarkably, though, most of the other grotesques remain untouched. A tour through some of our facsimiles of books of hours shows a similarly bold presence of secular, bizarre, and even crass imagery in the pages of holy texts.
A book of hours is a book created for personal worship. It was typically used as a kind of plug-and-pray prayer reference book, filling needs such as “to pray for the dead or dying,” “to ask for forgiveness from sins,” “to ask for the intercession of saints,” and many other categories of devotions.
As with most other illuminated manuscripts, books of hours were luxury items possessed only by the richest members of society. A book that is both a practical prayer manual and a status symbol seems like an unlikely place to find the whimsical creations of an illuminator, but some carried a subtler, more pointed message than those in The Hours of Simon de Varie.
Unlike the “mooner and friend”, most of the strange creatures and objects in The Hours of Catherine of Cleves appear in frames encircling pages in the second half of the manuscript. These are usually executed in a trompe l’oeil style, so that the items that make up the frames appear as if they are lying on top of the page rather than painted on it. On one page, a rosary lies around the text as if just dropped by the reader.
Some of the items in these frames have more distinct, symbolic meanings. A scene of St. Sebastian’s martyrdom by a firing squad of bowmen is surrounded by a frame made up of bows and arrows. Another saint is surrounded by a chain of fish eating each other.
A cannibalistic fish fest may not seem very holy, but the image of a larger fish eating a smaller one was a common metaphor during the medieval period for the rich “consuming” the poor.
Other items seem to have been included purely on a whim. For example: pretzels, which appear in this image along with communion wafers. Although you might not think that delicious salty snacks would have hidden theological significance, pretzels were evidently a symbol of the arms of the Father. Mysterious objects that appear on other pages include mussels filled with gold, and crabs.
It seems like an unfair tease to tell you now that “there are many more of these creatures, and you should come see them for yourself,” but a full listing of every unique grotesque in every book of hours we have would tax even the greatest attention span. There are too many boars playing harps and ghostly faces emerging from cadelles in The Hours of Mary of Burgundy, for one, and too many men wearing ox yokes and beasts in bishop’s miters in The Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux to discuss in one blog post. So take a look at what we have here, and come in prepared to squint.
– Eva Sclippa