Black Hours (Morgan Library)

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The Crucifixion, opp: Calendar. "Black Hours", Pierpont Morgan Library M. 493 (18v/19r)

The Black Hours (French: Livre d'heures Noir, German: Schwarzes Stundenbuch) is an illuminated Book of Hours now housed in the Morgan Library in New York. The work dates to ca. 1475 and was produced in Bruges. The manuscript is one of the few surviving examples of the so called Black Books of Hours, which employed an unusual and elaborate technique involving parchment soaked in black in ink – the other six include the Black Hours of Charles the Bold (ca. 1466–76) and the Hours of Mary of Burgundy (ca. 1477). The Morgan Black Hours consists of 121 sheets each measuring around 17cm x 12cm, of which 14 contain full page miniatures, which stylistically date to between 1460 and 1475.

The Black Hours is considered one of the masterpieces of Gothic manuscript illumination and is commonly attributed to a follower of either Flemish painter Willem Vrelant, Philippe de Mazerolles, or Liévin van Lathem.[1] The work appears to have been commissioned for a member of the Burgundian nobility, but there is no family crest indicating the donor, who was probably a member of the court of Charles the Bold.[citation needed]

Style and technique[edit]

Annunciation (29v/30r)

The dark style is in marked contrast to the bright colourisation found in even the highest quality books of the day and seems to reflect a rather gloomy and mournful outlook. The manuscript was probably intended for the first rank of nobility: the artwork is of a sophisticated, or at least unusual taste, and the pages are supposed by art historians to have carried an almost mystical aura for their medieval owners.[2] The Burgundian court of the time had a preference for dark, somber colourisation, and the extant works in this style were mostly commissioned for them. They favoured the contrast of black against gold and silver, a matter of taste that was reflected in their formal dress.[3] The miniatures are linked to a follower of Willem Vrelant due to the stylist resemblance with some of the faces in his known works, with clothing depicted in an angular and linear fashion consistent with his style. The colour scheme is mostly dark tones, with some reds, greens, greys and whites.[3]

The dramatic effect of the black and dark-blue backgrounds was achieved by immersing the vellum in black ink, using gold or silver to apply the script. The work is one of only seven known manuscripts in this style, all originating from the lower Netherlands. Because of the involved production process, the book would have been considerably more expensive and highly prized than conventional manuscripts. The underlying blue is made up of a number of variants of the hue, each of varying depths of colour.[3]

The borders were ornamented exclusively in gold and are shaded mostly with black. They are decorated with yellow or gold filigree and extravagant foliage, including vines. The borders in places contain jagged acanthus scrolls, as well as birds, small animals, and grotesques, the latter seemingly influenced by those found in the Viennese Hours.[3]

The best known miniature is that of the Crucifixion, (folio 14v), the borders of which contain fantastical creatures and a peacock. The main figures are Mary and St John, flanked by by two nobles engaged in discussion, probably questioning if the man on the cross was really the son of god. The mourners' elegantly displayed expressions are of deep sadness and loss. Behind are the walls of Jerusalem.[2]

Art historian Walter Ingo described folio 18v, depicting the Pentecost, or Descent of the Holy Spirit, as evidencing the "unusual, exquisite and precious overall effect of that is generated by using the technique of fixing an illumination on a piece of black dyed parchment".[2] Rinceaux and flowery border decorations outline a depiction of Mary at the center of the court of the Apostles. The gilded "D" to the right references the opening letter of the Hours of the Holy Spirit. [2]

Of the surviving black manuscripts, the Morgan book is the best preserved, in large part because of its unusually thick parchment leaves which protected the lettering from the chemical effect of the black dye, and allowed the Morgan to keep it in codex form, rather than having to place leaves in acrylic panes, as is the case with the Vinnea Black Prayer Book.[3] The manuscript has deteriorated in areas, especially in the black of the vellum, where flaking is evident.[4] It is bound in tan pigskin and tied with oxidized silver clasps, probably added in the 19th century. According to the Morgan, the manuscript is scheduled for treatment and repair.[1]


The manuscript was in the collection of Cardinal Nicholas Yemeniz from 1867 until he sold it to Ambroise Firmin-Didot in 1871.[1] It was later acquired by Robert Hoe,[5] prior to its sale to the Pierpont Morgan Library in 1912.


The manuscript consists of fourteen full-page miniatures depicting the life of the Virgin and Christ and the liturgical year. The miniatures are all on the left or verso side of the open leaves.

  • Folio 14v: The Crucifixion (opposite the opening of the "Hours of the Cross")
  • Folio 18v: Pentecost
  • Folio 22v: The Madonna and Child (opposite the beginning of the "Mass of the Virgin")
  • Folio 29v: The Annunciation (opposite the early "Hours of the Virgin")
  • Folio 39v: Visitation
  • Folio 50v: Nativity
  • Folio 54v: The Annunciation to the Shepherds
  • Folio 58v: Adoration of the Magi
  • Folio 62V: The massacre of the Innocents
  • Folio 66v: The Flight into Egypt
  • Folio 72v: The Coronation of the Virgin
  • Folio 76v: David in prayer (opposite the beginning of "Psalms")
  • Folio 93v: Resurrection of Lazarus (opposite the start of the "Vigils of the Dead")
  • Folio 98V: Funeral scene



  1. ^ a b c "Book of hours (MS M.493"Morgan Library. Retrieved 4 October, 2015
  2. ^ a b c d Ingo, 372
  3. ^ a b c d e Ingo, 373
  4. ^ "Massacre of the Innocents". Morgan Library. Retrieved 4 October, 2015
  5. ^ "The Coming Sale of part of the Robert Hoe Library". Lotus Magazine. Volume 3, No. 2, 1911. 35-43


  • Bousmanne, Bernard (ed). Black Book of Hours; Scientific commentary. New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 2001
  • Facsimile Ausgabe von Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, M. 493. Luzern: Faksimile Verlag Luzern, 2001
  • Walther, Ingo. Codices Illustres. Berlin: Taschen Verlag, 2001. ISBN 978-3-8228-6023-6
  • Wieck, Roger. Painted Prayers: The book of hours in medieval and Renaissance ar. New York: George Braziller, 1997

External links[edit]