The Dutch illuminator Willem Vrelant (d. 1482) and the German painter Hans Memling (d. 1494) have much in common. Foreigners who came to Bruges for the opportunities the city presented, they enjoyed parallel careers, and they both worked for patrician families as well as the influential Dukes of Burgundy, who frequented Bruges. They certainly knew each other. Memling even painted an altarpiece “on assignment” from Vrelant. The small-scale paintings in this intimate Book of Hours display Memling’s influence. Noting Memling’s sweetness, the great art historian Erwin Panofsky compared him to the composer Felix Mendelssohn who “occasionally enchants, never offends, and never overwhelms.” One might say the same of Willem Vrelant.
i (paper) + 167 folios + i (paper) leaves, foliated in modern pencil usually on every 10th leaf (a partial 17th(?)-century ink foliation predates the present binding and the loss of some leaves), collation: 14 (ff. 1-4), 26, 38-1 last blank cancelled (ff. 5-17), 4-68 (ff. 18-41), 78-2 first and last leaves missing, both probably with miniatures (ff. 42-47), 8-168 (ff. 48-119), 178-1 2nd leaf missing, probably with a miniature, last blank cancelled (ff. 120-125), 188-1 1st leaf missing, probably with a miniature (ff. 126-132), 198, 208-1 7th leaf missing, probably with a miniature (ff. 141-147), 21-228 (ff. 148-162), 238-2 flyleaves, first missing, last blank cancelled (ff. 163-166), ruled in purple ink, the ruled space c. 70 x 50 mm, written in a fine formal gothic book hand with 14 lines of text per page in black/brown ink, with numerous elaborate calligraphic cadels, rubrics in red, decorated with thirteen large miniatures in arch-topped compartments with full borders on of semi-naturalistic acanthus and other leaves, flowers and fruit, in gold and colors, each above a 3-line illuminated initial, at the start of the major texts, two 6-line foliate initials in colors on a gold ground at the start of the Hours of the Virgin and the Penitential Psalms, also accompanied by full borders, 2-line gold initials on grounds of pink and blue with white tracery to psalms, hymns, chapters etc., 1-line initials alternately gold with blue penwork flourishing or blue with red penwork to verses, occasional slight rubbing or spotting, a few minor old repairs or reinforcements, late 17th- or early 18th-century (c.1704?) French calf sewn on four thongs, gilt paneled spine, the edges of the leaves flecked with red and blue, rubbed, the spine and corners worn, some foxing to endpapers, but overall in sound condition. Dimensions 117 x 90 mm.
1. To judge by the style of decoration and the most distinctive saints in the calendar, the manuscript was produced in Bruges, the main center of Flemish book production in the later fifteenth century. The presence of miniatures depicting Saints Adrian and George, both soldiers, hints at the occupation of the original owner. The presence of the very unusual Saint Godelieve in the litany (in addition to Adrian and George) provides a further clue: although she was venerated especially at Ghent and Mechelen, the calendar does not include other Ghent and Mechelen saints that we might expect if the book’s owner lived in either of those places: it is therefore possible that he lived instead at Ghistel (Ghistelles), a mere 10 miles southwest of Bruges, where Godelieve was buried and later canonized. It is not impossible to imagine that he may even have been a member of the aristocratic Ghistelles family.
2. Within the first century of the book’s history, the second and third owners were perhaps responsible for the added prayers;
3. A later owner wrote his name (not clearly legible) and the date “1704” and was presumably responsible for the present binding.
4. European Private Collection.
ff. 1v-3, Added 15th-century prayers: “[O] Gloriosissima dei genitrix virgo semper Maria benedico et adoro pedes quibus deum portasti …”; (f. 2r-v) “Oratio de passione domini, [O] domine ihesu criste adoro te in cruce pendentem ...”; (ff. 2v-3r) “Alia oratio de beata virgine Maria, Domina santa Maria suscipe hanc orationem in amorem et honorem illius fidei ...”;
f. 4v, Added prayer in Dutch by a 15th- or 16th-century hand “Vreest den heere In all Wercken …”, followed by a few erased lines;
ff. 5r-16v, Calendar, about one-third full, with one month per leaf; major feasts (in red ink) include Basil, patron of the chapel of St. Basil and the Holy Blood in Bruges (14 June), Remigius of Rheims and Bavo of Ghent (1 October), and Donatian of Bruges (14 October); feasts in plain ink include William, archbishop of York, unusual in Flemish calendars and here entered one day too early (7 June), and the mendicants saints Dominic (5 August), Clare (12 August), and Francis (4 October);
f. 17r-v is blank;
ff. 18r-22v, Hours of the Cross;
ff. 23r-27v, Hours of the Holy Spirit;
ff. 28r-40r, Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary;
ff. 40v-41v, Prayer on the Passion: “Precor te piissime ...”;
ff. 42r-44v, Hours of the Passion, beginning imperfectly;
ff. 45r-46r, Memorial to St. George;
ff. 46v-47v, Memorial to St. Christopher, ending imperfectly;
ff. 48r-105r, Hours of the Virgin, Use of Rome;
ff. 106v-118, The prayer O intemerata;
ff. 110v-112r, The Eight Verses of St. Bernard: “Illumina oculos meos ...”;
ff. 112r-114v, The Prayer on the Seven Last Words of Christ, here attributed to Bede: “Domine ihesu christe qui septem verba die ultimo vite die ...”;
ff. 114v-117v, Obsecro te, using masculine forms;
f. 118r, Short prayers to be said at the Elevation of the Host, and after eating the Host;
ff. 118v-119r, A prayer with 2,000 years’ indulgence, to be said at the Elevation of the Host;
f. 119r, Prayer to Christ;
ff. 119v-120v, Memorial to St. Adrian;
ff. 121r-122r, Memorials to St. Catherine of Alexandria, beginning imperfectly, and to St. Barbara;
ff. 122v-124r, Stabat mater, with an indulgence of Pope Boniface of seven years and four carenae;
ff. 124v-125r, An added 15th- or 16th-century devotion in Latin and Netherlandish: “Deus in adiutorium meum intende [Psalm 69:2] ... Confundantur et revereantur [Ps. 34:4] ... Wiltu dat dine vianden ... Quemadmodum desiderat cervus [Ps. 41:1] ...”, ending unfinished;
f. 125v blank;
ff. 126r-146v, The Penitential Psalms and Litany followed by petitions and collects, ending imperfectly; the last two saints among the martyrs in the litany are the soldier saints George and Adrian; the very rare Godelieve appears among the virgins;
ff. 147r-163v, Office of the Dead, with three lessons at matins, beginning imperfectly;
ff. 164r-166v) Added 15th-/16th-century prayer O intemerata, beginning imperfectly without the first few words at: “[incompa]rabilis virgo dei genitrix ...”;
The subjects of the full-page miniatures are:
f. 18r, Crucifixion;
f. 23r, Pentecost;
f. 28r, Virgin and Child Enthroned;
f. 45r, St. George;
f. 46v, St. Christopher;
f. 59v, Betrayal and Arrest of Christ (Hours of the Virgin, Lauds);
f. 72v, Christ before Pilate (Prime);
f. 77v, Flagellation (Terce);
f. 82v, Christ bearing the Cross (Sext);
f. 88r, Raising of the Cross (None);
f. 92v, Deposition (Vespers);
f. 100v, Entombment (Compline);
f. 118v, St. Adrian, standing on a lion and holding an anvil;
The decoration of this attractive Book of Hours is typical of the work connected with workshops of Bruges in the third quarter of the fifteenth century and can be associated in particular with the prolific and highly successful school of Willem Vrelant (on whom see especially Bousmanne, 1997; and for a brief summary and characterization of his style with a list of manuscripts, Dogaer, 1987, pp. 98-105). Willem was born in Utrecht, but is recorded as an illuminator in Bruges from 1454, and died there in June 1482. He is documented working on two different commissions for Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, in 1468 and 1469. It may be this exalted patronage that led his style to become so popular and imitated: “his production must have been enormous ... that it remains difficult to draw a firm line between the œuvre of the Master and that of his followers” (Dogaer, 1987, p. 99). In 1999, van Buren wrote: “Willem Vrelant was one of the most successful painters of manuscripts in the Low Countries. Even today we still have some hundred manuscripts decorated by him or his close associates ... many were made for highest circles of the Burgundian Court. Their decoration is splendid; their images clear, bold, and naturalistic and the style easy to recognize” (p. 3).
Since the groundbreaking work of Bousmanne, Dogaer, and van Buren, Kren and McKendrick in 2003 posed a summary of the problem in a discussion of the Arenberg Hours (J. Paul Getty Museum, MS Ludwig IX 8, pp. 117-119). The landmark exhibition in Paris and Brussels organized by Bousmanne and Delcourt in 2011 offered further resolution to the problem of the workshop and the multiple styles therein (pp. 238-263). In addition to the hand of Vrelant himself, they consulted documents of the workshop and brought forward names of a number of apprentices and collaborators, including Vrelant’s daughters. They proposed a small “family” production, and isolated especially the Maitre de la Vraie Cronicque descoce and the Maitre des Chroniques de Pise. There is also an oeuvre recently established around the so-called Mildmaye Master, a distinctive artist named after a manuscript in the Newberry Library in Chicago (MS 35 and British Library, Harley MS 3000). The problem still merits further research.
The present manuscript contains features typical of the style of Vrelant (and does not correspond with the styles in the three subgroups indicated above), including somewhat doll-like human figures, with rather pink flesh-tones, and interiors with multi-colored tiled floors, as well as the distinctive palette of magentas and deep blues. There are also, however, details that separate the present manuscript from Vrelant’s documented work, including the skies with wispy silver clouds (now usually oxidized to black).
Among the striking features of our manuscript are the calligraphic flourishes that occur throughout the book: these are usually only found in the most luxurious manuscripts, such as the Vienna Hours of Mary of Burgundy (ONB, Cod. 1857). Textually, the present book also shares with the Vienna manuscript the inclusion of the Mass of The Virgin, and in both manuscripts this text is illustrated with a Virgin and Child Enthroned against a cloth-of-honor, flanked by music-making angels. The calendar and litany of the present manuscript were clearly made for a particular patron, as shown by the inclusion of unusual saints, and the same applies to the prayers. Major saints such as Peter, Paul, Stephen, Sebastian, and others are absent, whereas it was presumably the patron who requested not only prayers, but also miniatures, in honor of George, Christopher, and Adrian. The miniatures themselves – consisting of the relatively uncommon Passion cycle in the Hours of the Virgin, rather than the much more common Infancy of Christ cycle – are often based on well-established iconographic patterns. Further research is needed to situate firmly our manuscript in a subgroup of the Vrelant Books of Hours.
Bousmanne Bernard, Guillaume Wielant ou Willem Vrelant, miniaturiste à la cour de Bourgogne au XVe siècle, (exhibition catalogue), Brussels, 1997.
Delcourt, Thierry and Bernard Bousmanne, eds. Miniatures flamandes 1404-1482, (exhibition catalogue), Paris and Brussels, BnF and Bibliotheque royale, 2011.
Dogaer Georges, Flemish miniature painting in the 15th and 16th centuries, Amsterdam, 1987.
Kren, Thomas and Scot McKendrick, eds., Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003.
Van Buren Anne H., “Willem Vrelant: Questions and Issues,” Revue belge d’archéologie et d’histoire de l’art, 68, 1999, pp. 3-30.