MedievalBooksOfHours

Les Enluminures

8. Suffrages

What a comfort the panoply of saints who appear in nearly all Books of Hours must have been for the reader. Saints were the protectors of medieval people, their helpers in childbirth, their guardians during travel, their nurse in toothache, their doctor in plague. If the Virgin was the person to whom one addressed the all-important petition for eternal salvation, it was from the saints that one sought more basic, or temporal, kinds of help. While the Virgin became, as the Mother of God, almost a goddess herself, saints always retained more of their humanity and thus their approachability. The saints whom medieval men and women saw painted onto altarpieces, stained into glass, sculpted into stone, woven into tapestries, and stitched onto liturgical vestments were the same saints whose special invocations were to be found in one's own Book of Hours. They could be held in one's hands, taken home, called upon at any time.

The typical Book of Hours contained a dozen or so Suffrages (or Memorials, from the Latin memoriae). The Suffrages typically appear at the end of the volume, but some Horae include them after Lauds of the Hours of the Virgin, in imitation of monastic practice. Their order is a reflection of celestial hierarchy (itself a mirror of medieval society). God or the three Persons of the Trinity always begin the Suffrages, followed by the Virgin, the archangel Michael, and John the Baptist (the last two prominently positioned because of their importance as judge and intercessor, respectively, at the Last Judgment). The apostles appear next, followed by male martyrs and confessors (non martyr saints), female saints and virgin martyrs.

Each Suffrage is composed of four elements: three ejaculations (antiphon, versicle, response) followed by a longer prayer (oratio). The first three elements constitute a string of praises. As for the prayer, its first half recounts an episode from the saint's life or touches on some important aspect of the saint's holiness; the second half of the prayer is always a petition for aid from God through the saint's intercession.