Les Enluminures

2. Gospel Lessons

Following the Calendar, the first text proper in a Book of Hours is a series of Gospel Lessons by the four evangelists. The Lessons are not arranged in liturgical order and their sequence has been altered so that their composite narrative relates the events in their proper chronological order: God's divine plan (John, 1:1-14); the Annunciation and Incarnation (Luke, 1:26-38); Christ's Nativity and his manifestation to the world (Matthew, 2:1-12); Christ's sending his apostles on their missionary way and his Ascension (Mark, 16:14-20).

These excerpts from the New Testament touch on the major events from the life of the Savior, except for the Story of the Passion. These readings are actually the Gospel Lessons that were read on four of the Church's major feasts: Christmas Day on December 25 (John); the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25 (Luke); Epiphany on January 6 (Matthew); and the Feast of the Ascension, a movable feast whose date depended upon that of Easter (Mark). Each Book of Hours thus contained, in a way, the essence of the Church's liturgical year, encapsulated in these four readings. Although not always found in Horae of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, by the fifteenth century these Lessons had become a regular feature.

Christ's Passion was the one important part of the Savior's life not covered by the four Gospel Lessons. Owners of Books of Hours often included the story of the Passion in the form of an extra reading taken from John (18:1-19:42), the one apostle who remained at the foot of the cross, along with Mary, during the entire Crucifixion. Even though John's Passion was an optional text in manuscript Horae, it became standard in printed Books of Hours, where it is almost always found immediately after the traditional four Lessons.

These Gospel Lessons operated on many levels for the owners of the books that contained them. As extracts from the Bible, they offered one of the very few ways that late medieval Christians could actually possess the New Testament word of God (households did not own Bibles). As texts by the evangelists, the Lessons contained these authors' direct accounts of the life of Christ. As Gospel readings taken from the Missal, they formed a microcosm of the liturgical year. Appearing at the front of the Book of Hours, they form its foundation, the legitimizing structure upon which the rest of the prayers that follow are built. They helped, too, transform for its possessor the Book of Hours from a collection of texts into a sacred object.