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Sforza Hours

The Sforza Hours is one of the most beautifully decorated Renaissance books of hours in the Library's collection. The superb illuminations by the Italian miniaturist Giovan Pietro Birago and the Flemish illuminator Gerard Horenbout survive with the original brilliance they must have had at the time of their creation over four centuries ago.

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Sforza Hours

Sforza Hours. Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Giovan Pietro Birago. Milan, c. 1490
British Library Add. MS 34294, f. 145v
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is a Book of Hours?

A Book of Hours is a collection of Christian prayers for recitation at different times, 'hours', of the day. Intended for individual use at home, they were simplified versions of the eight periods of daily prayer observed by monks and nuns, from matins in the morning to compline at night. They were written in Latin, the language of the medieval Church.

From the numbers that survive, it's clear the Book of Hours was the most popular type of religious book in medieval Europe. It seems to have held particular appeal for women, perhaps by reason of its emphasis on prayers to the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ, who was held as the model of virtue for all of her sex.

Books of Hours vary to a degree in content and order, as well as their decoration. Each was tailored to the particular requirements of its patron, and this customisation can often be very revealing to the historian.

What is special about the Sforza Book?

The Sforza Hours is an outstanding example of a Renaissance illuminated manuscript, and has a fascinating history. Its lavish decorations were painted in two separate campaigns, the first undertaken around 1490 for Bona of Savoy, widow of Galeazzo Sforza, Duke of Milan. Her miniaturist, the Milanese court painter Giovan Pietro Birago had completed and delivered part of the book when a substantial part of the remainder was stolen, never to be recovered.

Thirty years later, between 1517 and 1520, Bona's heir Margaret of Austria, widow of her nephew, Duke of Savoy and now Regent of the Netherlands, commissioned her own court painter, the Flemish illuminator Gerard Horenbout to execute 16 additional miniatures as replacements for the missing pages. Thus what had been begun in late 15th-century Milan was completed in the vanguard of the northern Renaissance.

Appropriately, it probably served as a gift for Margaret's nephew, the Emperor Charles V. The manuscript is outstanding for its rich decorative scheme and an unusually high number of its text pages have minutely detailed borders, initials and vignettes in deep blues, greens and rich reds, to complement the many full-page miniatures.

What does this page show?

Jesus is shown praying in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his betrayal by Judas and his crucifixion. Jesus's prayer as recounted in the gospels, "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me." (Matthew 26:39) is illustrated literally by the angel appearing with chalice and paten above the rocks. The chalice and paten are liturgical vessels used in the celebration of the Mass, and refer here to Jesus' coming sacrifice.

Three of the 12 apostles lie sleeping in the foreground. The youthful John the Evangelist and the elderly Peter hold books. Peter also holds a knife, foreshadowing his attack on a Roman soldier during the Betrayal; we are led to expect that scene at any moment by the sight of Judas at the head of a crowd of soldiers marching to the garden through the rocks at the right.

How can I see more of this book?

We have created a digital version using our award-winning Turning the Pages™.