The Sforza Hours is one of the most beautifully decorated Renaissance books of hours. 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.
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 typically written in Latin, the language of the medieval Church, although vernacular prayers are often included. From the numbers that survive, it's clear the book of hours was the most popular type of religious book in later medieval Europe. 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. Thirty years later, between 1517 and 1520, Bona's heir Margaret of Austria, widow and 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. The book 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 twelve 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?
- Full title:
- Book of Hours, Use of Rome (the 'Sforza Hours')
- c. 1490 (Birago Illumination), and c. 1517–21 (Horenbout illumination), Milan, Southern Netherlands (Ghent and Brussels)
- Gerard Horenbout, Giovan Pietro Birago
- Usage terms
Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.
- Held by
- British Library
- Add MS 34294
- Article by:
- Alixe Bovey
Art, music and literature blossomed in the Middle Ages, as evidenced by the wealth of sources in the British Library’s collections. Dr Alixe Bovey explores the evolution of art and culture in the Middle Ages.
- Article by:
- The British Library
Wonder at these amazing hand-painted books of past ages and marvel at the vibrant colours used – these are works of art that were made for kings and queens, monasteries, bishops and counts.