Books of Hours in Medieval Life and Art

Illuminated Prayer Book for the Wealthy

A Book of Hours at a book fair


Thomas Lohnes / Getty Images

A book of hours was a prayer book containing appropriate prayers for specific hours of the day, days of the week, months, and seasons. Books of hours were usually beautifully illuminated, and some of the more notable ones are among the finest works of medieval art in existence.

Origin and history 

Initially, books of hours were produced by scribes in monasteries for use by their fellow monks. Monastics divided their day into eight segments, or "hours," of prayer: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Compline, and Vespers. A monk would set a book of hours on a lectern or table and read from it aloud at each of these hours; the books were therefore fairly large in format.

The earliest known monastic books of hours were created in the 13th century. By the 14th century, smaller, portable books of hours with less complex liturgical systems were being produced for use by individuals. By the 15th century, these lay books of hours were so popular they outnumbered all other types of illuminated manuscript. Because the artwork was so splendid, books of hours were too expensive for all but the wealthiest of patrons: royalty, nobility, and occasionally very wealthy merchants or artisans.


Books of hours would vary according to the preferences of their owners, but they always began with a liturgical calendar; that is, a list of feast days in chronological order, as well as a method of calculating the date of Easter. Some included a multi-year almanac. Often books of hours included the seven Penitential Psalms, as well as any of a wide variety of other prayers devoted to favorite saints or personal issues. Frequently, books of hours featured a cycle of prayers dedicated to the Virgin Mary.


Each section of prayers was accompanied by an illustration to help the reader meditate on the subject. Most often, these illustrations depicted biblical scenes or saints, but sometimes simple scenes from rural life or displays of royal splendor were included, as were the occasional portraits of the patrons who ordered the books. Calendar pages often depicted signs of the Zodiac. It wasn't uncommon for the owner's coat of arms to be incorporated, as well.

Pages that were largely text were often framed with or highlighted by foliage or symbolic motifs.

The illustrations of books of hours and other manuscripts are sometimes called "miniatures." This is not because the pictures are small; in fact, some could take up the entire page of an oversized book. Rather, the word "miniature" has its origins in the Latin miniare, "to rubricate" or "to illuminate," and thus refers to written pages, or manuscripts.


Monastic books of hours were produced, as were most other illuminated manuscripts, by monks in a scriptorium. However, when books of hours became popular among the laity, a system of professional publication evolved. Scribes would write the text in one place, artists would paint the illustrations in another, and the two products were put together in a bookbinder's hall. When a patron ordered a book of hours to be made, he could select his favorite prayers and subjects for illustration. In the later middle ages, it was also possible to purchase a pre-produced, generic book of hours in a stationers' shop.


Books of hours, like other medieval manuscripts, were written on parchment (sheepskin) or vellum (calfskin), specially treated to receive ink and paint. The writing surface was invariably lined to help the scribe write neatly and evenly; this was usually done by an assistant.

By the time books of hours became popular, the inks used in manuscripts were almost always iron gall ink, made from the gallnuts on oak trees where wasp larvae were laid. This could be tinted different colors through the use of various minerals. Ink was applied with a quill pen -- a feather, cut to a sharp point and dipped in a jar of ink.

A wide variety of minerals, plants, and chemicals were used to tint paints for the illustrations. The color sources were mixed with arabic or tragacinth gum as a binding agent. The most vivid and expensive mineral used in paint was Lapis Lazuli, a blue gemstone with gold flecks which in the Middle Ages was found only in present-day Afghanistan.

Gold and silver leaf were also used to marvelous effect. The brilliant use of the precious metals achieved gave "illumination" its name.

Significance to Medieval Art

Books of hours offered artists the opportunity to display their skill to the best of their abilities. Depending on the wealth of the patron, the finest materials were used in order to achieve the richest and most vivid colors. Over the centuries of the book format's popularity, art style evolved into a more natural, vibrant form, and the structure of the illuminated page changed to allow more expression on the part of the illuminators. Now known as Gothic illumination, the works produced in the 13th through 15th centuries by clerical and secular artists alike would influence other art styles, such as stained glass, as well as the art that would follow in the Renaissance movements.

Notable Book of Hours

By far the most famous and splendid Book of Hours ever produced is Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, produced in the 15th century.

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Your Citation
Snell, Melissa. "Books of Hours in Medieval Life and Art." Learn Religions, Sep. 25, 2021, Snell, Melissa. (2021, September 25). Books of Hours in Medieval Life and Art. Retrieved from Snell, Melissa. "Books of Hours in Medieval Life and Art." Learn Religions. (accessed June 8, 2023).