Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Hours of Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France

After I did a post on Tuesday about the book of hours of King Henry II of France (born 1519; reigned 1547-59), reader Steven Hensley noted in the combox that his Queen, Catherine de’ Medici (1519-89), also had a very beautiful book of Hours, illuminated in a similar style. Fortunately, this is also in the public domain through the website of the Bibliothèque national de France (Smith-Lesouëf 42.)

Like many Books of Hours, this one begins with a calendar; a Saint or feast is noted every single day of the year, but many of them were not celebrated liturgically. Ten of the months are headed by images which represent agricultural activities typical of that month, but two, April and May (shown here), by scenes of courtly life.
Books of Hours commonly include a group of four Gospels, one from each of the Evangelists: John 1, 1-14, the Gospel of Christmas day; Luke 1, 26-38, the Annunciation; Matthew 2, 1-12, the Epiphany; and Mark 16, 14-20, the Ascension. This image introduces the Gospel from St John, who is shown being illuminated directly from heaven, as he says, “and we have seen His glory”; the other three evangelists are represented by small portraits at the beginnings of their respective Gospels.

Saint Luke, painting a portrait of the Virgin.
Many also have the Passion of St John (chapter 18 and 19); here we see the first episode, the confrontation between Christ and the soldiers in the garden, when they fall back at His words “It is I.”

A fairly small number of pages have a colored border decorated with animals and floral motifs; this is part of the Passion of St John.

The heart of any Book of Hours is the Little Office of the Virgin Mary, and it was common to place a scene from Her life at the beginning of each Hour. Here we have the Annunciation before Matins.

The next page, with the beginning of the text. The book is full of elaborately decorated letters; notice also the decorative lines (some shaped like tree trunks) which fill in the spaces after the end of a line of text.

The first part of the Te Deum.
Before Lauds, the Visitation.
Many books of Hours also include two very brief votive Offices, of the Cross and of the Holy Spirit; in this case, they are placed right after Lauds of the Virgin.

Before Prime, the Birth of Christ. (The remaining Hours of the Cross and of the Holy Spirit have no illustrations, and are each attached to the end of the concomitant Hour of the Virgin.)
Before Terce, the appearance of the Angel to the shepherds.
Before Sext, the Adoration of the Magi; the building in ruins behind the scene represents the world longing for the renewal that comes with the advent of the Redeemer.
Before None, the Circumcision
Before Vespers, the Flight into Egypt; in the background is represented a very popular medieval legend, which says that at the moment the Holy Family crossed into Egypt, all the idols fell from their places.
Before Compline, the Assumption
There are several different motifs which may introduce the Seven Penitential Psalms in a book of Hours. Here we have the episode of the census of Israel and the plague which it provokes (2 Kings 24); King David kneels in prayer, as he sees the Angel of the Lord above, whose sword symbolizes the plague.

The Penitential Psalms segue into the Litany of the Saints, and should be followed by the Office of the Dead, but at folio 94, a quire is bound into the book out of order. This incorrectly places a large part of the Office of the Dead (from Vespers to the sixth reading of Matins) in the middle of the section of commemorations known as the Suffrages of the Saints. The first suffrage, of the Holy Trinity, is introduced by the Athanasian Creed, which is very rare in books of Hours.

This image introduces two very long prayers to the Virgin Mary, Obsecro te and O intemerata, which are part of the standard repertoire of material in most books of Hours.

Vespers of the Dead is accompanied by this image of the destruction visited on the sons of Job, as recounted in the first chapter of his book.

Matins is accompanied by this image of Job himself being consoled by his friends, who are dressed as noblemen of the French court in the 16th century.

Most books of Hours, especially those produced for the very wealthy, also include a section of votive commemorations of the Saints known as the Suffrages. In this particular book, the pictures of the Saints are fairly small and simple; here are the first two, of St Michael the Archangel and St John the Baptist.
Catherine was born into the ruling family of Florence, the Medici, in 1519, exactly two weeks after her future husband. She was married to Henry, the second son of the French king Francis I, when they were both 14, as arranged by her uncle, Pope Clement VII. Three years later, upon the death of Henry’s elder brother, they became the dauphin and dauphine, then king and queen when Francis I died in 1547. Catherine bore ten children, three of whom died in infancy (including the last two, twin girls), and three of whom became kings of France.
As long as her husband lived, Catherine had very little influence in the court, overshadowed by her husband’s mistress. (Historians of the French monarchy often speak of the royal mistresses almost as if they held an official position, which effectively they did.) However, in 1559, Henry II was injured in the eye by a fragment of his opponent’s lance during a tournament, and died of sepsis after only ten days, an event which did much to end the popularity of jousting. His eldest son and heir, Francis II, was a sickly child, who died without issue after a reign of less than 18 months, and was succeeded by his ten-year-old brother Charles IX; Catherine became very powerful as her son’s regent, in a time of extreme political and religious turmoil in France. When Charles died 13 years later, he had no legitimate male heir, and was therefore succeeded by another of her sons, Henry III; although he came to throne as an adult, he was also a weak man in many ways, and Catherine remained a powerful figure in France, until her death in 1589. Henry III was assassinated seven months after her death, the last king of the house of Valois; he was succeeded by the first Bourbon, Henry IV.
The Bibliothèque national de France has another book of Hours which is called of “Catherine de’ Medici” (Département des Manuscrits. NAL 82), which is full of pictures of members of the royal family, many added long after her time. (The last is of a duchess who died in 1870.) Here is the picture of Catherine herself.

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