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(for Beatrijs van assendelft?)
Book of Hours (use of the Windesheim Congregation)
One full-page miniature and nine historiated initials
by the Master of Beatrijs van Assendelft’s Vita Christi.
Delft, The Netherlands, circa 1480–1490
230 x 169 mm.
Courtesy of Les Enluminures

This hitherto unknown book was one of the major commissions of Dutch manuscript illumination in the second half of the fifteenth century and in the entire history of the tradition. It is the largest Book of Hours known from the Northern Netherlands (larger than the Hours of Sophia van Byland, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, inv. no. 1961/32). Richly illuminated (though missing most of its full-page miniatures), it is also important textually as it includes a great many vernacular prayers that are otherwise undocumented. Clearly the manuscript was an extraordinary commission made to order for a patron of the highest rank, perhaps for Beatrijs van Assendelft herself.

The miniatures and painted decoration of this manuscript are by the Master of Beatrijs van Assendelft’s Vita Christi, who is named after an unusually large and richly illustrated copy of the Vita Christi in Cambridge (Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 25), which was made circa 1480 for Beatrijs van Assendelft. The most skilled and distinctive in a group of artists known as the Masters of the Delft Half-Length Figures, who dominated production of luxury manuscripts in Delft from 1450 to 1480, our painter profusely employs the signature half-length figures for which the group is named. Angels, prophets, and other figures emerge from stylized cloudbanks or plants in borders of marvelous inventiveness. The artist is distinguished from other artists in this circle by a more monumental figure style, finer facial features, and more developed modeling resulting in greater plasticity. Fully developed works in the style of our painter also make abundant use of elaborate and sometimes fantastical architectural settings at the top of the full-page miniatures, such as that found in the Annunciation. Ours is the most homogeneous work extant by the Master of Beatrijs van Assendelft, to whom relatively few works are attributed and who frequently collaborated with different craftsmen.

It is tempting to speculate that the patron of this exceptional manuscript was Beatrijs van Assendelft, a local noblewoman of great wealth who was also a discriminating patron of the arts. A number of prayers in this book are written for feminine use, perhaps reflecting the fact that in 1485 Beatrijs entered the convent of the Canonesses Regular of Ten Zijl at Haarlem. The Latin text of the “Hours of the Virgin” is for the use of the Windesheim Congregation, an affiliation of monasteries that followed the rule of St. Augustine (like the convent at Haarlem). A Book of Hours such as ours, comparable in its large size and unusually rich illumination to Beatrijs van Assendelft’s Breviary (Utrecht, Museum Het Catharijneconvent, MS OKM 3) and her Vita Christi, would have complemented the two other books as appropriate adjuncts to Beatrijs’s spiritual life.

Because of its extraordinarily rich decoration with border illumination on all pages, its skillful historiated initials in highly burnished gold leaf, and the superb quality of its single remaining miniature, which is the size of a small panel painting, this manuscript emerges as one of the landmarks of Dutch golden age painting, in spite of the evident lacunae. Its possible association with Beatrijs van Assendelft and its secure attribution to the painter named for her patronage further underscore its importance for the history of Dutch manuscript illumination.

Literature: Marrow, et al. (1990), pp. 187, 194, 196–97, nos. 57, 59–60. Bound in eighteenth-century Dutch red morocco over pasteboards, edges gilt, 150 folios, on parchment, 230 x 169 mm. Missing approximately 59 leaves, in Latin and Dutch. F. 1, Calendar (for Utrecht); f. 8, Hours of the Virgin; f. 26, Hours of the Holy Spirit; f. 40, Hours of the Cross; f. 52, Short Hours of the Passion; f. 57, Prayers to Christ, Gospel Sequence of St. John, and Confiteor in Dutch; f. 59, Mass of the Virgin; f. 66, Seven Penitential Psalms and Litanies; f. 79, miscellaneous prayers for offering penance and preparing for mass, etc.; f. 92, Communion prayers, prayers to Christ, Mary, and God the Father, etc.; f. 114, Prayers to Mary, Christ, and to recite during mass; f. 128, Office of the Dead; f. 148, Prayers to God and Christ.

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