UA1-WA:P1-p3-Ex Annotation of a Gothic image

For this exercise I have chosen a manuscript illumination from a Book of Hours as my subject. Given I am limited to working from images from a book or the internet I prefer to avoid three dimensional works. Reasons for my particular choice include: I find it interesting and beautiful; it includes details suggesting pointed architecture; there are oddities of perspective; the book is held in an Australian collection and in a current exhibition, so I may be able to see it if I can get to Melbourne in the next few months; high quality images are available on the internet with no copyright restrictions.

Title: Horae B.M.V. : illuminated ms. on vellum.
Publisher: Paris
Date(s): ca.1490
Current location: State Library of Victoria
Persistent link:
Page chosen: Folio 23v. Matins – The Annunciation (image 56)

In the chosen image a frame with features of classical buildings creates a stage. Front right Mary, kneeling at a prie dieu, turns at an interruption to her prayers. Front left an angel speaks to her. Rays of golden light stream in on Mary, a white bird hovers above. In the background is a bed to the right, an open window to the left, and some detailing (including pointed arches) which could be architectural or furniture such as a wardrobe behind. Below is a label with text in latin. The colours are rich – blues, scarlet, green, yellow, mauve, browns, white, with touches of gold throughout. There are shadows and moulding of shapes, using both tones of colour and hatching in grey and gold.

The illumination shows the Annunciation, described in the Gospel according to Saint Luke. God sent the angel Gabriel to the virgin Mary, who was betrothed to Joseph. Gabriel told Mary, who was at first deeply disturbed, that she had God’s favour. She would conceive and bear a son, Jesus. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:35).

The scene is rich with imagery. The Annunciation had great doctrinal importance in the Catholic church, and the three essential elements are displayed – the angel, the Virgin and the dove of the Holy Spirit. Garlands and flowers show it is Spring (northern hemisphere), nine months before the Nativity. Mary, devout, has been reading from an open book, according to St Bernard the prophecy of Isaiah which is being fulfilled in Mary at this moment. Her dress is blue, a colour symbolic of heaven. God the Father is not shown, but implied by the golden rays. Gabriel is winged, in part wears the traditional white, and hold a scepter (which may be tipped with fleur-de-lys, his symbol). Both Mary and Gabriel have halos, symbolising sanctity. The lilies below refer to Mary’s purity (1). The pristine bed suggests the virgin birth (2). The dove is quite unlike any I have seen before – I don’t know if there is any significance in this.

This is one page of a Book of Hours which has 125 leaves including 15 large and 17 small miniatures. A Book of Hours was produced for lay men and women, a prayer book to guide their private devotions. Although the contents could vary, including a religious calendar, gospel readings, penitential psalms and an Office for the Dead, the core was the Hours of the Virgin. The “hours” were eight periods of prayer throughout the day, from pre-dawn Matins to late evening Compline. Each was associated with an event in the life of the Virgin Mary, the Annunciation being linked to Matins. Although details varied by place and time, the text here seems to be the general standard:
Domine labia mea aperies. Thou O Lord wilt open my lips.
Et os meum annunciabit laudem tuam. And my mouth shall declare thy praise.
Deus in adiutorium meum [intende.] Incline unto my aid O God. (3)

These books were so popular they have been called the “best sellers” of the Medieval age. They could be made for a specific patron, or on an effective production line for a large market. It has been suggested that this particular example was a typical workshop product, made for a lady given its “elegant appearance and dainty size” (5) (based on scale photographs it is just under 15 cm high).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art - Hours of Francis IIt is interesting to compare my chosen image with a very similar one from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (copied within their terms of use given no advertisements or sales on this personal blog). This is Hours of Francis I by Master of François de Rohan (French, Paris, active ca. 1525–1546), date 1539–40. (6) This book was made for King Francis I (1494–1547). The framed “stage set” of the two versions is very similar, as is the placement of the major figures and items – Mary, Gabriel, the dove, the window and rays of light, the bed, as well as the block of text. Even the flower in the illuminated D seems to be the same. However the royal book is much finer and more detailed, and includes additional items such as God the Father and banners of text. I think the lady who may first have owned the subject Book of Hours would have ranked somewhere below royalty and the high nobility, possibly an urban bourgeois wife but still above the town burghers who might have a version with text but no miniatures (7).

matins_perspectiveI mentioned oddities of perspective earlier, and here have tried to highlight different lines apparent in the image. The space is not really convincing, the bed about to slide into the foreground. Perspective is a Research Point in the next project, so I hope to come back to this at some point.

This exercise has opened my eyes to some wonderful resources on the internet. Many institutions have programs to digitise and make available their precious collections. One that I particularly enjoyed was a comparison tool from Harvard University, which allows easy viewing of ten different Books of Hours – (Picturing Prayer: Books of Hours in Houghton Library, Harvard University). All of their examples are quite different to the two I have shown above.

(1) Hall, J. (2008) Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art (Second Edition). Boulder: Westview Press.
(2) The Courtauld Institute of Art [n.d.] Pesellino: The Annunciation Diptych [online] Available at [Accessed 22 June 2013]
(3) Translation from Gunhouse, G. [n.d.] A Hypertext Book of Hours [online] Available at [Accessed 21 June 2013]
(4) The J. Paul Getty Museum (2002) The Medieval Bestseller: Illuminated Books of Hours [online] Available at [Accessed 21 June 2013]
(5) Vines, V. (1993) “The Daily Round, the Common Task” Three Books of Hours in the State Library of Victoria The La Trobe Journal No 51 & 52 1993 [online] Available from [Accessed 20 June 2013]
(6) The Metropolitan Museum of Art [n.d.] Hours of Francis I [online] Available from [Accessed 21 June 2013]
(7) Hale, R. (2010) Books of Hours at the Ransom Center; Inside a Book of Hours; and Three hundred years of Hours—at a glance Harry Ransom Centre, The University of Texas at Austin [online]. Available at;; [Accessed 22 June 2013]

Additional Reading
Clement, R. (1997) “Medieval and Renaissance book production” Library Faculty & Staff Publications Utah State University. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 June 2013]

UA1-WA:P1-p3-Ex Annotation of a Gothic image
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part one: Classical and religious art.
Project three: Religious art
Exercise: Annotation of a Gothic image

9 Responses to “UA1-WA:P1-p3-Ex Annotation of a Gothic image”

  1. 1 Handwork Homeschool June 29, 2013 at 7:57 pm


    I am so impressed with your work ! I have a degree in Mediaeval studies & am currently working on a textile course at OCA. I have never thought to annotate a gothic image ! Wow !

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