DPLA Finds: MS Lat 160

By DPLA, May 2, 2013.
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This inaugural post, celebrating the DPLA’s launch by taking an in-depth look at the objects available through the DPLA, takes us through the dankest and grimiest catacombs of our digital archive to one of the oldest (and, in my mind, most exciting) objects in our collection: an early 16th century French book of hours  (known as MS Lat 160) from the Houghton Library at Harvard University.

I know, it’s old. And, although many of the DPLA’s objects are from local historical organizations and regional libraries (and therefore house treasures depicting the US’s national history), it’s distinctly not American. But stick with me and I promise you there will be a giant, 16th century, alien-looking bug just sitting on the sand that will make this whole thing worthwhile.

Books of hours, personal Christian devotional books, were often richly decorated with vivid images to accompany their liturgical content. The DPLA’s book of hours contains a series of prayers and other tools characteristic of Christian devotional practice in late medieval Europe. This book of hours, as is typical, begins with a calendar listing important feast days and holy days. This is followed by excerpts from the four gospels, and a series of prayers. Next come the hours of the Virgin, the hours of the Cross, and the hours of the Holy Spirit, each of which serves as a cycle of prayers and hymns that readers could repeat on a weekly basis. A series of penitential psalms, a Litany of the Saints, and an Office of the Dead bring the typical book of hours (as well as the book of hours from Harvard) to a close.

While scrolling through this book of hours, I noticed a number of images that were, without the necessary context, baffling, absurd, and, at times, silly. Given that Harvard has provided high-quality color images of each page in the book, I’m happy to say that I can point out (and hopefully explain) some of the excellently silly images from the calendar section of this particular book of hours.

Saint Denis: just one of many martyrs gorily depicted in the calendar

First, a headless saint. Who is holding his own head. This is only one of the many gruesome miniatures that line the calendar portion of the book of hours. The image depicts Saint Denis, an early bishop of Paris. Saint Denis is typically depicted carrying his own head for, as the story goes, after he was decapitated (and thus martyred) he continued to walk around Paris holding his head so that he could deliver a sermon. Saint Denis’s feast day falls on October 9th, and so this image falls on one of the two pages in the book dedicated to October feasts.

Another saint, this one likely Peter of Verona

In case you’re clamoring for more gruesome martyrdom images (I spend a lot of time working with medieval images, so it’s hard to know how many martyrdoms is too many martyrdoms…), here’s an image of a saint I believe to be Peter of Verona after he has been clocked with a dagger by Roman authorities.

A man tends to a chaotic fire on the calendar’s December page

Next, a confusing image in which a man stands in the foreground of a village square tending to a chaotic, possibly fiery pile that appears to contain a pig. Along with feast days, books of hours typically illustrated labours of the month, activities linked to the changes of the season and linked to specific months in medieval iconography. December’s labour? Killing pigs. This follows naturally from November’s labour: collecting the year’s acorn crop to feed to the pigs.

A giant monster? Probably not.

Last but not least is the long-awaited crazy bug! The final component of most medieval calendars involves the signs of the zodiac. So as much fun as it it to think that this is an enormous monster, it is, more likely, an unusually realistic rendering of scorpio. This particular scorpio appears to be sulking on the bank of a french river.

Featured Image from MS Lat 160. Houghton Library, Harvard University

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