About Books of Hours

Books of Hours such as the McVitty Hours are prayer books made for use by the laity containing specific prayers to be read throughout the course of the owner’s day. They were incredibly popular in the Middle Ages with members of society who could afford them and were luxury objects, with the texts of the manuscripts themselves typically augmented by fine illustrations and marginal decorations.

While manuscripts vary, a Book of Hours usually contains a calendar, key lessons from each of the four Gospels, the Hours of the Virgin, the Hours of the Cross, and the Hours of the Holy Spirit, as well as Penitential Psalms, the Office of the Dead, and varying accessory texts. The hours themselves were cycles of prayers made up of eight hours: Matins and Lauds at daybreak, followed by Prime, Terce, Sext around midday, then None, Vespers, and Compline before retiring for the night. For each set of hours there were prayers to be read at these specified times. This created a day-to-day religious practice for the laity which in many ways mimicked the life of ordained monks and nuns, if in a less extreme fashion.

About the McVitty Hours

The McVitty Hours date back to late fifteenth-century France, and much of the book is original. The spine and the leather exterior were revitalized in the nineteenth century, but the parchment and the illustrations are all original. The McVitty Hours have changed hands many times, and the pages show pencil markings and other signs of wear from years past. Through use by multiple owners and through restoration, the McVitty Hours has been altered; pages have been trimmed, cutting off catchwords at the bottoms of pages. Additionally, there are missing pages that were concisely cut from the book in order to differentiate the gatherings from each other. Throughout the Book of Hours there are also missing borders and border lines and pages of prayer or text that are wholly unfinished.

The McVitty Hours contains the Calendar, Gospel readings, the Hours of the Holy Spirit, the Hours of the Cross, and the Hours of the Virgin. It also includes Special Prayers to the Virgin, Penitential Psalms, a variety of Accessory Texts, and the Office of the Dead. This organization of a book of hours is unusual in that the Hours of the Holy Spirit and the Hours of the Cross come before the Hours of the Virgin.  It is possible that these two Hours were rebound at some point in their current location.   

The manuscript is illuminated with twelve miniatures and an abundance of marginal images. Apart from the illustrations to the Hours of the Holy Spirit and Hours of the Cross, the miniatures occupy their customary places with the Book of Hours and helped the reader navigate the text of the prayer book.  These miniatures consist of “John the Evangelist,” “Pentecost,” “Crucifixion,” “Annunciation,” “Visitation,” “Nativity,” “Annunciation to the Shepherds,” “Adoration of the Magi,” Presentation in the Temple,” “Flight into Egypt,” “David and Goliath,” and “Office of the Dead.” It, like many Books of Hours, was most likely made for a female patron -- this theory is supported by the inclusion of a female deathbed illustration in the Office of the Dead.

Most of the miniature illustrations were done by the same artist, given the similar facial constructions, rock formations, and geometric, gold-highlighted drapery; we have named this artist the “McVitty Master.”  This artist seems to have been influenced by northern French artists such as the illustrator now known as the “Chief Associate of Maître François” (active in Paris ca. 1480-1501), one of the leading manuscript artists of the day, or the workshop of the Master of the Geneva Latini (active in Rouen, ca. 1450s to 1510). There is one miniature in the McVitty Hours that seems to have been created by a different artist.  The “Crucifixion” is an obvious departure from the style of the other miniatures. The margins were likely not the work of the McVitty Master, and it is not clear where there was a single artist who worked on the margins, or a workshop of artists. Generally, marginal illustrations focus heavily on the theme of nature (flowers, fruits, animals) and do not obviously parallel the content of the miniature illustrations. There are many theories about what marginal illustrations in general symbolize if  they symbolize anything. Certain scholars have theorized that some marginal illustrations, such as the hybrid creatures present in the Little Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux (Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters Collection, 54.1.2), are meant to control the owner’s behavior by instilling feelings such as fear of sin. Other manuscript scholars maintain that these illustrations do not carry symbolic meaning and are simply results of artists taking liberties while crafting the books ofhHours.

The McVitty Hours also shows instances of repair, with a small circle of paper adhered to the back of a miniature page (165 r). It is unclear when this repair was made, although there is reason to believe it was not long after it was originally manufactured, as it was most likely to cover up the dark blue ink from the miniature illustration bleeding through.

The McVitty Hours and Hollins University

This book of hours came into Hollins University’s possession in January 1943 when Samuel McVitty donated it along with many other manuscripts, leaves, and rare books, which became the McVitty Collection. McVitty’s wife, Lucy, was a member of the Board of Trustees at Hollins, and McVitty donated them only a year and a half after his wife’s death, due to her interest and participation in the university. The book is now housed in the Special Collections of the Wyndham-Robertson Library

Introduction by Shelby Barbee, Rebecca Davis, Clara Souvignier