The Oval Hours Manuscript

A remarkable manuscript has been loaned to the Walters, and is now on view. This fascinating book, known as the Oval Hours due to its distinctive shape, is on view in the third floor medieval galleries through May 21, 2017.

What makes this manuscript so unique is the approach of the artist, who provided the settings for key Biblical events but left them devoid of any human presence. These stage-like settings might have been intended to encourage mental and spiritual exercises, inviting the viewers to imagine themselves within the scene. Reading prayers was a way of connecting to the divine, and these images may have provided a more active way to imagine that connection, rather than passively looking at a scene where the spiritual connection is happening to someone else. Currently, the Oval Hours is open to a scene that traditionally illustrates St. John, who was exiled on the Greek island of Patmos, receiving a vision of the Apocalypse. But in this illustration, only a pen case, ink pot, and book remain—St. John is absent. From above, a divine hand holds out a book detailing the future Apocalypse, while other traditional imagery described in the Bible—such as the pillars of fire—dance in the air.

Oval Hours, with the Setting of the Revelation to St. John on Patmos / Artist: Bellemare Group; French (Tours), ca. 1525; Parchment with ink, paint, and gold / IL.2015.26.1, fol. 1v–2r, on loan from a Private Collection / Photo credit: Peg Callihan and Bernard Pobiak

Though this may seem to be an especially unusual way of depicting a Biblical event, there are a variety of ways artists could render it, and no two manuscripts are quite alike. In the gallery, the Oval Hours is displayed with two other manuscripts that take diverse approaches to this same theme. The Flemish Book of Hours (W.427), which is the most conventional of the three, depicts St. John seated while recording his vision of a seven-headed beast. The artist of the third manuscript, W.164, injects an element of wit into the episode—a mischievous demon is shown kicking over St. John’s ink pot.

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Shown in context with more traditional iconography, the Oval Hours stands apart for its remarkable artistic skill and unique conceptual approach. Displaying this masterpiece alongside works from the Walters’ rich collection is a rare opportunity that is not to be missed!

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