52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations, Week 16: the Office for the Dead with other devotional works

A two-page spread from a 16th century manuscript copy of the Office of the Dead. These pages show the change on the left hand page from one Gothic hand in black to another in red.

This very pretty little prayer book was probably part of a book of hours originally; these contained simplified versions of church liturgy to facilitate private devotions by the laity, and were created in large numbers during the later middle ages.

A list of saints  to be prayed to with a serpent rebus, including: Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory, Francis and Dominic; from a 16th century manuscript copy of the Office of the Dead.

Here the Hours of the Virgin and the calendar are lacking and the Latin text starts with the office of the dead, a daily duty to pray for the souls of the departed to hasten their passage of through purgatory. Prayers would be said for friends and family, as well as on the day of a death or burial, on anniversaries, to prepare for death, and on All Souls Day (2 November) for all those who had died.

An example of a page with two types of smaller initials: a foliate M and small gold ones on alternating blue and red backgrounds; from a 16th century manuscript copy of the Office of the Dead.

Other texts follow – the penitential psalms, seven Odes of St Gregory in praise of the saint, the prayer of St Ambrose before the celebration of mass, a communion prayer and, in another hand, a supplement of prayers to the Virgin Mary and to St John the Evangelist.

A carpet page with a decorated initial ‘V’ from a 16th century manuscript copy of the Office of the Dead.

An illustration of a mermaid from the Office of the dead.

An illustration of a  thistle from the Office of the dead.

This manuscript has beautiful illustrated carpet pages of intertwined flowers and berries bordering a large capital letter fashioned from boughs of wood, on grounds of green, pink and yellow. These denote each section of the volume. Other capitals throughout are in gold on blue or red backgrounds, and at the base of each page is an illustration in vibrant colours often flecked with gold. Some are shown here including birds, flowers, insects, animals, and more mysterious ones such as the crown-wearing monkey seated on a cushion and a red-haired mermaid.

An illustration of an elk from the margin of a 16th century manuscript copy of the Office of the Dead.

A sketch of a Marian monogram from the Office of the dead.

A butterfly from the Office of the dead.

In the section of prayers to Mary, a sketch of a Marian monogram for the Blessed Virgin Mary (left) above the symbol for the Immaculate Heart of Mary has been added in pencil, suggesting a later owner of the book was a particular devotee of the Virgin Mary.

It is a pocket-sized volume, measuring only 12 x 8.5cm, and was written in north-east France or French Flanders during the 16th century in a neat Gothic hybrid script. There are later additions of a hymn and litany on spare leaves at the back in a clear Renaissance humanist hand, and then also a less tutored hand on the final page. The original book of hours may have been commissioned by the owner who would have chosen the texts and illustrations to be done by professional scribes and artists, or it may have been bought as a ready-made volume.

A carpet page with a decorated initial ‘O’ from a 16th century manuscript copy of the Office of the Dead.

There are few clues as to where the manuscript had been before it was gifted to the University in 1919 by Rev George Walker, minister at Castle-Douglas, Kirkcudbright. The 18th century binding bears the stamp of ‘Henry Marchant’ on the spine, which could be the name of a previous owner, but more usually would designate an author or title so this is probably a case of the binding being recycled from an earlier work.

An illustration of a monkey king from the margin of a 16th century manuscript copy of the Office of the Dead.

An illustration of a snail from the margin of a 16th century manuscript copy of the Office of the Dead.

An illustration of a strawberry from the margin of a 16th century manuscript copy of the Office of the Dead.

There is a label from A Brown & Co of Aberdeen inside the back cover; this bookseller and stationer was based at 77 Union Street, while George’s father William and two brothers, James and Alexander, ran a wine and tea merchants at 52 Union Street, just a few doors away. Alexander married a daughter of Lewis Smith, one-time proprietor of Brown & Co, and there may be a family connection with another George Walker who also ran Brown’s for many years. In his memoirs, Aberdeen Awa’, he recalls purchasing a large number of old books for himself around 1838, when Smith decided to throw out all the old stock to concentrate only on new books. These were the unsold books and manuscripts remaining from libraries purchased from professors, burgesses and clergymen around Aberdeen by Alexander Brown, who set up Brown’s Book-stall in 1785.

An illustration of a peacock from the margin of a 16th century manuscript copy of the Office of the Dead.

An illustration of a bird with berries from the margin of a 16th century manuscript copy of the Office of the Dead.

An illustration of an owl from the margin of a 16th century manuscript copy of the Office of the Dead.

So there were several obvious routes for a book to pass from Brown’s into the possession of the Walker family. George also gifted a 15th century Flemish psalter (msBS1443.F6) which had been a present from his brother James to Alexander, both avid collectors of art and music. George received a DD from St Andrews in 1916, which may have inspired him to donate both manuscripts to the University just 3 years later.

Maia Sheridan

Manuscripts Archivist

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