back to Treasures

An elaborately illuminated manuscript

Few manuscripts at the APS are more extravagantly produced or more beautiful than the Horae Beatae Mariae Virginis, a late medieval book of hours. Donated to the Society in 1806 -- about the same time that Timothy Matlack donated a medieval breviary with more subdued illumination -- the book of hours is an anomaly for a collection that stresses neither early works nor liturgical manuscripts. Nevertheless, it interested the APS Librarian, John Vaughan, as an example of "Roman" [Catholic] religious expression, as a stunning example of an early book, and perhaps as a work of art.

Mary: prayer for SextBooks of hours were among the most common devotional texts of the Middle Ages. Produced at a number of centers throughout western Europe, books of hours were status items, often elaborately illuminated, that might be tailored to the tastes of well-heeled clients, reflecting their interests in particular saints or incorporating other elements of their personal lives and commitments. The APS book, for example, incorporates four interrelated coats of arms into the borders of illustrations.

A sense of the spiritual organization of time emerges through books of hours, and not only in their title. From specifying the liturgical calendar to ordering the monastic day into eight parts (matins to compline) with specific prayers and meditations for each, the books were useful in situating daily lives within a divine framework. The structure of these books was well standardized: each begins with a calendar of the year specifying feast days and other holy days -- often linked to the agricultural calendar -- followed by readings from the gospels, the seven penitential psalms (6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129), the litany, and additional prayers devoted to saints selected by the purchaser. The APS copy, which consists of approximately 100 leaves of vellum, includes prayers to Saints Barbara, Margaret of Antioch, Anthony the Abbot, and Sebastian.

Each section of the APS book of hours is initiated with an illustration reflecting the text to follow, usually set off by naturalistic floral borders or borders depicting other, related scenes. The presence of strawberries in some of these borders may indicate that a Benedictine monk was involved in the production, and the date, late 15th century, is suggested by the style of illustration. The book was bound (or rebound) fairly early on, using boards comprised of cast off pages from very early printed books, and at a much later date, a velour covering was attached to the boards, making it externally one of the least attractive books in the APS library.

The donor of this manuscript was the self-described "farmer of Zelienople," Detmar Basse, a work of art in his own way. Originally a textile merchant from Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Basse (1764-1836) turned himself into an accomplished cosmopolite before he had turned forty. Having established commercial ties in France and the Low Countries, Basse entered into minor diplomatic posts during the latter stages of the French Revolution, representing Frankfurt to the French Republic. After falling into bankruptcy in Paris, and recovering somewhat, Basse moved to America in 1802, and purchased almost 10,000 acres near Pittsburgh, intending to establish two colonies to be called Bassenheim and Zelienople. The latter was named for his eldest daughter, Zelie.

King David at prayer: illustration for Psalm 37In Zelienople, Basse hoped to create a medieval barony, with himself (of course) as Baron. In this light, his interest in the medieval illuminated manuscript becomes clearer, though as we shall see, his personal religious inclinations are not so clear. At Zelienople, Basse built an iron foundry and grist mill to support himself, and began raising merino sheep, which at the time were considered particularly lucrative. Whatever Basse's religious inclinations were, he entered into an agreement in 1804 to sell 4,000 acres to the Harmonialist commune led by the German pietist prophet, Johann Georg Rapp. The Rappites lived a truly communistic existence, sharing life and labor, worldly goods, and religion, and like several other sects of the time, they eventually adopted the vow of celibacy. Basse's stay in America, however, was fairly short lived. He returned to Europe in 1818 and spent the remainder of his life near Mannheim.

The image at left depicts the life of King David to illustrate Psalm 37: Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity. For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb. (King James version).


View more images from the Book of Hours

Currently on exhibit

Text by J.J. Ahern, R.S. Cox, Scott De Haven, Valerie-Anne Lutz, and Hannah Schneider.
All photographic work copyright by and courtesy of Frank Margeson.

© 2000, American Philosophical Society

[ APS home ] [ Members ] [ Meetings ] [ Prizes ] [ Fellowships & Research Grants ] [ Library ] [ Publications ] [ Exhibitions ]
[ Sitemap ]
©2006 American Philosophical Society