Mathias Moravus, publisher, Book of Hours (Naples, 1478). Hand-painted printed page, parchment. The John Rylands Library, Manchester. (Rylands Incunable 18498.1)

This page is from a printed book of hours published in Naples in 1478. It measures 129*83mm and contains the daily prayers, written in Latin, that are typical of this genre of domestic prayer-book, which was extremely popular in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. The page has the opening words of the prayer cycle for the Office of the Dead and in books of hours these are often accompanied by images of death, such as a funeral or, as here, a half-length skeleton as a medieval personification of death with both the scythe of the Grim Reaper and the three arrows with which the Three Dead pursued the Three Living. However, there is another figure alongside the text standing in the right, outer margin. Plausibly human in stance and face, a closer look posits a strange human hybrid.

A handful of other pages in this book of hours have a similar mise-en-page (page design) with fabulous creatures in the decorated borders separated by just a few words of text from large painted initials depicting significant episodes in the Bible. The selection and organization of visual elements in books of hours – especially in the borders, a term that suggests a separation of the familiar and the foreign, but also suggests an ambiguous space that the familiar and the foreign may enter – is fascinating. The presence of banal, ridiculous, even rude beings in a religious book may strike viewers as odd. Until the mid-twentieth century, many scholars considered that the medieval owners of books of hours disregarded such ornamentation as ‘having no connection whatever with the character of the book itself’ (Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, 1896). More recently, scholars have suggested a number of ways of relating the visual elements in a manuscript’s borders, initials and framed miniatures to each other and to their original viewers. Several scholars have argued that the gestures, gaze or mimicry of a figure in a border may have played a role in directing the attention and attitudes of the viewer to the stories, behaviours and morals depicted in initials or miniatures.

Here, both the skeleton and the hybrid are brown. The latter’s facial features, fur and folds of cloth are defined by strokes of darker or redder shades of brown, as are the skeleton’s ribs. The hybrid’s head and shoulders are covered by a hood, folded tightly around the head to frame the face and more comfortably fitted over the shoulders and across the chest. The head is turned in three-quarter profile out of the page and has large eyebrows, nose and slightly parted lips, not unlike the head of the skeleton that it seems to mimic. This examination of mimicry calls attention to the contrast between the skeleton’s firm grasp of his weapons and the hybrid’s empty hands raised in a gesture of surprise or surrender. The hybrid’s hands, painted with no indication of a sleeve or glove edge, betray the limits of its humanity, clear in the foreign, fur-like strokes of paint on its body and legs. The certainty of death figured in the skeleton is underlined by the uncertainly human form standing alongside.

There is a further way to read this particular hybrid figure as a foreign body. This is a printed book, but the visual elements have been added in paint, by an unknown limner (painter of manuscripts). In the very early years of printing, it was necessary to use a limner to produce a visually rich book. By the sixteenth century, printed books of hours rapidly and increasingly used engraved blocks to provide printed images that changed how books of hours looked, not least in the regularity and repetition of their border decoration. The distinctive painted hybrid staring out of this printed page in wonderment and resignation seems to envision the imminent revolution of the image in print with its hands, parallel to the plane of the page, unable to resist the weight of the printing-press.

Dr. Anne Kirkham

Further Reading:

Michael Camille, Image on the Edge. The Margins of Medieval Art (1992).

Lucy Freeman Sandler, Studies in Manuscript Illumination, 1200–1400 (2008).