Black Hours

M. 493 - Morgan Library & Museum (New York, USA)

Alternate Titles:

Schwarzes Stundenbuch, Das Schwarze Stundenbuch

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Alternate Titles

Schwarzes Stundenbuch
Das Schwarze Stundenbuch

Extent / Format

242 pages / 17.0 x 12.0 cm

Around 1475
Artist / School

Willelm Vrelant (close circle)


14 large sized miniatures, blue and golden borders, golden decorated initials on emerald ground

Former owners

Cardinal Nicholas Yemeniz
collections Ambroise Firmin-Didot, Labitte, Robert Hoe and Quaritch

Short description

Only very few illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages originate from a similarly laborious production process as the Black Hours from Bruges. The codex was made ca. 1475 for the court of the Dukes of Burgundy. The vellum pages of the work were dyed dark black and illustrated with high-quality materials. Opaque pastel colors, precious gold and silver on intensive blue and emerald green backgrounds adorn the pages of the unique manuscript. The Black Hours is one of only three surviving black manuscripts that still exist in their original form.

Facsimile editions available


Black Hours

One of the primary works of Gothic illumination arose in Bruges ca. 1475. It is one of only six surviving illuminated manuscripts worldwide that were recorded on black parchment. The so-called Black Hours originated from the artistic circle of the Dutch illuminator Willem Vrelant. It was created as a private prayer and devotional book for a member of the Burgundian court. The uniquely-designed book of hours contains 14 large format miniatures, which stand out through the employment of white, opaque colors, as well as gold and silver against a black background. Embellishing book pages are framed by broad bordures grounded in light blue with gold and silver patterns. Additionally, many multi-lined gold initials against an emerald green background ennoble the text of the book.

Noble Book Art from Bruges

Bruges is the capitol of the modern region of Flanders in Belgium. In the Late Middle Ages, the Dutch region around Bruges was a center of the textile industry and long-distance trade in Europe. The flourishing city was sometimes occupied by the Dukes of Burgundy, under whose rule Bruges became one of the economically and culturally richest cities in Europe at that time. The most famous and talented illuminators of that time came from Bruges and exercised influence from there on artists and miniaturists around the world. Concerning the court of the Dukes of Burgundy, Kaiser Maximilian I commented: “The entire holding of the court was luxurious, the home treasury, and the library full of treasures, and the court ceremonial were oriented on a godlike super-elevation of the ruler.” One can thus imagine, that the dukes spared no expense with regard to the high costs of creating unique manuscripts for their top-quality library. Thus it came about, that the wealthy ruling house commissioned the renowned local illuminator Master Willem Vrelant to make a manuscript that exceeded the production costs of all previously written and illuminated codices.

Cost-Intensive Technique and Precious Illumination

The vellum pages of the masterful Black Hours were next inserted into an iron-copper solution in order to get the unique black color. This laborious production process was exceptionally cost-intensive. It required choosing particularly thick and robust vellum in order to avoid a breakdown of the pages from the color solution. The pages of the book were painted subsequent to the dyeing. The text of the book was recorded with high-quality gold and silver ink which distinguishes itself as it shimmers against the black background. Broad, blue frames, embellished with imaginative gold ornaments, take up half of the text pages. More than 30 great gold and silver initials against an emerald green background accompany the various textual passages. The 14 full-page miniatures of the manuscript are particularly festive against the gleaming black pages. Perspectival interior views and depictions of landscapes were leant an astounding plasticity through various shades of grey and a delicate coloration.

A Costly Rarity

The Black Hours is a unique tour de force of Bruges book art because of its laborious production process and its artful miniatures. Simultaneously, it is the best-preserved of only three remaining black codices still in bound-form. The book still exists today in its original form, which is due to its refined dyes and the high quality of its vellum sheets. Of the remaining black codices from the Middle Ages, only individual sheets are still preserved. These books have, for the most part, decomposed because of the dye.

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