More than Marginal: Insects in the Hours of Mary of Burgundy
By Eileen Yanoviak
Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, Issue 26 (2013)
Abstract: A book of hours was an intensely personal devotion book in the Middle Ages. Used daily to direct the prayers of the owner, these illuminated manuscripts, or hand-made illustrated books, were lavishly decorated to the taste of the patron. In the late fifteenth-century Hours of Mary of Burgundy, also known as the Vienna Hours, every folio is richly decorated with window scenes of religious subjects surrounded by extravagant foliage. This decoration of the margins includes, among other animals, an array of insects including bees, moths, flies, and grasshoppers.
Introduction: The early modern Europe of the late fifteenth century witnessed revolutions in scientific inquiry and humanist ideals. During this period of remarkable change, the long-established trade of illuminated manuscripts, or handmade decorated books, waned with the advent of the printed book. In spite of these innovations in bookmaking, and perhaps in part because of the regeneration of science, the innovative “Ghent-Bruges” style of manuscript production and illumination emerged between 1470 and 1480 and flourished for three generations in Flanders. Illuminators of the lavish Hours of Mary of Burgundy (Vienna Hours henceforth) are often credited with leading innovations in illusionistic illumination that contributed to the continued popularity of the manuscript in the north.
While many scholars have written on this manuscript, few have focused on the extensive marginalia, or margin decoration, which enlivens practically every page of the Vienna Hours. Amidst the profuse acanthus leaves that decorate the margins, a myriad of insects are illustrated. Painted during the burgeoning of the Flemish scientific revolution, the stylized insects in the margins of the Vienna Hours may be seen as reflecting popular cultural attitudes towards animals and religious, moral, and social metaphors of insects. An analysis of insect imagery in the Vienna Hours and the later Hours of Englebert of Nassau will illuminate the emergence of empirical observation and changing attitudes towards nature during this important moment of cultural transition.