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Skeleton riding an ox emerging from the forest with an army of skeletons behind. A group of men cower at the edge of the forest with every sign of defeat, and one man has already fallen to the ground.
Book of Hours, France, Tours, 1470s. Ms. 93 fol. 114r.

The Shimmering Skeleton Rides an Ox, an Illuminated Nightmare in Manuscript 93

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The reader holding Ms. 93, a beautifully illuminated French Book of Hours, could be surprised upon opening the Office of the Dead and, looking down, finding a knowing expression in the unflinching gaze of an ox looking back from the large painted miniature. The mild fixity of the bovine stare might not be so startling were the ox not carrying an armed skeleton on its back. The small fleck of light in the ox’s eye accentuates the umbral vacancy in the ocular cavity of the creature’s unexpected rider: the ox is alive, but, though animate, the skeleton with its advancing army is not. The faces of the citizens prepared to engage the army at edge of the wood wear masks of terror reminiscent of a chorus in a classical tragedy. Rays of sunlight painted in liquid gold fall upon the men, but their eyes reflect only the hollow gaze of their skeleton counterparts. Those on one side of the ox will soon resemble those on the other. Central to the composition, the ox looks directly at the viewer, drawing them into the scene at a moment of horrible metamorphosis. This painting is a portable, illuminated nightmare. What is it doing in a personal prayer book?

Book of Hours, France, Tours, 1470s. Ms. 93 fol. 114r. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collection Division. https://lccn.loc.gov/91201901

Personifications of Death as a mobile skeleton are infrequent in Books of Hours but not entirely unusual. While it is more common to find images of individuals chanting over the body or coffin of the deceased, such as the miniature in MS M.515 from the Morgan Library, the Office of the Dead is the prayer cycle with the greatest iconographical variation. Certainly images that evoke the emotion of sorrow–such as mourning over the body of loved one, or of placing the body or a coffin in the earth–are more plentiful. As the Book of Hours was created for laypersons rather than clergy, and, as the Office of the Dead was a service chanted over the bodies of the deceased, these images of sorrow and parting often reflect actual habits of their user communities.

Less so the images of animate skeletons. Similar to the motif of the Dance of Death, miniatures with skeletons engaging in various activities at the opening of the Office of the Dead draw upon themes of surprise and horror and represent some of the creepiest images that the Book of Hours, a medieval best seller, had to offer. Rather than reflecting quotidian rituals associated with the physical remains of the deceased, the images of these skeleton characters provide the reader with a theater in which to explore dramatic, metaphysical anxieties about death as a philosophical concept.

Comforting? No. Interesting? It depends on the reader. For contemporary readers in October, the fixed gaze of the ox in this beautifully eerie image with lovely golden light seems to be asking: what are you wearing for Halloween?

 

 

FURTHER READING

Clancy, S. C. (1993). The Illusion of a “Fouquet Workshop”: The “Hours of Charles de France,” the “Hours of Diane de Croy,” and the “Hours of Adelaïde de Savoie.” Zeitschrift Für Kunstgeschichte, 56(2), 207–233.

Inglis, Erik (2011). Jean Fouquet and the Invention of France: Art and Nation after the Hundred Years War. New Haven: Yale University Press. https://lccn.loc.gov/2011004104

Marrow, James H. and Franc╠žois Avril (1994). The Hours of Simon de Varie. Malibu: J. Paul Getty Museum in association with Koninklijke Bibliotheek, the Hague. https://lccn.loc.gov/93028120

Walters Art Gallery (1949). Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Baltimore: Trustees of the Walters Art Gallery. no. II6a, 44-45. https://lccn.loc.gov/49002964

Wieck, Roger S. (1988). Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life. New York: G. Braziller in association with the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore. https://lccn.loc.gov/87015084

 

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Comments

  1. Thank you for helping looking at the details and their meanings.
    It seems to me that the traumatic era of the Black Plague one century before stayed at the back of the mind of those painters.

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