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The scene of the Annunciation in the Edith Book of Hours surrounded by border illuminations and two frolicking rabbits below.
The Annunciation miniature (f. 60v) from the Edith Book of Hours. 14th Century. Paris. Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection.

Immensity and Smallness in the Edith Book of Hours

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“O God,” Hamlet complains to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act 2 Scene II, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” The intersection between the infinite and the infinitesimal was an idea that captured the imagination not only of Shakespeare’s troubled prince but of the medieval world in which the bard set his play. Impossibly small, cleverly constructed objects made of precious materials were appreciated for their apparent craftsmanship and their inherent miraculous quality. The Edith Book of Hours in the Rosenwald Collection is one such object.

Image of the black binding with gold edges and a small gold fleur-de-lis at the center and the four corners. The binding is set against a red velvet background, with a hand placed next to the tiny book to show scale. The book is about the size of the hand's thumb.
Modern binding of the Edith Book of Hours, which is about the size of an adult thumb.

Lessing J. Rosenwald presented this fourteenth-century manuscript to his wife, Edith G. Rosenwald, on her birthday in 1951. In 1981, Edith donated the little book to the Library of Congress in commemoration of her husband, who had passed away two years prior. 

A masterpiece of Gothic illumination the style of work produced in the court of Charles V, King of France (1338 -1380), the Edith Book of Hours is most frequently attributed to the workshop of the Master of the Coronation Book of Charles V; however, this attribution is not certain, and stylistic elements have also been compared to manuscripts attributed to the French illuminator Jean Le Noir and his daughter, Bourgot Le Noir. Among its many lovely leaves, the Edith Book of Hours contains nine full-page, prefatory miniatures (ff.14r-22r). Recently digitized, these images can now be appreciated by more than one reader at a time, which the tiny size of the physical original prohibits during in-person consultations.

Size is difficult to convey in a digital format, but it is an important feature of this manuscript. Measuring only 2-5/8 inches tall and 1-7/8 inches wide, the tiny Edith Book of Hours inspires an instinctive physical response from contemporary viewers who see this book in person. The delicate, scrolling border illuminations and flawless miniatures crafted in the style of Parisian artist Jean Pucelle (c. 1319—1334) add to the amazement. When first encountering this little manuscript, most Library patrons widen their eyes in surprise, bend forward, catch their breath, and move their hands in a gesture of imagined contact with something small and precious. Once the initial pause is over, many viewers ask the curator something like “How could anyone create something that small?”

Image of a hand holding the Edith Book of Hours against a yellow velvet background with the magnifying glass beside it.
Image of the Edith Book of Hours being held by a curator to show scale.

This sense of instinctive wonder may have been exactly what this manuscript’s fourteenth-century commissioners were seeking to evoke. For the fourteenth-century viewer, this natural physiological response provided a way of connecting to a deeply felt cultural understanding that was central to the form of the Book of Hours itself. The widely-accepted, theological doctrine of the incarnation echoes behind that how-can-anything-be-so-small sensation, and it reverberates throughout this tiny book. The theological reverberation would have contributed to the reader’s ability to experience a sense of immensity captured in smallness.

The scene of the Annunciation in the Edith Book of Hours surrounded by border illuminations and two frolicking rabbits below.
The Annunciation miniature (f. 60v) from the opening of Matins in the Edith Book of Hours. f. 60v.

The Little Office of the Virgin, after which the Book of Hours is named, focuses on the role of the Virgin Mary as being the participatory agent by which an infinite, omnipotent deity could become a small, human child. The idea of the Christ Child being understood as the eternal word, or logos, originates from the language in the famous prologue of the Gospel of John and is a common subject for panel paintings as well as Books of Hours. In the Annunciation miniature in the Edith Book of Hours, Mary holds a book in her hand, an action which helps to reinforce this connection visually. The speech scroll (also known as a banderol), placed centrally in the miniature of the Annunciation, highlights the moment when in the Christian tradition, the “Word became flesh” in a verbal exchange between the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel. 

Illuminated painting of the Annunciation showing the Angel Gabriel bowing to the Virgin Mary. Between them is a scroll of white with words on it. A dove descends upon the Virgin, who holds a book in her lap.
The Annunciation (f. 60v) from the Edith Book of Hours. The speech scroll from the Angel Gabriel reads: Ave maria gratia plena.

The tiny size of the Edith Book of Hours invites its readers to experience the miracle of just how small words can be: tiny little letters written on the tiny little banderol within a tiny little miniature within a tiny little book. By experiencing the smallness of these words, the reader is encouraged to reflect on how small temporality and mortality might have felt for an eternal, infinite deity at the moment of this event. For a fourteenth-century reader, the Edith Book of Hours was a reminder that a king of infinite space was bonded in something like a nutshell. For contemporary readers, regardless of the historical context, the experience of smallness in the Edith Book of Hours still feels nothing short of miraculous.

Image of a hand holding the Edith Book of Hours against a yellow velvet background with the magnifying glass beside it.
Edith Book of Hours. Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

 

FURTHER READING

Schutzner, Svato. Medieval and Renaissance Manuscript Books in the Library of Congress. Library of Congress: 1989. Vol. I. p. 283-286. https://lccn.loc.gov/85600260

Stevens Schaff, David S.. “A Fourteenth Century Book of Hours in the Collection of Mrs. Lessing Rosenwald,” Manuscripta 21 (1977) p. 154-166. http://opac.regesta-imperii.de/id/220591

Wieck, Roger S. Painted Prayers: The Book of Hours in Medieval and Renaissance Art. New York : George Braziller, in association with the Pierpont Morgan Library, 1997. https://lccn.loc.gov/96036927

Wieck, Roger S. Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life. New York: G. Braziller in association with the Walters Art Gallery, 1988. p. 65-67. https://lccn.loc.gov/87015084

 

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