Caroline Ferrell and Faculty Mentor: Dr. Elliott Wise, comparative Arts & Letters
Created around 1470, the Morgan Black Hours (MS M.493) is part of a rare group of
manuscripts with black pages, gold lettering, and luminous miniatures painted in blue, green, and
pink (see Fig. 1). My initial paper, which led me to this project, examined the way this unique
and enigmatic color scheme contributes to the spiritual argument of the prayer book.
My research focuses on how the striking effects of these colors contribute to the manuscript’s
primary purpose as a prompt for meditation and prayer. Black books of hours like the Morgan
example would have been extremely expensive objects, and one scholar has suggested that this
book could have belonged to a member of the ducal family in Burgundy.1 It is well known that
fifteenth-century painters and miniaturists were fascinated by the challenge of imitating different
materials—mimicking stone, carved wooden statues, cloth, etc. The chromatics of the Black
Hours—and even the “scratched” effect of the gold text and contour lines—has led me to
consider that the book may be imitating enamel work, especially the precious objects
manufactured in Limoges. It is my theory that the imitation of enamel may be a key part of
understanding the spiritual argument this book was intended to inspire in its reader. I think it is
not coincidental that the darkness of the pages, lit with sapphire-like blue color, resembles
Gothic spaces like Saint-Denis, with its dimension of mysticism and negative theology.2
In order to better understand this rare object, I traveled to New York City to not only see the
Black Hours in person, but also to visit other museums that contained related objects and
scholarly sources for my study. The Black Hours are currently being housed at the Morgan
Library. In addition, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see Fig. 2) and the Frick Collection hold
Limoges enamel that were relevant to my research.
When I visited the Met and the Frick, I had the opportunity to view the curatorial files of the
relevant Limoges enamel that each museum held. These files are useful because they contain
scholarly information that has been written on each object, which isn’t always easily accessible,
and they also had unpublished information on the objects that I wouldn’t have been able to see if
I hadn’t visited the museum. At both of these museums, I recorded extensive notes on the objects
and studied the ways that Limoges were created and how it was used – both of which are useful
for my research.
At the Morgan Library, I was fortunate enough to receive approval to see the Black Hours in
person even though they were currently unbound and in conservation. This experience was
fundamental to my research because I was able to see the glowing effect of the pages in person and notice any differences that couldn’t be seen in photographs. Along with viewing this piece in
person, I was able to take advantage of the Black Hours useful facsimile and its accompanying
commentary. Viewing the facsimile gave me better insight to how the book was used as I paged
through it. The commentary was full of valuable information concerning the manuscript and was
a useful tool for diving deeper into my thesis. This commentary shed a whole new light on my
research because it had translated versions of texts that I tried to read in my earlier research and
it also had information that I was unable to access when I first started studying the Black Hours.
My visit to the Morgan Library opened up the possibilities for my research and this visit alone
made my trip a success.
When I first started this project, I was under the impression that many scholars had not studied
the Black Hours, and while this is still partially true, I did find that there was more information
for me to discover in the facsimile commentary. For example, from the commentary, I found that
the connection had already been made between the Black Hours and enamelwork. This discovery
was not surprising, but useful because it helps give my claim connecting the illuminated
manuscript with Limoges Enamel more validity. My visit to the Met and to the Frick also helped
my claim because they had a resemblance to the Black Hours in both subject matter and in style.
Seeing the Limoges enamel opened my mind up to new ideas concerning the possible uses that
the Black Hours would have had if it had been completed.
Along with the valuable information I collected concerning the Limoges enamel relation, I
discovered that the facsimile commentary didn’t mention how the darkness of the pages may
have evoked the important tradition of mysticism and negative theology, which was one of my
other theories concerning the purpose of the black pages. Because the commentary didn’t
mention this, I hope to expand further on this idea as well because it hasn’t been studied before.
My research is not yet finished and I will be developing on it more now that I have collected all
of this valuable material during my visit to NYC. I will hopefully have the opportunity to present
what I have discovered at a conference and possibly finish an article to be published. This
experience has been exciting and I look forward to how my research will progress in the future
concerning this beautiful work of art.
1 Ingo Walther and Norbert Wolf, Codices Illustres: The World’s Most Famous Illuminated Manuscripts 400-1600
(Köln: Taschen, 2001), 372.
2 Herbert Kessler, “The Function of Vitrum Vestitum and the Use of Materia Saphirorum in Suger’s St.-Denis”