The prayer book of Maria van Gelre is a key work in Dutch art history from around 1400. Due to the fragile condition in which it was found, it could not be studied and exhibited. After successful crowdfunding, the Maria van Gelre Prayer Book project was officially launched in 2015. Radboud University, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin and Museum het Valkhof worked in close collaboration for four years on the restoration of the book, the research and the development of an exhibition. The research has yielded many new insights: it is now clear how the miniaturists worked, which pigments they used, how the book was composed and that Maria played an important role in this. The prayer book has also become available online. This project was completed in early 2019.
Mary of Guelders
- 2015 until 2019
- Project member(s)
- Prof. J.B. Oosterman (Johan)
- Project type
Who was Mary of Guelders?
Mary d’Harcourt, the woman who would later become known under her married name Mary of Guelders, led a tumultuous life. Born in 1378 and raised among the nobility of the French court, she eventually married a duke of high standing and commissioned an extraordinary prayer book of outstanding quality. Read more about her life and prayer book here.
Mary d’Harcourt had already led an entire life before she married Renaud IV, Duke of Guelders, on 5 May 1405 in Bastogne. She was almost thirty years of age and neither she nor forty-year-old Renaud had been married before. Renaud was an ambitious and reckless duke who had worked hard to consolidate Guelders’ position by strengthening his bonds with France. He had, however, only fathered illegitimate children, so the continuation of the dynasty could not be ensured. To remedy this situation, a marriage was arranged between Renaud and a princess of high standing who was to bear his children, thus ensuring the line would continue. Louis of Orleans, brother to the mad king Charles, provided the immense dowry which would have to be returned if the marriage remained childless.
Mary d’Harcourt was daughter to John VI, Count of Aumale, and Catherine of Bourbon. She was woman in waiting to Valentina Visconti, wife of Louis of Orleans, which meant she was very familiar with the highest of French court culture. During her time there, she exchanged gifts with her uncle John of Berry, a book enthusiast who regularly commissioned the Limbourg Brothers to illustrate his collection.
Relatively little is known of her years in Guelders, but it is almost certain she remained in contact with France. It must have been quite a shock for her when she learnt that Louis of Orleans had been murdered on 23 November 1407 at the instigation of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. In the years following the assassination, she started to commission her extraordinarily ambitious book filled with prayers. We know that the copyist finished taking down the text in 1415, but it is not unthinkable that it took him five years to write it all down. It then took several years more for the book to reach its gloriously illuminated final form.
The marriage remained childless and Renaud died on 25 June 1423. As before, a battle for succession broke out in Guelders, resulting in a break of the union between Guelders and Jülich. On 24 February 1426, Mary married Ruprecht of Berg, Duke of Jülich, and was no longer Duchess of Guelders.
During her years as a widow, she expanded her prayer book, a strong indication that she cherished and used the book throughout her life. Unfortunately, she was unable to enjoy her extended prayer book or her second marriage for very long: as far as we know, Mary died in 1428. She was buried in Nideggen, between Aachen and Bonn, south of the Duchy of Jülich.
What is a prayer book?
Shortly put, a prayer book is a book used to pray with. It contains a large variety of texts that can be used to pray throughout the year at every moment of every day.
A prayer book is just what the name suggests: a book full of prayers. Today’s prayers are less organised and fixed, but in medieval times people preferred to use texts with long traditions attached to them. The Liturgy of the Hours was especially important, which initially was only practiced by the clergy but rapidly gained in popularity among the laity during the Late Middle Ages. The practice involved dividing the day into eight (or seven) canonical hours, which each came with a particular formula and text to use for prayer. This ensured that Paul’s command to continuously pray (1 Thessalonians 5:17) was adhered to, a command that was further reinforced by the Rule of Saint Benedict. Usually the Psalms from the Old Testament that were attributed to David were central to the prayers in the Liturgy of Hours, and Mary of Guelders’ book was no exception. The Hours and other prayers related to the Psalms can be found in the Vienna part of the book, including the so-called Hours of Eternal Wisdom.
In addition to the Liturgy of Hours, countless other prayers with countless variations circulated during the Middle Ages. There could be differences in terms of the manner of praying, invocations (God, Jesus, Mary, saints, etc.), the length of the prayer and the nature of the prayer (personal or general). For example, the first text of the Berlin manuscript of Mary of Guelders’ prayer book is a long (over 40 pages) invocation of Jesus and Mary which covers the Passion of Christ in great detail. A prayer of a decidedly more personal nature is one which she used to pray for her husband Renaud.
The prayer book of Mary of Guelders
In the early 15th century, Duchess Mary of Guelders commissioned an extraordinary book that would become the high point of the late medieval book industry in the Northern Low Countries. It even obtained the status of the most valued medieval treasure of Guelders.
The prayer book of Mary of Guelders has a luxurious feel to it: it is over 900 pages long, includes an illustrated calendar and contains about a hundred miniature paintings and numerous artistic decorations along its margins. The book was copied down in Arnhem, but the illustrations were most likely added in Nijmegen. Over thirty years ago, the pages were taken out of their binding to be preserved in the Berlin State Library (a small section of 160 pages without illustrations is stored in the Vienna National Library).
The book was copied down by Helmich die Lewe, a friar in the Arnhem monastery of Mariënborn, at the behest of Mary d’Harcourt, Duchess of Guelders and Jülich, married to Renaud of Guelders. Despite her French background, Mary commissioned the substantial book to be written in a language with strong Germanic influences. Its size and selection of texts make the book highly unique from a textual point of view. Many of the prayers seem to have been specially written or translated for Mary’s book, even though they show a strong connection with more familiar texts from the period. They indicate a highly developed literary and devotional culture.
The decorations are extraordinary both from a stylistic and iconographic point of view. They show influences from important international centres for book illumination of the time – Utrecht, Bruges, Paris – which have been combined to form an entirely individual look.
The exhibition I, Maria van Gelre. The duchess and her exceptional prayer book was on display from 13 October 2018 to 6 January 2019 in Museum Het Valkhof in Nijmegen.
Prayer book online
Bringing a hidden treasure closer to the general public was one of the central objectives of the crowdfunding campaign for Mary of Guelders’ prayer book. An important step in achieving this goal was making the prayer book available online: this way everyone has the opportunity to gaze upon its riches, read its texts and enjoy its 600-year-old splendor. Furthermore, from 13 October 2018 toto 6 January 2019 part of this extraordinary book was on display during an exhibition at the Valkhof Museum.
Mary of Guelders’ prayer book was manufactured sometime around 1415: on 23 February of that year, Helmich die Lewe, copyist and Canon Regular at Mariënborn near Arnhem, noted that he had finished writing a book commissioned by Mary, duchess of Guelders and Gulik and countess of Zutphen. Back then the book counted six hundred sheets (meaning it was about twelve hundred pages long), which were richly decorated during that same period of time. Where exactly the illumination took place is unknown, but the illuminators almost certainly hailed form the area between Nijmegen and Utrecht. Approximately ten years later, another hundred fully decorated pages were added to the already extensive book.
Around the year 1600, approximately 130 pages were taken from the book and brought to Castle Ambraß near Innsbruck. Later these pages were transported to the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (MS. Cod. 1908) in Vienna, where they remain to this day. The Vienna part of the book contains decorations but no miniatures. At the time that the prayer book was split in two, the largest part was in the possession of the last duke of Berg. When he died without legal heirs in 1609, a fierce succession battle broke out that was not resolved until the Kurfürst of Brandenburg emerged victorious a few decades later. It is likely that the prayer book was already part of the Kufürst’s collection before he claimed victory and it was probably transported to Berlin while in his possession. This makes it one of the oldest pieces kept in what is now known as the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Ms. germ. quarto 42). The Berlin part of Mary of Guelders’ prayer book is richly decorated and has approximately one hundred miniatures. This is the part that is being digitally presented here.
The digital presentation of Mary of Guelders’ prayer book is part of a collaboration between Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Radboud University and the Valkhof Museum Nijmegen. The project that began in 2015 was aimed at making the prayer book more accessible through preservation, digitalisation and research, culminating in a much anticipated exhibition from 13 October 2018 – 6 January 2019. The project was concluded with a scholarly publication in 2020. The digital presentation of the prayer book is mainly meant to give the general public access to one of the most beautiful and important manuscripts of the Northern Low Countries from the early fifteenth century. The meta data, which are based on research conducted by Miranda Bloem, Ad Poirters and Johan Oosterman, provide information on the textual content of the book and its illumination. We chose to present the meta data in English to increase international accessibility. All individual texts are mentioned separately, and information on the incipit, the category and, where possible, the Latin example is included as well.
The historiated initials, drôleries and miniatures are accompanied by short descriptions and, in the case of the miniatures, mention of the illuminator it can be ascribed to according to the latest research. Finally, this online presentation includes a full transcription of the prayer book written by Joanka van der Laan and collated by Johan Oosterman.
The digital recordings of the prayer book were made in Berlin. For technical specifications please consult the online version that is made available on website of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. We thank Dr Robert Giel and Professor Dr Eef Overgaauw of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin for the joint effort that made it possible to add extensive meta data and transcriptions to the Nijmegen digital version. The meta data and transcriptions have been entered into a database by Elke Cremers, Kinte de Rijck and Hilde van Wanroij. The Radboud University Library Nijmegen has facilitated the publication of the online version of the prayer book with Laura Groenhuijzen and Caroline Coelman playing key roles in this process.
The project Prayer Book Mary of Guelders was started by means of crowdfunding. Approximately 350 private donors raised over €30,000. The main partners involved in the project are Radboud University, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin and Museum Het Valkhof. Employees of these institutions provided important contributions to the research and the exhibition. Additionally, we received substantial contributions from NWO (the Dutch Organisation for Scientific Research – Alfa Meerwaarde), Ernst von Siemens Kunststiffung (making it possible to conduct technical research in Berlin), Stichting Art, Books and Collections and Stichting SSN Nijmegen.
- Radboud University
- Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin
- Museum het Valkhof
- NWO, the Dutch Research Council (Alfa Meerwaarde)
- De Ernst von Siemensstiftung
- Stichting Art, Books and Collections
- Stichting SSN Nijmegen