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Imaginative Theology: French Passion Devotion and Medieval Books of Hours

The Carrying of the Cross, Egerton MS 1070, folio 124v
A full facsimile of this Book of Hours, from which all images in this post have been taken, can be found at:

The lives of Christ and Mary, especially those events relating to the Passion, provided inspiration for a diverse body of literature in the Middle Ages. This tradition was especially prolific and intriguing in France. While the Biblical account provided the framework for these stories, French authors of narrative theologies also drew heavily from secular literary traditions, including romances, epics, allegories, and chronicles. Authors did not shy away from inventing their own narrative details where the Scriptures do not include explanation or elaboration. Maureen Boulton argues that such texts served less as moral treatises and more as Christian “entertainment” (Boulton 5). But what does this history of “pious fictions” in France mean for a Book of Hours, which seems to function less as “Christian entertainment” and more like a meditative handbook? Can a Book of Hours, especially in sections that contain direct excerpts from the Bible, be “imaginative?”

Unfortunately, extensive research into these narratives has only resurged relatively recently. One of the most significant treatments of French Passion devotion in recent years can be found in Boulton’s 2015 monograph, Sacred Fictions of Medieval France: Narrative Theology in the Lives of Christ and the Virgin, 1150-1500, in which she highlights the important role that imagination played in medieval French lives of Christ, whether it be in fanciful infancy stories or narrative inventions. Boulton argues that Books of Hours do display the imagination of their creators (231), and their primary tool is illumination. In fact, Books of Hours were “expressive of a culture which delighted in the relationship between the literary and the visual” (Stocks and Morgan 130-131). From the fourteenth century onward, the importance of images in these manuscripts increased so much that, as Recht argues, individual prayer could no longer be conceived outside of visual stimulation (Recht 192). Boulton further adds that, “in illustrated Books of Hours, the succession of miniatures accompanying each section guided the content of that meditation” (Boulton 230). In other words, illustrations in Books of Hours functioned not only as organizational aids or decorative embellishments but also as images “to be viewed and meditated upon by the owners of these books” (Stocks and Morgan 119). Images were the means by which a lay person, no matter what his or her Latin literacy may be, could achieve both compassion for and unity with Christ in His suffering by being able to visualize the scenes of the Passion.

A prime example of how images operate imaginatively in medieval manuscripts can be found in London, British Library, Egerton MS 1070, also known as “The Hours of René d’Anjou,” a fifteenth-century French manuscript of the Use of Paris. (For more information about the history of this manuscript and René d’Anjou, check out this post by Georgia Earley.) The Passion was certainly important to the makers of Egerton; not only does the manuscript contain the Office of the Cross, which was commonly found in Books of Hours, but also an Office of the Passion, a more extensive and rarer exposition of the final days of Christ’s life (Wieck, Time Sanctified 89). The life of Christ even serves as a frame for the entire book, as excerpts from the four Gospels1  immediately follow the Calendar (the text that was included at the beginning of almost every Books of Hours) (Clemens and Graham 209). Similarly, the Biblical account of the Passion, which comes nearly at the very end of the manuscript (except for a miniature that was added later and a versified summary of the Old and New Testaments), includes excerpts from the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,2 each of which is introduced by a French rubric and a small image of a scene from the Passion (shown below). Thus, the devotion-related material of the manuscript effectively (and affectively) begins and ends with the Gospels.


(Top left) The Betrayal of Christ (excerpt from Matthew), f.118v
(top right) The Carrying of the Cross (Mark), f.124v
 left) The Flagellation (Luke), f.129
(bottom right) The Crucifixion (John), f.134v

In some respects, the four excerpts from the Gospel section seem expected. They align almost exactly, both in the content of verses and the order in which they appear, of what Clemens and Graham describe as “typical” for Books of Hours (with the only exception being that the Luke section in Egerton begins at verse 1:27 as opposed to 1:26) (210). Moreover, each section contains an image of the respective evangelist (see folios 12r, 12v, 13r, and 13v), which was also very common (Wieck, “Books of Hours” 446). Nevertheless, the Gospel excerpts still contribute to Egerton’s imaginative appeal. This arrangement, which was “standard” in Books of Hours, does not follow the liturgical order but instead chronologically presents major events in Christ’s life (God’s divine plan (John), the Incarnation and Annunciation (Luke), the Nativity (Matthew), and the great commission and Ascension (Mark)) (Wieck, “Books of Hours” 445). This format allows the reader to reflect first on the life of Christ at the beginning of the manuscript while concluding with the climactic moment of His death at the end.

Egerton’s Passion section diverges a bit more from the standard path. The fact that the manuscript presents all four Gospels as opposed to including only one also creates a powerful effect on the reader. Wieck states that it is not uncommon for Books of Hours to contain Passion material, though “the version used most frequently is John’s. The evangelist’s story begins with Christ’s going forth with the disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane . . . Christ’s Agony in the Garden is the subject painters used most for the miniature placed at the beginning of the text” (Time Sanctified 104). Egerton’s Passion section does not contain an allusion to the Garden of Gethsemane (neither textually or visually), and instead of using only John, it includes excerpts from the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) as well. The effect of this departure from the “standard” structure is poignant and creates a sense of progression, and the viewer is transported to the very scene of Christ’s Passion. Further, the emotional appeal to the audience is heightened by the fact that the images grow increasingly violent; the first shows Christ’s Betrayal, which focuses on His internal sorrow, while the second shows his physical exertion in bearing the cross. The next image depicts His beating, and the final miniature shows the climax: the Crucifixion. Presenting the image to the viewer invites him or her to picture the scene mentally and to contemplate and empathize with Christ’s suffering at each stage.  

What Egerton and other illuminated Books of Hours demonstrate, then, is that images had their own significance beyond the text. Even if a lay person could read and understand Latin, having this visual aspect of devotion was important in its own right for inspiring a full, affective engagement. Miniatures allowed the reader “to perform a complicated activity, reading the texts of the Office, while using the accompanying image. . . to carry on a simultaneous meditation on an aspect of the life of Christ–often by recreating the scenes through an effort of imagination” (Boulton 231). The role of the imagination is thus ultimately shifted to the reader, and the book participates in the “imaginative” tradition visually as opposed to textually. Barbara Newman argues that “imaginative theology . . . served not only to express a religious meaning or truth already possessed, but also to discover meaning” (Newman 304). The words on the page may “express” the narrative of the Passion explicitly, but the accompanying images allow the reader to “discover” the heightened emotional experience of these events and to join Christ in His sorrow.



  1. John 1:1-14, Luke 1:27-38, Matthew 2:1-12, Mark 16:14-20
  2. Matthew 26:1-27:66, Mark 14:1-15:46, Luke 22:1-23:53, John 18:1-19:42


Works Cited

Boulton, Maureen Barry McCann. Sacred Fictions of Medieval France: Narrative Theology in the Lives of Christ and the Virgin, 1150-1500. D.S. Brewer, 2015.

Clemens, Raymond, and Timothy Graham. Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Cornell University Press, 2007.

Newman, Barbara. God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

Recht, Roland. L’image médiévale: le livre enluminé. Réunion Des Musées Nationaux, 2010.

Stocks, Bronwyn, and Nigel Morgan, editors. The Medieval Imagination. Macmillan Publishers Australia, 2008.

Wieck, Roger S. “The Book of Hours.” The Liturgy of the Medieval Church, edited by Thomas J. Heffernan and E. Ann Matter, Second ed., Medieval Institute Publications , 2005, pp. 431–468.

Wieck, Roger S. Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life. George Braziller, Inc., 1988.