Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Title: Mary of Burgundy reading from a book of hours
  • Creator: Master of Mary of Burgundy, artist
  • Description:

    In this full-page manuscript illumination, Mary of Burgundy sits in prayer with her book of hours. Through the window we see the Virgin and child with four angels in attendance within an elaborate Gothic church interior. A group of ladies pray on the left while a deacon kneels on the right. Behind the altar, two laymen are in conversation. Recent scholarship has identified the deacon as Mary’s husband, Maximilian, Archduke of Austria, and the chief noblewoman opposite him, as Margaret of York, Mary’s step-mother. The oratory within which Mary sits displays multiple objects carrying meaning for the viewer. The blue irises signal the Virgin’s sorrow, the lap dog reminds the viewer of faithfulness, the two red carnations recall bridal chastity, and the pendant made up of enormous pearls may refer to the white rose of York (and to the figure of Mary’s step-mother within the church).

    Scholars are generally now agreed that the book of hours including this frontispiece was commissioned by Margaret of York, wife of Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, for her step-daughter Mary. It was completed over a span of time which involved three distinct campaigns of illustrations and decorative motifs. The Master of Mary of Burgundy who painted this scene of prayer and another window-framed view of Christ nailed to the cross is particularly known for his psychological insight and spiritual understanding as it pertained to his reader’s circumstances. Van Buren suggests that the prayer scene was painted around 1477 shortly after the death of Charles the Bold. French forces invaded the country and the civic leaders of Ghent sent Margaret of York away to Malines and executed several of Charles’s ministers. Left alone in Ghent and pressured to marry the French dauphin, Mary, as the heir to the kingdom, needed strength and comfort. She wrote secretly to Maximilian in March 1477, married him by proxy in April, and formally wed him in August.

    This image of a woman at prayer raises questions about the use of books of hours and laywomen’s practices of religious devotion. Many books of hours were made for women, as the Latin prayers carrying feminine endings demonstrate. Prayers in books of hours, like the Sorrows of the Virgin, address women’s concerns. Luxury treatment with many illustrations, marginal decorations, and rich binding made the books a joy to use and a treasure to treat with care. Note the cloth with which Mary of Burgundy cradles her book. Churchmen in the late Middle Ages encouraged laypeople to bring visualization to their prayers. Margery Kempe imagined helping the Virgin take care of the infant Christ. In this image from the book of hours, Mary of Burgundy prays to the Virgin for the wellbeing of her step-mother and husband while they in turn petition Mary on her behalf.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Books of Hours Devotional Practices Empresses Lay Piety Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy and Wife of Charles the Bold Mary of Burgundy, Wife of Emperor Maximilian I
  • Geographic Area: Low Countries
  • Century: 15
  • Date: ca. 1477
  • Related Work: Christ nailed to the cross, from the Hours of Mary of Burgundy, fol. 43v.
    Virgin Mary and the infant Christ with two angels crowning Mary, from the Hours of Mary of Burgundy, fol.
  • Current Location: Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 1857, fol. 14v
  • Original Location: Flanders, Ghent
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint; Gold
  • Donor: Laywoman; Margaret of York (?),
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 26.3/22.5/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: The Hours of Mary of Burgundy: Codex Vindobonensis 1857, Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek. Commentary by Eric Inglis. Harvey Miller Publishers, 1995;
    Penketh, Sandra. "Women and Books of Hours." In Women and the Book: Assessing the Visual Evidence. Edited by Jane H. M. Taylor and Lesley Smith. British Library and University of Toronto Press, 1996. Pages 266-281;
    Roberts, Ann M. "The Horse and the Hawk: Representations of Mary of Burgundy as Sovereign." In Excavating the Medieval Image: Manuscripts, Artists, Audiences: Essays in Honor of Sandra Hindman. Edited by David S. Areford and Nina A. Rowe. Ashgate, 2004. Pages 135-150;
    Rothstein, Bret. "The Rule of Metaphor and the Play of the Viewer in the Hours of Mary of Burgundy." In Image and Imagination of the Religious Self in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Edited by Reindert L. Falkenburg, Walter S. Melion and Todd M. Richardson. Brepols, 2007. Pages 237-275;
    van Buren, Anne H. "A Window on Two Duchesses of Burgundy." In Tributes in Honor of James H. Marrow: Studies in Painting and Manuscript Illumination of the Late Middle Ages and Northern Renaissance. Edited by Jeffrey F. Hamburger and Anne S, Korteweg. Harvey Miller Publishers, 2006. Pages 505-520.