Relics & Reliquaries

The Butler Hours

The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

The Butler Hours

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Books of Hours were personal prayer books made for the laity, based on the daily prayer cycles or "hours" observed by monks. This leaf is from a Book of Hours made for the Boteler (Butler) family, whose coat of arms appears in the manuscript. The manuscript has been dated as early as 1340, but considering that one of the miniatures depicts the lord with his wife and daughter at Mass, it was likely made for William le Boteler, the 3rd Lord of Wem (d. 1369), who had a daughter but no male heir; for that reason, a date in the 1350s or even 1360s should not be ruled out. Books of Hours were sometimes lavishly illustrated, and although they centered on prayers to the Virgin Mary, they often included prayers, or "suffrages," to other saints as well. Among those in the Butler Hours is a suffrage to Thomas Becket. This picture shows the moment of Becket's martyrdom, a common choice in depictions of the saint in reliquaries as well as illuminated manuscripts. Scenes of his death often included grisly details, and in this example blood can be seen pouring from the sword wound in the saint's head. Many depictions of Becket were purposefully defaced during the Reformation, but this example appears to have escaped such treatment. However, as several other areas of this manuscript have been retouched by a skilled nineteenth-century artist (and other parts, including the face of Thomas's companion, by less skilled artists), it is possible that Thomas's face was damaged and has been repaired. The manuscript has clearly fallen prey to other dangers: the Butler Hours suffered heavy water damage, probably when the owner's London house was flooded in 1846.

Kathryn B. Gerry