CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Sleutel tot licht: getijdenboeken in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica

Key to light: books of hours in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica Exhibition: 19 November 2009 - 26 February 2010

From the library website, 11 November 2009

“Wisdom is more beautiful than the sun and above the arrangement of the stars; compared to light it comes first.”
Geert Grote, Hours of Eternal Wisdom

These words are cited from the medieval Book of Hours, a devotional genre which became the most popular prayerbook in the Netherlands in the 15th century owing to the Dutch translation of Geert Grote († 1384). The Hours of Wisdom included in this book not only reflect an intimate dialogue but also express a practical mysticism intended to bring the soul and Christ closer together.

As of November 20th the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica will be showing 25 Books of Hours in the library and on the website. These medieval, handwritten books were used for private devotion and are intimate witnesses of personal spirituality. In 2004 the Dutch State underscored the national importance of these unique manuscripts by acquiring the collection, thereby preserving them for Dutch national heritage. Since that date, the books are preserved in the library as permanent loans from ‘Instituut Collectie Nederland’.

In medieval times they were cherished and passed on from generation to generation. Ranging from modest manuals to exquisite little gems, the exhibition highlights the spiritual and material riches of these manuscripts. At the same time the web exhibition offers a unique opportunity to familiarize a much larger public with the captivating colourful illuminations and the numerous prayers which helped the reader to find his or her way to God.

The exhibition focuses on the phenomenon of Books of Hours particularly within the context of the Devotio Moderna, the spiritual movement which profoundly influenced late medieval culture in the Low Countries. From the perspective of the BPH it is interesting to study the Modern Devotion movement in light of a widening mystic culture, resulting from an interest in such works as by Master Eckart (ca. 1260-1328), Henricus Suso (1295-1366) and Johannes Tauler (ca. 1300-1361), the ‘masters of inwardness’.

The Devotio Moderna was not a mystical movement in itself – although some of its leaders had a remarkable gift for mysticism and were able to give eloquent expression to their mystical experiences – but it did promote a culture in which the life of the mystic was offered as a model. 15th-century spiritual life was strongly shaped by mystical literature. The texts themselves have survived thanks to the scribes of the Modern Devotion movement, who produced these works in professional scriptoria.

The Books of Hours in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica are more than 500 years old but they still resonate strongly.The prayers were intended to help the reader to turn inwards in order to come closer to God. The exhibition attempts to throw light on such questions as: what was the role of language, meditation and visual culture in the religious experience of the individual? How was the Book of Hours used on a day to day basis? How did these books support man in his quest for God? In this presentation the BPH will – from its own perspective- focus on this most versatile of all medieval prayer books.

Medieval manuscripts are books which continue to fascinate down to the minutest detail, but which can only be fully appreciated when they can be seen and admired. From 19 November onwards, such an opportunity presents itself in the library (entrance Bloemstraat 15) and on Information on public tours (free of charge) on Wednesdays from 14.00-15.00 hours will be posted on the website.

The exhibition and web presentation have been compiled by curator Helen Wüstefeld in collaboration with Anne Korteweg, former curator of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek.


Sleutel tot licht: getijdenboeken in de Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica
Helen Wüstefeld and Anne Korteweg