Food for Thought-Reading Between the Light, Looking at the Theology of an Illuminated Devotion

Book of Hours

I am fascinated by devotional books. Some of the oldest devotionals in the western Christian tradition were known as “Books of Hours”. Usually smaller than most books, they were exquisitely decorated with illustrations of scriptural scenes, depictions of the Virgin Mary, and art outlining the understanding and insights of medieval theology. If you see an illuminated manuscript these days, it’s probably taken from a Book of Hours.

There is a page from a mid 14th century Book of Hours which always catches my eye. It’s a depiction of the universe and all things between heaven and earth. What makes this illustration unique (particularly for this time in history) is how the artist conveyed Earth’s relationship to heaven. Earth is portrayed at the lowest and darkest point of the universe. At the top of the page, light from heaven, light from beyond our universe, streams down to illuminate the earth below. Earth isn’t the light filled center of the pre-Copernican universe. Languishing in layers of distorted darkness, light comes to the whole of creation from the epicenter of heaven. Somewhere in the Middle Ages someone wanted to be reminded that God’s light shines on everyone and that humanity’s relationship to God is one bathed in light, hope, and love.