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The Middle Ages

Visitors enjoy the gallery talk about the newly restored stained glass in the Medieval Gallery.

The Medieval period, also known as the Middle Ages, is roughly considered to be the millennium spanning the fall of the Roman empire in 476 CE to the Renaissance. Most of the surviving artwork from this period is religious in nature, commissioned by the Catholic Church or donors to facilitate worship and devotion.

The majority of the works in this gallery decorated Christian churches in Europe between 1000-1400. Stone architectural sculpture surrounded doorways to greet the faithful with images from the life of Jesus and the final judgment, when he would return to judge all mankind. Stained glass enlivened wall surfaces and created interiors that shimmered with an otherworldly light. Interior sculptures elaborated on the lives of saints and provided exemplars of faith and obedience.

With the purchase of the Brummer Collection of medieval art in 1966, Duke University established its first art museum. This acquisition signaled the university’s recognition of the cultural importance of actual works of art in the education of students.

Book of Hours Website with Annotations

Page book with tempera, liquid gold, and ink on vellum
Workshop of Jean Bourdichon, French, Page from Book of Hours (detail), c. 1490. 156-page book with tempera, liquid gold, and ink on vellum; 6 9⁄16 x 4 1⁄4 inches (16.7 x 10.8 cm) each page. Museum purchase. Collection of the Nasher Museum. Photo by Duke Digital Collections for Duke University Libraries.

Also included in the Medieval European Art Gallery collection is the Book of Hours.

Explore the website featuring the Book of Hours with page-by-page annotations from our curators. This site also offers the ability to zoom into pages and see the beautiful illustrations within The Book of Hours up-close.

The book of hours, the best seller of the late Middle Ages, was a private book used for daily devotions mainly by lay women and men. The text was adapted from the Psalter and the Breviary (the service book for the Divine Office). Its great popularity reflected people’s desire for a more direct and intimate relationship with God, without the mediation of clergy. In the 14th century, illustrated Books of Hours were commissioned by nobles and aristocrats and were produced by lay workshops headed by celebrated painters. By the 15th century, book dealers and lay workshops supplied the growing demand of affluent townspeople. A Book of Hours was more than a compendium of prayers and devotional images, however. It provided its owner with a luxury object that expressed social status, it sometimes humorous illustrations entertained the user, and it served as a family reader used by mothers to educate their daughters.

This book displays the luminous colors and rich details for which medieval books are famous. It contains 13 miniature paintings depicting the Life of the Virgin and Infancy of Christ, the Crucifixion, the torments of Hell, a fully illustrated calendar with Labors of the Months and Zodiac imagery, and 13 historiated initials.


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