Office of the Dead

The officium mortuorum, a prayer cycle said for the repose of the soul of one of the departed, dates back at least to the eighth century and was used throughout Europe. It consisted of vespers, called ‘Placebo’ (from the opening word of the Office), and the ‘Dirige’ (matins and lauds said as one office). Books of Hours (or ‘primers’) were devotional books for the pious laity, which offered excerpts from the monastic canonical hours, including parts of the psalter and the Little Office of the Virgin. They invariably contained the office of the dead, serving as a way of remembering the dead in daily life, and also as a memento mori. The example here is a Neapolitan Hours, opened here at the beginning of vespers (the word ‘Placebo’ is visible at the top). The page contains a historiated initial depicting a skeleton entwined with serpents and a four-sided gold acanthus and jewel border with animals, putti and mourning figure. A prayer referring to Pope Innocent VIII dates the manuscript to between 1484 and 1492. An exquisite example of Italian humanist work, it is ascribed to Cristoforo Majorana, an artist active in Naples between 1480 and 1492. BC

Book of Hours (Italy, Naples, 1484-92)

CUL: MS Add. 4105, fo. 157r

Further Reading

Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580, 2nd Edition (New Haven and London, 2005), pp. 196-98.

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