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  • Moralizing the Mass in the Butler Hours
  • Kathryn A. Smith

The English Butler Hours (ca. 1340–45) is best known for an imposing full-page miniature depicting the Butler family attending Mass in a setting suggestive of a private chapel (fig. 1).1 A [End Page 187] kneeling, elegantly attired Baron William le Boteler or Botiller of Wem (or Wemme, in Shropshire) and two women, one only partly visible at the picture's left edge, clasp their hands in prayer and train their gazes on the consecrated Host held aloft by the celebrant at a draped altar. In this idealized depiction of the Elevation of the Eucharist and privileged lay participation in the liturgical rite, the Butlers' ability to see the Host is ensured by a kneeling deacon, who holds a tall green taper in one hand while lifting the hem of the priest's chasuble with the other.

Typically the sole miniature in the manuscript reproduced and discussed at any length, the Butler family "portrait" is notable for its capacity to signify both as a particularized representation of specific Butler family members and, simultaneously, as a generalized evocation of the Butler baronial lineage through multiple generations. The manuscript is assigned to Butler ownership on the basis of the presence of the family's coat-of-arms, gules, a fess compony argent and sable between six crosses patees fichees or, painted in the bottom border of the first page of Matins of the Virgin (fol. 17r).2 The devotees in the Mass picture have been tentatively identified as William, later third Lord Boteler (ca. 1331–69), his wife Elizabeth, and their daughter and [End Page 188]

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Figure 1.

Butler Family at Mass, Butler Hours, England, ca. 1340–45. Baltimore, Walters Art Museum MS W. 105, fol. 15r. Photo: The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

[End Page 189] heir Elizabeth, born in 1345.3 Yet these figures also may evoke, and more likely represent, William, de jure second Lord Boteler (1298–1361), and two of his female kin, probably his first wife Margaret, née Fitzalan, and perhaps Ela, née de Herdeburgh, second wife and widow of the first William Lord Boteler (d. 1334); Ela was still alive in July 1343. Subsequent generations of the family might even have read the image as a memorial "portrait" of the first Lord William and his two wives, Beatrice (d. before February 1315/16) and Ela.4 Equally pertinent to the present study, the Mass picture figures prominently in accounts of several interrelated developments in later medieval Christian art and spirituality, including changes in the understanding of the nature of vision and the perception of images; the expansion of book-and image-centered devotion among the affluent, aspirant laity; and the potential roles of the cult of the Eucharist and of depictions of this sacrament in the formation and affirmation of the Christian self and community.5

The vividness of this picture belies the fact that the Butler Hours is now a fragment to which time has not been kind. The bulk of its surviving contents, sixty-one leaves, are in the Walters Art Museum, another two are in the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, a single leaf is in an unknown [End Page 190] private collection, and many more are lost.6 In its original state, the volume is thought to have contained over 100 folios. The surviving leaves measure circa 5 11/16″ × 8½″ (ca. 14.5 cm × 21 cm), trimmed, and a few historiated initials have been excised or retouched, with the last of these interventions apparently undertaken in order to mitigate extensive water damage that occurred in 1846, when the manuscript was owned by the collector John Boykett Jarman (ca. 1782–1864).7 While it may never be possible to reconstitute the Butler Hours in its original, mid-fourteenth-century form, the evidence supplied by a foliation of ca. 1800, written in ink at upper left on most rectos, a succinct description of the manuscript published in 1879, and the efforts of Walters curators and conservators, past and present, all help to suggest the book's contents and their order as...


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