Simply put, in Bening's hands, the ordinary becomes the extraordinary..."
When he created this illustrated prayer book, the artist Simon Bening was already in his fifties and a celebrity. Long favored by the rich and powerful, and recognized by his peers in the painters' guild, he had enjoyed a successful career as a painter of Books of Hours. It seems likely that by the 1530s, he no longer needed to work; after all, two of his daughters were already well established in the book business. He could have rested on his laurels, but Bening instead turned his talents to the making of this book for an unidentified client.
Books of Hours had already been in existence for nearly three centuries before this manuscript was made. Surviving examples number in the thousands. Their contents follow predictable patterns and their illustrations, more often than not, are of predictable subjects. What then distinguishes this manuscript, making it worthy of the Museum's collection?
Simply put, in Bening's hands, the ordinary becomes the extraordinary. He invites us into a miniature world, leading us, page by page, from the everyday world to the realm of miracles. Following the convention of the day, he begins with illustrations for each month. But, to illustrate January, he not only shows older folk huddling by the fire but children pelting each other with snowballs. A human touch persists even in sacred stories: Joseph looks anxiously toward the Virgin Mary and the newborn Jesus as he leads them away from Bethlehem to safety in Egypt.
Bening makes it easy to believe in miracles. In turning his mature talent to the creation of this tiny work of art, he quietly and assuredly affirms his place as an unrivaled master of his trade.
Barbara Drake Boehm
Paul and Jill Ruddock Senior Curator for The Met Cloisters
Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters