On Christmas Eve 1430, Anne of Burgundy, the wife of John, Duke of Bedford, presented this Book of Hours to her nine-year-old nephew Henry VI, who was staying with them at Rouen before his coronation in France. The cycle of full-page miniatures with Genesis scenes in a Book of Hours is unusual and was added in preparation of the gift to the young king.
Noah’s vessel, which resembles a large multi-storey wooden house, appears in the background within the receding waters and stands in stark contrast to the tiny emerging islands topped with minute cities. A multitude of dead bodies are floating around. The animals (most of them are not shown in pairs) emerge from the ark onto a large piece of land to the right.
While Noah appears in the background in prayer before a burning offering that is blessed by the hand of God, his wife remains inside the ark helping the animals to make their exit. The raven which Noah released to look for land and which flew back and forth appears on the small island in the waters towards the left, devouring a dead, bloodstained body. The dove which Noah released three times is shown with the olive branch with which it returned after it was released the second time; it did not return third time round when it found dry land.
Finally, the exit from the ark is combined with Noah’s drunkenness. In the foreground we can see the wine that Noah made and imbibed after the great flood. While one of Noah’s sons squashes the grapes in the tub with his feet, Ham reveals Noah’s disgrace and a third son covers the patriarch’s exposed underwear which alludes to his nakedness.
The explanatory caption in blue ink in the lower margin is written in French rather than in Latin and serves as an educational tool: Comment noel apres le deluge arriva a terre et mist hors le bestail et fist sacrifice et planta la vigne (‘How Noah, after the Flood, arrived on land and put the animals out and made a sacrifice and planted the vine’).
The ark’s gate, now pulled down, has changed from being a barrier to being a bridge—a bridge to an entire new world. The ark-dwellers move from darkness into light: a fitting theme for a Christmas gift.
König, Eberhard. 2007. The Bedford Hours: The Making of a Medieval Masterpiece, trans. by Christopher de Hamel (London: The British Library), esp. pp. 57–61 and 85–86
Spencer, Eleanor P. 1965. ‘The Master of the Duke of Bedford: The Bedford Hours’, Burlington Magazine 107: 495–502
8 But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; 2the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, 3and the waters receded from the earth continually. At the end of a hundred and fifty days the waters had abated; 4and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest upon the mountains of Arʹarat. 5And the waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen.
6 At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made, 7and sent forth a raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. 8Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; 9but the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put forth his hand and took her and brought her into the ark with him. 10He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; 11and the dove came back to him in the evening, and lo, in her mouth a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. 12Then he waited another seven days, and sent forth the dove; and she did not return to him any more.
13 In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and behold, the face of the ground was dry. 14In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. 15Then God said to Noah, 16“Go forth from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. 17Bring forth with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—that they may breed abundantly on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply upon the earth.” 18So Noah went forth, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him. 19And every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves upon the earth, went forth by families out of the ark.