A Rare Medieval Self-portrait

Hours of the Virgin and Middle English Devotional Texts (Newcastle upon Tyne, between 1420 and 1434)   MS 94

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 94, fol. 16v. Detail showing John Lacy in his anchorite’s cell

Together with Psalms, hymns, lessons, and other liturgical content, Books of Hours contain prayers linked to the canonical hours, i.e. the hours at which pious Christians were meant to pray. They were made for lay people, especially women, and are usually highly illuminated. Together with other devotional books, they were the ‘bestsellers’ of the late Middle Ages: ‘from the fourteenth to the mid-sixteenth century, more books of hours were made than any other type of book’ (Stein).

St John’s College holds several late medieval Books of Hours. Perhaps not the most beautiful but certainly the most interesting is MS 94. This manuscript was copied and illuminated over the span of 14 years between 1420 and 1434 by John Lacy, a Dominican recluse of Newcastle upon Tyne (Northumbria). Lacy made the book as a gift to the chaplain of St Nicholas’s Church in Newcastle so that he and his successors would pray for Lacy’s soul (‘John Lacy’, p. 397). We even have a ‘self-portrait’ of John Lacy in the illustration on folio 16v, in which he shows himself inside his anchorite’s cell. According to Hanna, this is one of only two known English medieval portraits of manuscript illuminators (the other one, London, British Library, MS Harley 7026, shows John Siferwas (fl. 1380-1421) on folio 56v)

Of the manuscript’s original 42 miniatures, five have been cut out. Most of the remaining 37 illuminations appear in the first section of the volume (fols 1v-9v), which contains the suffrages of saints, i.e. prayers addressed to saints. The illustrations show the saints with their attributes, which are motifs associated with their lives or deaths used to identify them. Standing out are Saints Cosmas and Damian, Arab physicians, possibly identical twins, who suffered martyrdom under Diocletian’s persecutions in Syria around 287 or 303. Their attributes are poor people and dogs. Lacy’s miniature is one of only two English examples, the other being in London, British Library, MS Egerton 2572.


“John Lacy: A Dominican Contemplative”, Life of the Spirit (1946-1964) 5:57 (1951), 397-400, at https://www.jstor.org/stable/43706596 [accessed 29/08/2023]

Hanna, Ralph, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Western Medieval Manuscripts of St. John’s College, Oxford (Oxford, 2002); for MS 94 see also https://medieval.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/catalog/manuscript_12094 [accessed 29/08/2023] Stein, Wendy, “The Book of Hours: A Medieval Bestseller”, The Met: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Essays, 2017, at https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hour/hd_hour.htm [accessed 29/08/2023]

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