A Book of Hours
colored pencil and watercolor
11” x 14" 2006

I am intrigued by the medieval Breviary or “Book of Hours”: a formula for daily prayers that corresponds to the needs of the time of day and time of year. The first manual for praying the Hours was written by St. Benedict in the 6th Century in order that his monks would sanctify their day’s activities with scheduled prayer and spiritual reflection.

The rhythmic cycle of the day divided into eight regular periods of prayer reflects the cycles and patterns of nature that I often explore in my drawings. In my own “Book of Hours” I chose birds, plants, and animals symbolically and visually appropriate to the theme of each hour.



According to the Acts of the Apostles, early Christians continued the Jewish custom of rising at midnight to pray (Psalm 119:62). At the time of St. Benedict the prayers of Matins marked the beginning of the monks’ day.

Because it was believed that the Second Coming of Christ would occur in the middle of the night, the theme of Matins is vigilance. Keeping watch is the owl who sees clearly in the dark when others cannot. He is assisted by the pearly-eye butterfly. In the symbolic language of flowers, the dame violet represents watchfulness. The Lamb of God for whom they wait is represented by the lamb’s ears plant.

Star magnolia flowers stand in for the stars of night. The white poppies indicate the monks’ probable desire to stay asleep, but are intertwined with coffee plants to help them stay awake.


(3:00 a.m.)

The prayers of Lauds celebrate the break of day and the resurrection of Christ, the Light of the World, who came to dispel spiritual darkness. St. Benedict introduced the Canticle of Zachary (Luke 1:68-79) as the concluding prayer of Lauds because it describes Christ coming like the rising sun.

The nightingale sings all night, but most exuberantly as dawn approaches. The Rhode Island Red rooster greets the first glimmer of the new day and all the hope it brings. The sunflower stands in for the approaching sun.

Milkweed, a symbol of hope, provides food for the monarch butterfly, a sign of rebirth and resurrection. The tulip poplar tree and the pomegranate also indicate resurrection.

The olive branches are a prayer for peace.


(6:00 a.m.)

Prime was instituted to make sure the monks didn’t just go back to bed after Lauds ended at dawn instead of going to their work or spiritual reading. A brief service, it consecrates the work of the day.

Attention and commitment to one’s tasks are represented by the busy chickadees and brown thrasher. Bees and ants are well known for their productive habits. The almond tree, because it flowers early in the year is a symbol of diligence. The grapevine represents the good work of Christians in the vineyard of the Lord. The oxalis and ox-eye daisy bring to mind the ox, that most industrious and patient beast of burden.

The Trinity, indicated by the triquetra window, was honored at Prime.


(9:00 a.m.)

The hour of Terce is associated with the Holy Spirit because it was at this time of day that the apostles received the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:15).

The dove is the most well-known symbol of the Holy Spirit, but at Pentecost, he descended as tongues of flame, represented here by the firespike plant.

The other plants in the Terce garden signify the seven gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit to help all live a life of Christian virtue (Isaiah 11:2). Wisdom is represented by the oak tree, understanding by the Chinese aster, knowledge by the fig, fortitude by the chamomile plant, counsel by the hyacinth, piety by the wild geranium, and fear of God by the quaking aspen tree.



At midday, Adam and Eve ate the apple, introducing sin into the world. Also at noon, Christ was nailed to the cross to save the world from its sins.

The swan is an emblem of Christ because its pure whiteness corresponds with ideal and perfect love. The medieval bestiaries describe the swan as an enemy of the serpent, in whose form Satan appeared to tempt humanity with the attractions of sin.

The apple reminds us that humanity succumbed to the temptation. The blackberry brambles represent the snares of sin.

The various parts of the passion flower vine are symbolic of Christ’s scourging, crowning with thorns, and crucifixion. The five petals of the penitential purple pansies remind us of the five wounds of Christ.


(3:00 p.m.)

As the sun begins to sink at the ninth hour of the day, so may man’s spirit sink and leave him open to temptation. The prayers of None encourage perseverance, represented by the swamp magnolia and the cardinal, who is the last bird to go to roost in the evening.

None is also a time of meditation on the end of life and the death of Christ on the cross at the ninth hour. The skull reminds us of the transitory nature of life, while the violet calls to mind mourning. The wheat symbolizes the body of Christ sacrificed on the cross.

The blackbirds represent the tension between death and eternal life, body and soul. Their black color suggests death and mourning, but their flight and melodious song celebrates eternal life.


(6:00 p.m.)

The most ancient and most solemn of all the hours, Vespers is a time of thanksgiving at sunset. The camellia flower symbolizes gratitude for the day. The solemnity of the hour was acknowledged with the lighting of candles and the burning of incense, represented here by the frankincense tree.

Vespers also recalls the Last Supper, when Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Passover feast. Part of the traditional meal would have been bitter herbs—chicory, sowthistle, eryngo, compass lettuce, and centaury—to recall the bitter enslavement of the Jews in Egypt.

The Blessed Virgin Mary is honored at Vespers with the recitation of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). She is represented by the gentle turtle doves and the fleur-de-lis.


(9:00 p.m.)

Compline is the close of the day, the completion of the hours. Night is represented by the moon and the luna moth.

It is a time of reflection and contrition for sins committed during the day. The hazelnut tree and the broom plant are symbols of repentance and remorse.

The hour of Compline is also a time of entrusting one’s self to the protection of God. The pelican as a symbol of divine protection originated from an ancient legend that in time of famine, the mother pelican would feed her young with her own blood.

St. Joseph the Protector, represented here by his lily, watched over and guarded Mary and the Christ Child.


©2008 Mary Lee Eggart
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