Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

16 February 2016

Joanna the Mad & Jheronimus Bosch

2016 is the 500th anniversary of the death of the Dutch painter Jheronimus Bosch (c. 1450-1516). The Noordbrabants Museum in s’Hertogenbosch (the city in which he spent most of his life) is holding an exhibition to celebrate his life and work , which opened on Saturday. It has been called 'one of the most important exhibitions of our century'.

One of the library’s manuscripts, Additional 18852, is on display in the exhibition, as the first item in the show. It is the prayer-book of Joanna the Mad (1479-1555). Joanna was queen of Castile and the sister of Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII. She suffered from mental illness and after the death of her husband, Philip the Handsome, King of Castile (1478-1506), her father had her forcibly confined to a convent in order that he might take control of her kingdom. According to some sources, she brought the corpse of her husband to the convent and kept it by her side, refusing to allow it to be buried.

Prayer-books or ‘Books of Hours’, contain a sequence of prayers and psalms to be said by their owners at each of the liturgical hours of the day. They were often decorated. Another Book of Hours in the library’s collection - Additional 35313, the Rothschild Hours - is also associated with Joanna (you can see a post on this manuscript here). This book is thought to have been made for a member of her family, and possibly the queen herself. However, the British Library manuscript which is in the exhibition is more personal. It contains two images of Joanna:


Joanna of Castile flanked by St John the Baptist and her guardian angel, the Hours of Joanna the Mad, Add MS 18852, f. 26r


Joanna of Castile kneeling in prayer, the Hours of Joanna the Mad, Add MS 18852, f. 288r


The book therefore belongs to a particular category of high-status Books of Hours, which offered their owners a bespoke kind of devotion. Owners could utter prayers to particular saints and see themselves visually realised on the page next to them.

In the first image, Joanna is seen flanked by Saint John the Baptist (her namesake saint) and her guardian angel. The image accompanies the opening of the prayer to the Guardian Angel.  In the margin to the right of the image, we can see Joanna’s initials alongside those of her husband, joined by a love-knot. The manuscript, which was produced in Bruges at the end of the fifteenth century, is extensively illustrated. Its decorative programme is a window onto the artistic environment which influenced Bosch. The manuscript throws Bosch’s fantastical and satirical work into relief. Its devotional scenes illustrate how maverick the painter’s work was.

Joanna’s prayer book contains an image of St Jerome in the wilderness. The scene is a familiar one from medieval art. In it St Jerome – the translator of the Vulgate Bible -- kneels beneath a crucifix in a lush, green meadow. Beside him is his companion, a lion, whose wounded paw the saint had nursed. On the ground at St Jerome’s feet is a discarded cardinal’s hat and robe, symbols of his rejection of earthly accolade.


St Jerome in the Wilderness, the Hours of Joanna the Mad, Add MS 18852, f. 328v

When we compare it to Bosch’s image of St Jerome from the Hermit Saints Triptych, now housed in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, we can see the way Bosch reconfigured stock images into works of startling originality. Bosch’s vision is altogether darker, both literally and figuratively. The palette of bright colours has been replaced with a more muted range. In this image, the wilderness is a place of ruin, filled with unnerving creatures and broken masonry. There is no friendly lion here, instead in the foreground a lizard can be seen feasting on a stricken rat.  


St Jerome in the Wilderness, Hermit Saints Triptych, Jheronimus Bosch, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. 

To see this image in the context of its triptych and to read about the latest research into Bosch, visit the Bosch Research and Conservation Project

~ Mary Wellesley


Related Content: 

The Books of Remarkable Women

Discover some of the library's most intriguing books produced for, owned, or created by medieval women. 

Pizan shrink

The Mystery of the Hours of Joanna the Mad

Read about another beautiful prayer-book in the library's collection which is associated with Joanna of Castile. 

Joanna shrink



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