St. Nicholas Suffrages from the Book of Hours of Henry VIII
Suffrages, prayers to saints seeking favor or support (also called Memorials), are frequently the last component in a Book of Hours. Petitionary or intercessory in nature, they normally consist of four elements: the first three, an antiphon, versicle, and response, make up a string of praises; the fourth part is a longer prayer (oratio) specifically dealing with some aspect of the saint, along with a request for God’s aid through the saint’s intercession. Many of these elements are quotations or extractions drawn from the Church’s official liturgical texts found in the Breviary, which contained the rounds of offices recited by the clergy during the year, or in the Missal, which contained the Masses. The collect from the Mass and Office (Lauds) of St. Nicholas (6 December), for example, served as the Oratio for his Suffrage; a translation of the entire suffrage follows.
Antiphon. Nicholas, friend of God, when invested with the episcopal insignia, showed himself a friend to all.
Versicle. Pray for us, blessed Nicholas.
Response. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Oratio. O God, you adorned the pious blessed Bishop Nicholas with countless miracles; grant, we beseech you, that through his merits and prayers, we may be delivered from the flames of hell. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The justification and efficacy of such petitions to the saints had already been established by the fourth century and were unequivocally reaffirmed in the thirteenth century by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa theologica. In raising the question if one should pray to God alone, he referred to Job (5:l), where Eliphaz exhorted him to call upon some of the saints; to show that the saints in heaven could indeed pray for us Aquinas also quoted Jerome: “If the apostles and martyrs while yet in body can pray for others, how much more now that they have the crown of victory and triumph.” In asking if prayer to greater saints was more acceptable to God than to lesser saints, Aquinas said it was sometimes more profitable to pray to a lesser saint, since some saints were granted special patronage in certain areas, such as St. Anthony against the fires of hell. Moreover, he added, the effect of prayer depended on one’s devotion, and that could be greater for a lesser saint. Aquinas also alluded to another common custom of the Church to support his conclusions, the recitation of the Litany of saints (a practice dating back to the fourth century). It is the celestial hierarchy of saints in the Litany, moreover, that provides the basic ordering of the Suffrages in Books of Hours. Indeed, in the present manuscript, all of the Suffrages are illustrated, forming a kind of pictorial Litany (albeit a very selective one). After the Three Persons of the Trinity comes the Archangel Michael, followed by John the Baptist (our future intercessor at the Last Judgment). Next are the Apostles, male martyrs, confessors (male nonmartyr saints), female martyrs, and widows. The series concludes with All Saints. (It may be of interest to observe that the first five female saints precisely follow the order in which they appear in the manuscript’s Litany.) The idea of placing large miniatures of the saints above the Suffrages, with other scenes from the life of the saint in different colored grisailles in the lower borders, brings full circle the page layout of the Calendar and Gospel Lessons at the beginning of the manuscript. The number of Suffrages in Books of Hours can vary greatly, and each is not always illustrated; the series of twenty-four in the present manuscript is particularly rich and bespeaks of a fairly wealthy patron. The placement of Jerome at the beginning of the Suffrages is highly unusual. His position here may have been intended to link Jerome with Pope Gregory, the Church Father who was believed to have written the previous text (Seven Prayers of St. Gregory). In addition, Jerome’s Suffrage … emphasizes his role as a teacher rather than as a penitent.
From Book of Hours of Henry VIII, (fol. 182v), Fitzwilliam Museum. Text source unknown.