Programming Prayer: The Woven Book of Hours (1886–87)

Touchstone in the history of computing, monument of city pride, pastiche of Gothic and Renaissance revivalisms with a dash of Art Nouveau — the Livre de Prières: Tissé d’après les enluminures des manuscrits du XIVe au XVIe siècle, produced in Lyon in the 1880s, is an object of many valences, a nodal point connecting several seemingly disparate legacies. As the title indicates, the book’s leaves are neither handwritten nor printed, but woven (tissé), then mounted onto heavy paper backings and bound. A product of combined manual, mechanical, and computational labor, the leaves were produced on Lyon’s famed Jacquard looms, their text and imagery encoded in hundreds of thousands of punch cards that directed the weaving of black and silvery gray silk threads.

The book was conceived to be a technical marvel, but its contents looked back to Gothic books of hours made between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, precious tomes that contained calendars of Christian holidays and prayers to be recited at prescribed hours of the day. Mostly produced before the era of print, these books were sumptuous objects, typically hand inscribed on vellum with fine illustrations that were sometimes enhanced with gold leaf. With its own shimmering silk threads and extravagant concentration of labor, the woven prayer book is an object deliberately appended to the lineage of the luxury book while also offering a vision for its future, as a product of modern industry.

Matthew J. Westerby provides an accounting of the circumstances and personalities that fostered the manufacture of a traditional type of religious book with cutting-edge weaving technology. Lyon had been a center of silk production and weaving since the seventeenth century and it was the birthplace of Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752–1834), inventor of the programmable Jacquard loom. Three locals were primarily responsible for producing the woven prayer book: Father Jean Hervier, Joseph-Alphonse Henry, and Antoine Roux. Hervier was a local priest with some facility in drawing and illustration; he supplied the drawn designs for the book. Henry owned a weaving business that specialized in fine liturgical vestments. Roux served as the project’s editor. The book was produced in part to celebrate the Lyon jubilee of 1886; a dedication by Cardinal Louis-Marie Caverot, the city’s archbishop, is woven into an early leaf of the book in acknowledgement of the event. It seems Lyon embraced the book as a tangible symbol of its artistic and industrial prominence; it later represented the city in the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris and the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Scroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

The prayer book is also noteworthy for the eclecticism of its visual sources, drawn from Gothic manuscripts and Renaissance prototypes. In the late nineteenth century, vibrant reproductions of medieval illuminated manuscripts became available via deluxe facsimile editions illustrated with color lithographs. Lilian M. C. Randall has traced some of the prayer book’s figures and ornaments to specific nineteenth-century facsimiles, but also notes that certain decorative motifs recall those in Gothic prayer books in a more general way: the woven book’s margins are replete with lilies, strawberries, roses, and other fragrant plants common in books of hours, especially sections devoted to the Virgin Mary. References to famous Italian artworks also appear in it, including an image of Christ between the Virgin and John the Baptist based on Raphael’s Disputation of the Sacrament in the Vatican Palace. Raphael’s composition was likely known to the prayer book’s makers indirectly, through printed illustrations. Although the Lyon book is based on historical models, Randall rightly points out that its imagery does not directly copy medieval prototypes, but rather is mediated through nineteenth-century aesthetics, and that some leaves in particular “strike a distinctly Art Nouveau note”.

According to Randall and Westerby, the woven prayer book was issued in a single edition of approximately fifty to sixty copies. The experiment of weaving book leaves seems to have ended with it. It is an arcane thing, yes — but in 2024 it holds particular importance as a thoroughly optimistic object, both humanistically and technologically. It was the product of years of dedicated problem-solving and application of human ingenuity toward the fabrication of something tangibly beautiful, hopeful, and a little fanciful. It was a sample of propitious human capability.

RightsUnderlying Work RightsPD Worldwide
Digital Copy Rights

No Additional Rights