1.25.2010

At the Morgan: The Master of Catherine of Cleves

A Review of Demons and Devotion: The Hours of Catherine of Cleves at The Morgan Library and Museum. January 22 through May 2, 2010

Bigger than an iPhone but smaller than whatever reading device Apple is expected to roll out this week, The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, a pre-digital 15th century hand painted illuminated manuscript of devotional miniatures, attracted the attention of many visitors to the Morgan Library and Museum this past Sunday afternoon. Created for a wealthy woman with some serious marital problems, the precious volume of richly colorful images is the work of the gifted anonymous craftsman known as the Master of Catherine of Cleves. 

The books of this common type of medieval manuscript vary in composition and style, but as the Morgan made the good move to also display several others for comparison, the viewer can appreciate hands-down their claim that the disassembled pages constitute "the greatest Dutch illuminated manuscript in the world." While we grow increasingly accustomed to the marvelous reading machines of our own era, nothing beats a beautiful medieval book of Hours. Catherine's book, curiously enough, is almost the exact same size (7 1/2 x 5 1/8 inches) as a Kindle, but in color of course. On some pages the artist even thoughtfully added text tags in the margins to help Catherine understand the scene. Even the most conscientious bloggers forget to do that!

These intimate pages require a visit in person and some concentrated focus. Bring a magnifying glass, if you think of it. Tiny images of everyday Dutch domestic scenes at the bottom of many pages illustrate or play on the themes of the main image above. The focal miniatures themselves are packed with visual narrative. Bakers shoving bread in an oven, hunters and dogs looking for game, the infant Jesus taking his first steps in a walker - many other such scenes prefigure the pronounced domestic leaning of Dutch paintings in the centuries to come. Some symbolic scenes that were probably meaningful in Utrecht in 1440 escape our contemporary understanding. Most charming are the detailed borders filled with all manner of animals or decorative objects such as fish swallowing other fish in a colorful round, birdcages of all sorts, stylized leaves, bean pods, and an ornamental bracelet of pearls. The text is in Latin.

The demons! Apparently, devilish imagery and frightening scenes of Hell are not common in intimate devotional books of prayer, because they'll scare the ladies. The Master of Catherine of Hours does not hold back in this codex, because one particularly scary scene of a fiery fanged swallowing mouth of Hell accompanied by an assortment of fiendish devils and naked souls being carted off into torment could result in a bad night's sleep. Graphic novels should be so scary! If Catherine considered herself a vain woman, and I suspect she may have had some feelings of entitlement, she could look forward to revisiting the lovely introductory page featuring her pretty self kneeling in prayer, gazing up at the golden portrait of Mother and Child.
 
The story of the book itself makes a fascinating tale. After Catherine allegedly gave the book to Ermengard of Lochhorst, the book disappeared for four centuries until it wound up at a Paris book dealer in the mid-19th century. The dealer took apart the book, divided the pages in the wrong order into two volumes, and sold them to two different people. Some pages were missing. The Morgan eventually acquired both copies and sorted out the right order. The exhibition displays many of the pages in their original order - the Hours of the Virgin, the Hours of the Cross, the Weekday Hours, and so forth.

Comparing printed books of paper to digital readers has become common, but the pages of the Hours of Catherine of Cleves - the stories, iconography, design elements, annotations, heavy graphic content, marginal illustration (think sidebars on web pages), even its intriguing anonymity, seem presciently akin to features associated with the hypertextual digital world. It's just that the Hours are much more engaging and adept at presenting information than any prosaic page found on the world wide web.

Demons and Devotion: The Hours of Catherine of Cleves at The Morgan Library and Museum continues through May 2, 2010. A series of lectures and special publications accompany the exhibition. The museum's website features a digital facsimile.

The Morgan Library & Museum is located at 225 Madison Avenue, at 36th Street, New York, NY 10016-3405.

Images: Gathering of Manna
Hours of Catherine of Cleves, in Latin
Netherlands, Utrecht, ca. 1440
Illuminated by the Master of Catherine of Cleves
Purchased on the Belle da Costa Greene Fund
with the assistance of the Fellows, 1970; MS
M.945, folio 137v

Holy Family at Work
Hours of Catherine of Cleves, in Latin
Netherlands, Utrecht, ca. 1440
Illuminated by the Master of Catherine of Cleves
Purchased on the Belle da Costa Greene Fund
with the assistance of the Fellows, 1963; MS
M.917, page 149

Images courtesy of Faksimile Verlag Luzern, www.faksimile.ch

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