February 16, 2010

The Hours of Catherine of Cleves

The highlight of my art viewing while in the city was an exhibition at the Morgan Library: the remarkable illuminations from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves. This book is an exquisite small––7 1/2 x 5 1/8 inch––manuscript, made around 1440 by the Master of Catherine of Cleves; it consists of a series of prayers, with 157 miniatures included in its pages. You can see every one of these images online at the link above; the Morgan has been very generous in publishing each page online, with crisp and clear enlargements. The manuscript, which had been divided into two books, has been taken apart for rebinding in proper order in one volume, so we have the unique opportunity to see all the pages before they are again within the covers of a book.

It is a pure delight to see the miniatures (take a magnifying glass, or reading glasses); surrounding the central images of saints or stories are marvelously imaginative borders. The small images seem to distill and heighten our viewing experience, as we are drawn into their worlds. The dramatic pages above begin the manuscript; you can see Catherine in prayer on the left; the borders display, among other things, the coats of arms of her family. The depictions are refined and full of precise detail, while being fresh and lively at the same time. It is a magical combination.

The miniature of Saint Lawrence shows him holding a gridiron, the method of his martyrdom, surrounded by fishes and eels; this border is one of my very favorites in its almost wacky surprise, its combination of reality and pure invention. It is speculated that the artist chose fish because they are cooked on a griddle. Are we meant to be amused?

In another wonderful border, of mussel shells and a crab, the artist is pairing the saint with an illustration of his attributes: Saint Ambrose reconciled enemies; the crab and mussel are enemies, as crabs feed on mussels. The design of this page is striking, with another use of a subject we don't at all expect to see in a prayer book, or in any medieval art.

The deathbed scene above is full of mundane touches, of a doctor examining bodily fluid and a table full of the necessities of the sickroom. Below, we see the dying man's evil son rifling through his treasure chest. Alongside death is Purgatory, in the maw of a frightening animal. I imagine that the elegant flowery border indicates looking forward to souls being purged of their sins.

This last detail is of Saint Valentine, holding the sword of his martyrdom. He is surrounded by a lovely, graceful border of flowers and leaves, and at the bottom, the violence of nature, as two dragonflies attack a fly, another marvel of attentive descriptive imagery.

Illuminated manuscripts––European, Persian, and Indian––have long been some of my favorite art. A number of years ago, I even bought two pieces of parchment from a supplier, Talas in NYC, thinking I would try a small painting on it. Traditionally, pigment for manuscript painting is used with the white of an egg for binder, instead of the yolk as in egg tempera. As described in Daniel Thompson's The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, the egg white is beaten till frothy and then allowed to stand, at which point it becomes fluid and can be thinned with water. After seeing this beautiful and inspiring show, I am again thinking of pulling out those pieces of parchment.


  1. Altoon, Thank you so much for the link to the manuscript and for sharing this wonderful treasure.
    I was totally captivated while viewing it and will go back to it again for inspiration.
    I'm afraid I'm getting addicted to your blog!

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed seeing this amazing work, Donna, and that you like the blog.

  3. Very interesting and generous post. That mussel border is wild, especially the way the image is framed asymmetrically.
    Meant to tell you how captivated I was by the texture of the dyes on the wool in yr previous post..

  4. Thanks Julie. I agree that the mussels border is extraordinary, and it's surprising to see the open shells on one side, and closed on the other.

    As for the dyed wool, I continue to be thrilled by the results of hand dyeing wool, so different from the colors of paint, so much more a physical thing.

  5. I love the fond look that Saint Lawrence bestows on his gridiron!