Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, MS M. 917 and MS M. 945
Hours of Catherine of Cleves
The Master of Catherine of Cleves
The work’s high quality and enormous iconographic variety lead us to assume that the Master of Catherine of Cleves must have been familiar with the art of the van Eyck brothers and with French illumination of his own day. On the other hand, he developed his own unmistakeable style which was to influence illuminators after him, not only in the Netherlands. Neither Willem Vrelant nor the Master of Mary of Burgundy are conceivable without this greatest of all Dutch book painters.
A book like a picture gallery
157 half- and full-page miniatures with opulent frames make the Hours of Catherine of Cleves the largest coherent picture gallery of Dutch art from the 15th century. Many of these pictures are not only extraordinary in terms of form and content but also unique in the truest meaning of the word: nowhere else in late medieval art do we find parallels or correspondences to this work. Some of the impressive depictions, such as Purgatory and Hell, anticipate themes from the works of Hieronymus Bosch. And we even discover elements that hint at Dutch genre painting of later centuries.
Hours of Catherine of Cleves
Images of everyday life in the 15th century
The richly detailed and elaborately executed small paintings lead us into the world of the period around 1430. In colours that still glow today we discover the real life and family environment of the people of this time. To achieve his goal, the master used biblical events and scenes from the lives of saints.
However, the pictures were not the only means by which the Master of Catherine of Cleves wished to depict a courtly, bourgeois, and rural environment. He also placed particular emphasis on the space around the miniatures. The margins of the pages are decorated with coins, mussels and crabs, fighting cockerels, fish, butterflies, flowers, and insects of all kinds. Birds’ cages and fish traps additionally form elaborate frames where we also find images of hunting and fishing, a farmer’s wife milking, or an entire bakery. The list could be continued infinitely. It must have been a real pleasure for the duchess to discover ever new scenes during her times of prayer. In fact the margins are like an additional book within the book, lending this book of hours a particular cheerfulness, for instance on the page where St. Bartholomew is framed with fresh pastries and crispy pretzels.
A wedding gift of a particular kind?
Although we do not know who ordered this lavish book of hours, it may be assumed with quite some certainty that it was written, painted, and illuminated for Catherine of Cleves on the occasion of her marriage with Arnold of Egmont, Duke of Guelders.
Catherine came from a family whose name was uttered in the same breath as the great princely dynasties of Europe. Her mother was Mary of Burgundy, daughter of John the Fearless and wife of Arnold of Cleves. Catherine was an extremely self-confident woman who – supported by Philip the Good – took over power in Guelders for quite some time in order to put an end to her husband’s mismanagement.
The facsimile edition now brings together what belongs together
Very little is known about the provenance of the book. The illuminated manuscript was mentioned for the first time in modern times only after 1850, at a point in time when it must have just been divided into two equal-sized volumes, thus bringing the antique book dealer a multiple of what he would have earned by selling it as a single volume. The book of hours was divided so artfully that a layman could gain the impression of really seeing two of the finest prayer books from the “golden age of Dutch book illumination”.
The Pierpont Morgan Library in New York managed to purchase both portions in 1963 and 1970. Upon completion of all work for the fine art reproduction of this unusual book by Faksimile Verlag, the Hours of Catherine of Cleves will be bound in the same order as presented to Catherine of Cleves nearly 600 years ago. Thus the facsimile edition is able to deliver one of the most famous books of the late medieval period in the form in which it was originally created.
The academic commentary
The academic commentary on “the most famous and one of the most significant medieval manuscripts” of today (William M. Voelkle) has been authored by a team of scholars from the USA, Germany, and the Netherlands, and explains all aspects of this incomparable masterpiece also for a lay readership.