225 Madison Ave,
New York, NY 1001
The Morgan is a really beautiful building that likes to put together a lot of esoteric shows of small, precious, old worldy art. This makes it an ideal venue for a show like this. If you're like me (and lord knows you should be) you're not really sure what a "book of hours" is. Well, it turns out it's an illustrated personal prayer book that one carries around with them and recites from periodically throughout the day. These were very popular during the late middle ages, and the renascence. I don't see a lot of them around today though. I think they've been replaced by the I-phone. Anyway, this extremely ambitious book of hours was commissioned by Catherine of Cleves in the mid 15th century, and is considered to be the greatest Dutch illuminated manuscript in the world. It contains 157 complex and detailed miniatures, most of which are in the show. The creator of this manuscript is simply known as "Master of Catherine of Cleves" (they didn't always use their names back then), and all we know about him is that he was active between 1435 and 1460.
On the first page we see an image of Catherine praying before the virgin and child. What follow are a series of richly colored, jewel like pages that contain beautifully painted, but frequently horrifically violent imagery. These images and the Latin text are surrounded by wildly ornate borders that sometimes take up more than 50% of the page. The borders are one thing that distinguish the "Master of Catherine of Cleves" from other manuscript illuminators, because he incorporates such a eclectic array of images, both figurative and non-figurative, that no two are the same. His pallet is varied, but has a definite proclivity for gold leaf, and cobalt blue. In terms of imagery he uses the trademark fruit, animals, and foliage, but also incorporates demons, bugs, and human figures. These figures and forms create multiple, and competing narratives which I think are usually more interesting than the biblical scenes they surround. These images are so intricate and detailed that it's a wonder he didn't go blind painting them. Then again maybe he did, and that's what caused him to stop working.
The show is divided up into sections labeled "hours of the dead", "hours of the passion", "hours of the saints", "suffrages", etc. If these terms mean something to you that's great. If not I don't think that should lessen your appreciation of the show. I don't think it lessened mine. There was actually quite a bit of wall text explaining the religious narratives, and the symbolism behind the imagery. I didn't read much of it though, because I don't really care about it all that much. If that kind of stuff does interest you there's plenty of it to study. But, I think the work operates so well on a formal level that the abstract relationship between the forms, the contrasts between figure and ground,and between decoration and expression are infinitely more interesting. Those, not the religious content, are the truly timeless themes. Aren't they?
There's a small concurrent show in the east gallery of the museum called "Flemish Illuminations in the Era of Catherine of Cleves" (say that ten times fast), that exhibits other books of hours that were being produced in Flanders, and the southern Netherlands around the same time. These are some beautiful little books, that while not on the same level as the work in the larger gallery by the "Master", are real gems in their own right. And, when I say little I mean it. Some of these books are under 2" in either direction. Plus, they're in Latin! Did anyone actually read them?