Monday, February 22, 2010

Wondrous Strange: The Hours of Catherine of Cleves at the Morgan Library

Horatio:  O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

Hamlet:  And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

--Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene V

When contemplating the flaying of St. Bartholomew, one can be forgiven if pretzels don’t come immediately to mind.  Yet in the Morgan Library’s spectacular exhibit, “Demons and Devotion: The Hours of Catherine of Cleves,” the artist’s depiction of St. Bartholomew sports a border of interlinked pretzels with a line of crackers down one side.  We’ll never know why:  what the artist intended is lost to time.

The artist’s identity is also lost; we know him only as the Master of Catherine of Cleves.  We’re left to learn about him through his work, and the Morgan’s exhibit provides us with a unique opportunity.  A display of an illuminated manuscript ordinarily consists of two facing pages in an opened book, but in this exhibit 93 of the 157 miniatures in the manuscript are on display at the same time.

Illuminated manuscripts, like the Book of Hours on display at the Morgan, take their name from the frequent use of gold leaf on their pages.
Books of Hours were among the most popular devotional books of the late Middle Ages.  The contents of this type of book were based upon the Breviary, which was used in monasteries for the Divine Office.  Clerics and religious read the texts of the Divine Office at fixed times, which were called canonical hours (horae):  matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers and compline.   (From the Hand of the Master:  The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, p. 9)
The extent of decoration depended on the money spent, and Catherine of Cleves spent lavishly on hers.  As Roberta Smith reported in the New York Times, “The Cleves Master was up to the task.”  The result, according to the Morgan’s calendar of events, “is the most important and lavish of all Dutch manuscripts as well as one of the most beautiful among the Morgan’s collection.”  Smith rightly counsels repeated visits, “or at least several circumnavigations of the gallery.”

A single visit could be spent on borders, and the Suffrages—prayers to individual saints—include some of the most spectacular in the exhibit.  A wall plaque explains the reason for the Suffrages:  “As protectors of medieval people, saints were their doctor in plague, their midwife at childbirth, their guardian when traveling, and their nurse during toothache.”

Medieval people needed their saints.  In A World Lit Only by Fire, William Manchester paints a brutal picture of those times:
 . . . if value judgments are made, it is undeniable that most of what is known about the period is unlovely.  After the extant fragments have been fitted together, the portrait which emerges is a mélange of incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable mindlessness.
He goes on to say, “The level of everyday violence—deaths in alehouse brawls, during bouts with staves, or even playing football or wrestling—was shocking.”

I didn’t grow up with Lives of the Saints, nor do I have much acquaintance with the medieval mind, but I found myself coming back to the Suffrages again and again.  What kept me there were the borders—exquisite, inventive, and “wondrous strange”:  those pretzels adorning the image of St. Bartholomew; bird cages surrounding the image of Saints Cornelius (died in exile) and Cyrianus (decapitated); bows and arrows arrayed around Saints Fabian (also decapitated) and Sebastian (bound to a stake and shot at by archers “till he was as full of arrows as an urchin is full of pricks,” Jacobo di Voragine’s The Golden Legend, Vol. 2, p. 104); precise renderings of butterflies surrounding St. Vincent (flesh torn with hooks); and the fish and eel border around the image of St. Lawrence (holding the gridiron on which he was roasted to death).

Unlike the miniature of St. Bartholomew, about which the choice of border isn’t known, an exhibit wall plaque offers a connection between St. Lawrence and the fish and eels:  “The artist made a playful parallel between Lawrence’s method of martyrdom and the way fish are cooked.”  “Playful” is not the word that, in this context, I would choose, yet Lives of the Saints suggests it might be apt:  “Roasted over a slow fire, he made sport of his pains. ‘I am done enough,’ he said, ‘eat, if you will.’"

After its completion in 1440 or thereabouts, the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves disappeared from public view for four centuries.  When it resurfaced, a Parisian book dealer split it up and sold it (unbeknownst to its buyers) in two parts.  The Morgan eventually found and purchased each of the volumes (though, in the course of splitting and selling it, eleven of the miniatures disappeared and have not been found).

The lucky side-effect for us as viewers is the Morgan’s decision to disbind the two volumes and display them, with the ultimate goal of restoring them into a single manuscript.  The chance to see so many magnificent illustrations from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves at one time will likely never come again.

Demons and Devotion: The Hours of Catherine of Cleves” is on display at the Morgan Library through May 2, 2010.  For those who cannot get to the Morgan, there is a digital facsimile online.


  1. Thank you for this lovely post. The beautiful decorative miniatures are both fascinating to look at as well as a historical record of Medieval life. The details, rich colours and use of gold must have been exquisite to see.

    It has reminded me to look at a book I own, A medieval Miscellany by Judith Herrin. It too records all kinds of events in wonderful illustrations.
    I have visited The Morgan several times to see more of these pages. A great site with the tools to magnify and see it all in wonderful close up.

  2. Interesting post.Coincidentally, last week I too was looking at Medieval work,though at the V&A, with awe at the great skill and craftsmanship that then existed.How widespread it seemed.I wondered how was it possible to create such exquiste work, costly in time and money when most were living such basic, harsh lives. Theme of light and dark, good and evil scary scenes and writhing figures and pain repeated.Even now, when night falls,it can make a familiar scene feel very scary,that which we can't see leaves too much open to the imagination. In days with so little artificial light, how frightening the dark may thus have been. Now too, we seek through acquiring knowledge and understanding of our world to somehow tame it, reduce the fear of the unknown and uncontrollable. And, no doubt,then, as now, those who wish weild power over others,played on people's fears to do so. I wondered at so many grim, angry frightening images - gargoyles projecting from church parapets and delicately drawn scenes of suffering. All must have served some purpose. As to Pretzels, I was initially taken aback to see them illustrated as you show but thinking again,presumably they too have a long history?!

  3. What a strange and beautiful exhibit - thanks for bringing it to us!

    “Roasted over a slow fire, he made sport of his pains. ‘I am done enough,’ he said, ‘eat, if you will.’"

    The mind boggles - coupled with Manchester's portrayal of that period, I feel blessed to live in relatively civilized times! And to think that the creators of these lovely works of art labored in the midst of such craziness. Amazing.

  4. A fascinating post on a most esoteric subject. In reading of Saints Cyrianus and Fabian (both decapitated) and the violent death of St. Sebastion, I was taken aback by how little progress the human race seems to have made since then.

    A mere 30 minutes south of here and across the U.S./Mexico border, hundreds of humans have met as violent ends as the Saints. But, rather than the exquisite illuminations displayed at the Morgan, walls, fences and other flat surfaces are covered in crude graffiti marking the hours of the victims of the drug cartels.

    There is a long way yet to go.

  5. It is indeed frustrating that those of us who don't own priceless illuminated manuscripts are usually left wanting more than a spread, so in this case disbinding was not a disservice. I will have to head to this exhibit. But the diabolical methods of violence humans are able to imagine & carry out are mind boggling (& cybersr above makes a very good point about present times).

    But those crackers & pretzels--what was going on?!? Actually, I fear that if the fish "playfully" represented the martyrdom, the innocent-seeming snack foods could have been portents of some other "hilarious" torture.

  6. Such interesting comments everyone has made--thank you so much for writing! The Medieval Miscellany looks like a wonderful book, Milly--thank you for alerting us to it. Re the pretzels, hamsterfree, I was surprised as well to find they have such a long history--and I think kookaburra is definitely on to something in her speculation about what underlay the choice of "snack." I felt as you, Carol-Ann, that it's hard to imagine this beautiful work and such horror traveling hand in hand, but then, as cybersr reminds us, though we may have light well beyond fire, we have a long way yet to go.

  7. What an interesting exhibit you bring us. Yet another thing that I probably would not have sought out, but thanks to your post I have been "illuminated" (forgive me!) on this subject.

    As to the pretzels, I vaguely recall learning that the pretzel shape was created by monks or priests ages ago, to replicate the shape of arms/hands folded in prayer. I wonder if that has anything to do with St. Bart's pretzels?

  8. WOS, thanks for the lead! I went back to wikipedia and found this (the whole article is interesting, if you have time on your hands): "There are numerous accounts on the origin of the looped pretzels as well as the origin of the name. Most of them agree that they have religious and/or Christian backgrounds and were invented by monks. According to The History of Science and Technology, by Bryan Bunch and Alexander Hellemans, in 610 A.D. " Italian monk invents pretzels as a reward to children who learn their prayers. He calls the strips of baked dough, folded to resemble arms crossing the chest, 'pretiola' ("little rewards")". However, no source is cited to back up these details." So, mystery not quite solved, but a clue, at least.

  9. I always knew the flotsam and jetsam of trivia floating around in my brain would come in handy at times. I can remember various factoids I read in my youth, but alas, cannot always remember what to pick up at the grocery store, or whether I have fed the dog today.

    I'm off for a snack, you have me craving a pretzel!


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