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.”
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.