A Note on the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves

 

Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves

 

Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves
New York, Pierpont Morgan Gallery. M. 945 and M. 917
Northern Netherlands (Utrecht), c. 1440
Scribe: One hand for text and rubric (anonymous)
Painter: One hand, the Master of Catherine of Cleves
Pergament. The individual page measures 192 x 130 mm

 

 

The Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves has been described in the following way : "The best-known and one of the most important, not only of Dutch, but of all medieval manuscripts is the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, which was made about 1440 for the Duchess of Guelders of the same name. Because it is one of the richest books of hours ever made, both from the point of view of its texts and cycles of illumination, many of which are not only unusual but unique, it is also a key monument in the history of Books of Hours." [1]

The Hours was divided into two parts in the middle of the 1800s by an unknown person, most often thought to be an unscrupulous art dealer seeking to make a profit. The second part of the book (M. 917) surfaced again in 1963, and was acquired in 1970 by the Pierpont Morgan Gallery. The book as a whole numbers 369 pages, although eleven pages still remain missing. The Hours contains 157 miniatures (originally 168) with corresponding border decorations, of which 32 were full-page and another 136 half-page miniatures. [2] The finest quality pergament was used in the book's production, in which a feather brush was first used to draw the miniature onto the page before it was painted.

Given the above facts it is not at all surprising that the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves has drawn the discerning attention of many art historians; the book has nonetheless in one regard rebuffed the critical and inquisitive eyes of its admirers. The many commentaries on the Hours of Catherine of Cleves show that there is some considerable strain in attempting to locate a symbolic or iconographic significance motivating border decoration and miniature. Noting their incongruity, one must nevertheless admit that a relationship is effected between border and miniature by the mere fact that they cohabit the same page. This effect seems to be of a fantastic nature—that is, it is produced by the juxtaposition of seemingly irreconcilable elements. Without knowing whether to read the border decorations as symbol or as ornament one will never be sure whether one's viewing of the page is motivated or arbitrary, a product of text or fantasy. Beyond an effect of fascination, one might attempt to elucidate the particular play between a miniature and its border on a singular page, that of the "Adoration of the Magi" (folio 320 r).

 

folio 320 r

Adoration of the Magi, folio 320 (recto)

 

The patron and her use of the book in prayer is implicitly mentioned in the border decoration of this page, where a rosary is depicted. Rather than portray the patron as partaking in the biblical scene—a common device that operates by conflating contemporary life with that of "history"— an object from the patron's life is depicted on the margin of the page. The rosary is depicted in near actual size, and serves to introduce a link between the everyday life of the patron and the historical scene through a conjunction of contemporary present and historical past. The second magi points up to the star in the miniature, as well as up to the star in the rosary of the border decoration, thereby pointing beyond the bordered space of the miniature, breaking its space, and pointing out a seemingly natural relationship between the patron's life and the miniature. This link, the page seems to say, is to be produced through prayer, a use of the rosary in a devotional act which recovers the lost past into the increasingly secularized present. As Millard Meiss has pointed out concerning this manuscript: "One almost has the impression of seeing the borders through a magnifying glass while looking at the miniatures with binoculars. Such a juxtaposition introduces an astonishing element of fantasy into the new realism." [3] What motivates the link between the everyday and the biblical scene on this particular page is the act of prayer, which works across the historical divide that separates the margin from the biblical scene.

If this is so, then there is a possible intertextual reference to the first folio of this manuscript, where the border of the page is the place reserved for depicting the patron's world, and which portrays there her use of the book as an aid in devotional prayer. Similarly, the other border decorations of the book that seem at first to be unmotivated can be seen to express the same relation of a sense of immediacy in everday life (an effect particularly produced in the life-size depiction of its heterogeneous objects: mussels, pretzels, biscuits, butterflys, coins, flowers, fishnets, fruits, vegetables) with a "historical" past that seems to recede in time and space, the effect of the trompe l'oeil being that the miniature seems that much smaller and more precious. The fascination we have in viewing the page is that it seems to work to overcome this temporal or chronological distance even as it produces it in the unique disparity between miniature and border.

 

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The viewer's eye cycles between the border and the miniature, the present and the past. The spatial organization of the page thus represents an "art" of memory. In this way the art historian's task can be seen to be projected onto the illuminated page before his or her own eyes. Faced with an allegory of his own practices, the art historian can only be "astonished," as Millard Meiss writes. For it is as if the page, in arranging the past and the present, were illuminating the discipline of historiography itself.

If, as Tom Conley has remarked, the practice of writing history can be described as an ongoing labor "perpetually dividing and suturing the past and present," [4] it seems that a similar agenda may have guided the composition of border decorations and miniatures in the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves. In its very design, the Hours can be seen to mobilize a set of intertwined religious and artistic practices to inform, order, and measure out the hours, the time, of everyday experience. This experience, then, would be informed by a book that is very attentive to the manner in which a sense of historical time is ritually fabricated. But it is perhaps the case that books of hours testify in general, by their form, to what Louis Marin observed at work in Nicolas Poussin's painting "The Arcadian Shepherds" (c.1655): namely, that the task of "the historiographical exercise is to stage the past as an object of serene contemplation." [5] What is staged in painting would, in the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, be illuminated.

 

 

Notes
[1] William Voelkle, Illuminated Manuscripts : Treasures of the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York : Pierpont Morgan Library 1998; see also Voelkle, The Bernard H. Breslauer Collection of Manuscript Illuminations, New York : Pierpont Morgan Library 1994
[2] See Friedrich Gorissen, Das Stundenbuch der Katharina von Kleve. Analyse und Kommentar, Berlin 1973; see also James Marrow et al., Die Goldene Zeit der Holländischen Buchmalerei, Stuttgart nd
[3] In John Plummer, ed., The Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, New York 1964
[4] In Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. and introduction Tom Conley, New York : Columbia UP 1988
[5] Louis Marin, To Destroy Painting, trans. Mette Hjort, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1995: 87