Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Angels And Demons Reunited At Morgan Library

Hours of Catherine of Cleves, in Latin
Illuminated by the Master of Catherine of Cleves
The Netherlands, Utrecht, ca. 1440
(Images courtesy of Faksimile Verlag Luzern.)

The first page of Catherine's prayer book foreshadows her troubled marriage. Her coat of arms as the Duchess of Guelder is centered beneath the Virgin Mary. Traditionally, her husband's crest would be illustrated atop her coat of arms. But Catherine defiantly places an Ox-- the symbol of The House of Cleves--above the emblem. Catherine is pictured praying from her Book of Hours at lower left. Her ancestors' coats of arms decorate the corners of the pages.

It's every book lovers nightmare. In the 1850's, an unscrupulous book dealer, Jacques Techener, gets his hands on the most precious illuminated manuscript ever created in the Netherlands. A masterpiece among prayer books, labored over for countless hours 400 years before, is now in the possession of a greedy Frenchman without a conscience. He cold-bloodedly rips apart the volume's calfskin binding, shuffles the 738 pages, and puts 11 of the most beautiful leaves aside. (These are still lost to this day.) The rest he arbitrarily divides into two piles and sloppily rebinds. Then, most probably, he twirls his moustache like a melodrama villain, and pops out the celebratory champagne. Now he's got two manuscripts to sell instead of one. And sell them he did, one to the Belgian Duke of Arenberg, and the other to Adolphe de Rothschild. Apparently neither buyer noticed that Techener's vandalism had turned the manuscript's prayers into out-of-sequence gibberish--both were convinced they had purchased one-of-a-kind masterworks.

At right, St. Cornelius holds a horn--cornus in Latin--a pun on his name. St. Cyprian, holds the sword of his martyrdom. The border's birdcages may allude to Cornelius as patron saint of pets.

Fast forward to 1957, when the Duke's copy of what passes for The Hours of Catherine of Cleves is sold to a New York book dealer, who in turn sells it to a private collector. Then in 1963, the Rothschild copy of what they claim is The Hours of Catherine of Cleves is puchased by the Morgan Library. Morgan curator John Plummer finally uncovers Techener's century-old ruse: examining the Morgan's manuscript and the volume on loan from the private collector, he concludes they are two halves of the same book. Finally in 1970, the Morgan purchases the copy in private hands. Now both halves of the masterpiece could be reunited. But the only way to restore the proper order of the pages was to cut apart Techener's amateurish rebindings--which by this time were causing actual damage to the pages--and painstakingly determine the correct sequence. This the Morgan Library has done, and the result is an exhibit of the unbound pages, Demons And Devotions: The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, first shown in a Dutch museum, and now on display at the Morgan's New York City home.

At left is a full-page miniature of the Creation of Eve. In a fecund Garden of Eden--with the apple tree at center atop a hill--God pulls Eve from the ribs of Adam. Eve's sinfulness will be cleansed through the purity of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ the Savior. These three are depicted at right.

The back-story of the book itself is matched by the intriguing story of its original owner. Catherine of Cleves (1417-1476) married Arnold, Duke of Egmond (1410-1473) in 1430. To say the marriage was unhappy would be a massive understatement. In a real-life version of The War of The Roses, the Duke grew so disenchanted with the Duchess that he disinherited her, along with their six children. (According to the royal rumor mill, the couple's only son, Adolf, had discovered his father was homosexual.) Catherine became determined to make her son the Duke of Egmond, and a six-year-long civil war erupted. Catherine and son Adolf imprisoned Arnold and forced his abdication in 1465. But Arnold's supporters freed him in 1471, and the tables were turned: the father imprisoned his son, and exiled his wife. In 1473 Arnold died, but still left his son languishing in prison. Arnold had illegally sold his Dukedom to his ally, Charles The Bold of Burgundy, thus ensuring Catherine and her children were left with nothing. Catherine herself died in exile in 1476 before she could see her son set free. Finally freed in 1477, Adolf died within the year.

St. Lawrence holds a gridiron, the instrument upon which he was fried to death. The border of eels and fishes is a sly reference to foods routinely prepared in the same manner.

The Mouth of Hell (manuscript detail)
The entrance to hell is depicted as a lion's mouth rimmed with claw-like teeth. Inside is a red hot furnace. Demons wheel the souls of the damned to this terrifying portal, and joyfully cast them into the realm of eternal torment. Above is the castle of death decorated with skulls. Its burning turrets are topped with heated cauldrons to boil unfortunate souls. Another hell mouth forms the domed roof.

Catherine of Cleves' legacy--her magnificent Book of Hours, daily prayers to the Virgin Mary --was created by an artist whose name is lost to the ages. He is known only as "The Master of Catherine of Cleves." Whoever he was, this writer-illustrator was far ahead of his time. He created 168 incredibly detailed miniatures--93 of which are on view at the Morgan--and a facing page of text for each. The miniatures are enhanced by elaborate borders which amount to still-lifes in their own right. No two are alike, and many contain visual references to the scenes depicted in the main illustrations. The borders' contents thus becomes an inside joke for savvy viewers. The Morgan has mounted a wonderful online exhibit which includes a digital facsimile of every page on display, with the ability to zoom in on the amazing details. What's more, many of the pages have annotations explaining their symbolism and significance. While not a substitute for seeing the actual pages, it certainly is the next best thing.

At left is St. Ambrose, famous for sermons that reconciled the most bitter enemies. The border depicts two natural enemies— the mussel and the crab—living in harmony. At right, St. Augustine holds a heart pierced by two arrows, a symbol of remorse for a dissipated youth. The border is formed of larger pierced hearts suspended on chains and held by angels and demons.

Demons And Devotions: The Hours of Catherine of Cleves opened on January 22, 2010 and continues through May 2 at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. Also on display is a new, leather bound facsimile of the manuscript which is available for purchase from German publisher Faksimile Verlag for a cool $15,000. A more reasonably priced softcover catalog is available from the Morgan for $85. A concurrent exhibit of 18 Flemish Books Of Hours will also be on view in the Morgan's Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery. These 18 volumes are intact, having thankfully been spared the avaricious desecration that befell Catherine of Cleves splendid volume. After May 2, 2010, the Morgan's conservators will determine how best to reassemble and rebind into one volume the shamefully separated halves of The Hours of Catherine of Cleves.

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