Dutch Master

The Hours of Catherine of Cleves

Introduction and Commentaries by John Plummer
Braziller, 360 pp., $20.00

In history, particularly in the history of art, some discoveries can completely overthrow traditional views on the work of a master, on the appreciation of a school, even on the appraisal of an entire period. For instance, the date 1437 discovered a few years ago on the frame of Jan van Eyck’s Dresden triptych thoroughly upsets traditional interpretations of the aesthetic development of this painter and forces us to find new stylistic criteria which will satisfactorily explain his evolution. The recent acquisition of The Hours of Catherine of Cleves by the Morgan Library in New York, a manuscript unknown hitherto, presents us with a discovery of even greater importance.

With the facsimile edition of all the illuminated pages in this manuscript (including a section belonging to a private collector in New York), the Morgan Library has now made available to the general public, and not only to specialists, a Book of Hours which has exceptional qualities in itself and which reveals an aspect of medieval art previously known to few people. Perfect quality cannot of course be expected in a volume relatively low in price which contains more than 150 plates in color. Nonetheless, this edition is an impressive and highly useful one.

The extremely competent Introduction and the detailed description of the miniatures by Dr. Plummer are essential to understand the sometimes complex iconographic program of the Hours and to appreciate the aesthetic merits of its illustrations and decoration. Naturally Mr. Frederick B. Adams, Jr., Director of the Morgan Library, and Dr. Plummer, Curator of Manuscripts, had to be moderate in praising their recent acquisition. It remains for the reviewer to underline the unusual quality and importance in the history of art of this manuscript.

We can adopt Dr. Plummer’s conclusions that The Hours of Catherine of Cleves was painted around 1440, perhaps slightly later, and at least belonged to Catherine. The supposed place of execution, Utrecht or Guelders, is in my opinion more controversial, and so is the question of the number and importance of the great Master’s collaborators. But whatever may be the result of future research, The Hours of Catherine of Cleves is unequaled in the originality of its content, in the variety and ingenuity of its illustrations, and in the style and spirit of its miniatures and its decoration. It reveals, more than any other manuscript I know, the creative personality of the artist who painted it. This Book of Hours also gives new proportions to the importance of the Dutch contribution to manuscript illumination of the fifteenth century. Finally, by demonstrating convincingly the existence before 1450 of a Dutch style as we know this style from the seventeenth-century school of painting in Holland, it forces us to revise the usual interpretation of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century art in the Low Countries.

A BOOK OF HOURS containing not only the usual Hours of the Virgin and of the Cross, the Psalms of Penance, and the Office of the Dead, but additional Hours and a Mass…

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