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 for each day of the week, as well as fifty-seven suffrages, is very rare indeed; but that such a book was planned with at least one miniature for each of the Hours of each day is, so far as I know, unique (the Hours of the Virgin alone includes sixteen miniatures, those of the Cross, fifteen). To imagine that the collaboration of a cleric was necessary for such a proliferation of the usual illustration of the Hours is not sufficient. Only a miniaturist with an exceptional imagination and an unusual knowledge of religious themes could have painted so many new scenes. Therefore it seems likely that this educated and religious layman was influenced by, or even a member of, the Devotio moderna, a movement which spread throughout many Dutch towns during the early fifteenth century, and which, while sincerely concerned with spiritual life, was diffident about excessive asceticism and exalted mysticism.
Not all, but many of the miniatures show stylistic characteristics which are entirely new in the history of medieval illumination and which are encountered in few early panel paintings. Among the manifestations of the new naturalism of the beginning of the fifteenth century are such miniatures as the Deathbed Scene, the Preparation of a Corpse, and the two depictions of the Holy Family “at home” in which the figures are interpreted in an extremely human manner, without embellishment or idealization, yet with a unity of vision, a naturalness, and an objectivity unique for its time. Jan van Eyck analyzed the exterior world “microscopically”—to use Panofsky’s expression—but as a result its representation became unrealistic or hyperrealistic and rigid. Moreover, Jan was selective and intellectual in his use of the exterior world, which is not represented for itself but is elevated to, and absorbed into, a doctrinal program; whereas the miniatures by the Master of Catherine of Cleves appear to depict authentic experiences of daily life. This unknown miniaturist was the first to give to some of his paintings a genuine atmosphere. The worlds that he and Jan van Eyck depict are profoundly different: his world, unlike Jan’s, is “lived in.” Their sensibilities are also different: While Jan’s mind controls his sensibility and organizes his vision, the Master of Catherine of Cleves remains receptive to reality, however various and irrational it is.
Even the religious spirit of many of these pictures is original. The progressive though slow humanization of religious sentiment, striking in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, seems here to have reached a new and essential phase. Sacred themes are understood simply and represented as scenes of everyday life. The artist authentically places a religious event in a setting or interior as it could have existed at his time—with even those details unnecessary to the depiction of the event itself (see, for instance, the furnishings and the behavior of Joseph in the miniature of the Holy Family “at supper”). The religious theme in the image is lowered to the human level. But, in spite of this vulgarization, perhaps because of it, the spiritual content can be better understood. This new interpretation of religious themes and ideas is precisely the fundamental characteristic of the followers of Devotio moderna, who voluntarily preferred the sincerity of everyday language, even of the vernacular, to the artificial formulations of university scholars. Therefore if our Master chooses to enrich with symbolism the content of his miniatures, his symbols are not intellectual tours de force rich in doctrinal meaning, but are drawn from everyday life or from popular devotional literature. The result is an astonishing unity between the pictorial representation and the spiritual content, and a simplicity that can be misunderstood or ignored, as it has been by too many art historians.
THE MARGINAL DECORATIONS of this manuscript are even more original than that of the miniatures themselves. Since they are not necessarily dependent upon the iconographic theme of the miniatures, the artist demonstrates in them much invention and fantasy, which were not equaled in later Flemish manuscripts. They can only be compared in part to the daring and variety of grotesques found in the borders of early Gothic manuscripts. Like the miniatures, the marginal decorations show the same consciousness and enjoyment of reality as it is, and they have an acuteness which can easily be missed. For example, in the right margin of a page our Master depicts five bird cages with the middle one at the level of our eyes with respect to the lines of horizon, while the superior ones are in consequence seen from underneath and the lower ones from the top. Such an achievement in giving perspective to unimportant details, at a time when the greatest Northern painters were still struggling with this problem, proves perhaps better than anything else the sensitivity to reality by the Master of Catherine of Cleves.
These stylistic and spiritual characteristics do not appear in equal degrees in all the miniatures. His landscapes, for instance, although interesting for the time, do not convey a real experience, and are weaker than his interiors. Some details, extremely well observed, seem to be his creations (such as the tiny fish jumping out of the water which Dr. Plummer has detected in the miniature of St. Christopher), but he does not master the unity of the whole. Nor, I believe are his facial types as varied and authentic as those of his predecessor, the Master of Zweder van Culemborg; yet the best of them have a human quality which puts to shame some of the great miniaturists who later worked for the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good. This unknown miniaturist is extremely varied and free in the way he handles compositions; sometimes he concentrates on a detail and rather neglects the rest, while at others he applies his exceptional talent to the whole picture. Probably for the same reason, quite a few miniatures are plain in contrast to their marginal decorations.
Medieval craftsmen or artists did not normally reveal their personality in their work as vividly as did the Master of Catherine of Cleves. He appears to have been extremely individualistic, irregular, and even temperamental, and this complicates the interpretation and chronology of his work. Dr. Plummer sees a “very marked development of his style” within the Hours; I am wondering if, on the contrary, we do not occasionally witness uncontrolled bursts of his creative personality. This suggests that the illumination was not done in regular and progressive sequence from the first folio to the last, and, indeed, some unfinished manuscripts do show that they were painted in such an irregular manner. On the other hand, instead of interpreting these spectacular differences as purely temperamental, we ought also to consider the possibility of a change in the planning of the book. The palette of this Master will also have to be studied with just these diverse hypotheses in mind, as we see him using either brilliant or subtle hues, and provoking or delicately balanced color schemes.
The artistic and human qualities of this artist are so spectacular that he may appear as a flashing meteor independent of any tradition; in fact he is the most sparkling star of a galaxy. We can find all his qualities, occasionally even improved, in other Dutch manuscripts; for instance, similar subtlety in rendering faces and emotions can be found in earlier books. Even the spontaneity and the unevenness of artistic expression is frequently found in Dutch religious books, where we see side by side the best and the worst, in both of which there is a shared human flavor in their themes and in the bor der decorations. The production of many of these Dutch miniaturists owes much to the new spiritual ideals of the Devotio moderna, and these ideals give to this school a homogeneity unique for its time. The production of this Dutch school cannot therefore be interpreted merely as popular and inferior art; before 1445, before the more courtly Flemish illumination had begun, it had already found its own artistic and spiritual expression.
What Dutch miniaturists had then achieved aesthetically is in no way different from what their successors, the better known painters, asserted in Holland during the seventeenth century. For although their vision of the world is richer, and their knowledge of the human soul is deeper, these later painters still show the same respect for, and enjoyment of, the world in which they live. For both periods we can use the word “intimism,” which can well describe the whole school. Moreover, the art of these seventeenth-century Dutch painters was probably as dependent upon the “Erasmean” protestantism of these regions as the fifteenth-century illuminators had been on the Devotio moderna; the humanization of religious sentiment had simply continued.
BY ASSERTING so early in the fifteenth century the existence of a Dutch tradition which finds its full development in the seventeenth, The Hours of Catherine of Cleves forces us to reconsider two main problems: Netherlands painting in its early period, and later in the sixteenth century. One sees now that Dutch painters of the fifteenth century, such as Ouwater and Geertgen, are essential figures in the artistic and spiritual tradition that we see in Holland at this time, and that their dependence upon the Flemish school is secondary. We understand also that some of these so-called Flemish painters, such as Dirk Bouts of Haarlem, shared the same values as their fellow countrymen, at least during their early activity. Northern influence may therefore have been greater than is generally thought. In any case, by virtue of its originality, its constancy, and its productivity, we can safely speak of a specifically Dutch tradition in the fifteenth as well as in the seventeenth century. It is difficult therefore to imagine that such a promising movement would have disappeared in the sixteenth century, and we must ask ourselves what, in that century, is Dutch in that part of Netherlandish painting which was influenced neither by the courtly and refined mannerism of the South nor by the Italian Renaissance.
A beautiful and fascinating manuscript in itself, The Hours of Catherine of Cleves may therefore force us to change much of our interpretation of painting in the Low Countries during the fifteenth century and later. Few artistic discoveries indeed have such quality, and fewer still raise such significant questions.
July 13, 1967