Joel Vega

Catherine’s World

In Art, Books on December 27, 2009 at 7:36 pm

Illuminated pages from Catherine of Cleve's The Book of Hours, Valkhof Museum in Nijmegen

Exhibiting for the last week at Nijmegen’s Valkhof Museum is “Catherine’s World-Devotion, Demons and Daily Life in the 15th Century,” which highlights the Book of Hours, considered one of the finest examples of illuminated manuscripts from the Northern Netherlands crafted in the late Middle Ages.

 The Book of Hours was commissioned by Catherine of Cleves, Duchess of Guelders who lived from 1417-1476. The artist who crafted this finely illuminated manuscript remains anonymous although scholars named him as the “Master of Catherine of Cleves.”

Authentic reconstruction of Catherine of Cleve's medieval costume

The book, owned by The Morgan Library & Museum in New York was specially disbound for the Nijmegen exhibit, and more than 100 illustrated pages are being shown in Nijmegen until January 3, 2010 (the exhibit opened in October 10 this year).

With a superb eye for detail the unknown artist created an intimate world of devotion, demons and daily life in the Middle Ages, and delicately drew and painted on the margins and text exquisite miniatures of scenes from the life of Christ, saints, demons, flowery scrolls, richly colored and accented with filigree of gold.

Another page from The Book of Hours, note the bird cages drawn on the margins

It is astounding to see the delicacy and control of the artist’s hand since some of the drawings and paintings are so miniscule in scale they could only have been possibly painted and drawn with a magnifying glass and using drawing instruments that were as fine as needles. The fine penmanship and scroll-like borders were so delicately and subtly accented that they looked as if they were printed with modern printing techniques.

Accompanying the main exhibit of The Book of Hours were artworks from major museums and collectors of manuscripts from across the world such as the British Library (London), the Royal Library (The Hague), and the Landesmuseum fur Kunst und Kulturgeschichte (Munster, Germany). Important manuscripts were also loaned by The British Museum, Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge) and the Staaliche Museen zu Berlin.

A hall in the Valkhof also displays faithful replicas of clothing worn by Catherine’s household and servants. One of the unique pieces was an authentic reconstruction of the costume in which Catherine of Cleves was portrayed in the Book of Hours.

Delicate gold filigree and scrollwork adorn the book's margins

A parallel exhibition shows the administration books and ‘kitchen’ records of the duchess which includes the very first written and printed recipe books in the Netherlands. Also on display were kitchen utensils, pots and glassware from the Middle Ages, as a whole providing a complete overview of the life and times (at least of the elite classes) of that period.

Viewing the pages

The long lines of visitors surprised me, but that could have been due to the exhibit’s last and final week. We stood on queue for more than half an hour. Magnifying glasses were supplied and that prompted visitors to carefully view each page, adding to the long wait and queue.

 The pages were either framed or displayed in specially lighted glass cases and to fully appreciate the illuminated pages one has to scrutinize the pages inch by inch. Since flash photography is not allowed, I only managed to take shabby shots as the books were displayed under glass and in dim light conditions.

This is the second time since 2005, after the successful Brothers of Limbourg’s illuminated manuscripts exhibit, that the Valkhof Museum has given attention to Nijmegen’s art history and legacy as a center of fine art in the Middle Ages.

For lovers of exquisite art works and rare books that were made with lavish attention and eye for detail, the Nijmegen exhibit is definitely a not-to-miss show.

A silver chalice from the household of Duchess Catherine

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