A “Book or hours” (Wikipedia) is a devotional text of prayers, stories and psalms common in the Middle Ages. Though they followed similar forms, each was unique and, of course, hand lettered.
Many of them were illuminated, but few as lavishly and beautifully as the one known as The Hours of Catherine of Cleves. It is one of the most striking examples in existence; and is in the collection of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.
The museum has put this rare treasure on display, along with supplementary material, in an exhibit titled Demons and Devotion: The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, that runs until May 2nd, 2010.
The illuminations, in this case, go far beyond the decoration of the pages and include beautifully painted miniatures, some 157 of them. The Morgan has an online exhibit, in which you can see the pages, and view their details in a zoomable interface. You can also view the pages as thumbnails. The limited space for viewing the image can be frustrating, but zooming is still better than just small images. [Addendum: John Overholt was kind enough to write and let us know that there is a “Full Screen View” button at the far right of the zooming controls below the zoomable images. There is a “Zoom Help” link that shows the button labels. Much better!]
They’re not all as striking as the examples here, of course, but many are quite beautiful, and the ones like The Mouth of Hell (above, middle and bottom) are worth the effort alone. Interesting how graphic visions of hell and damnation are always much more interesting than those of heaven and salvation, but then, the promptings of the Church in the Middle Ages were often more stick than carrot.
The artist in this case is known only as the Master of Catherine of Cleves. The amount of work lavished on this single book is astonishing. When you’re not being dazzled by the miniatures, take a moment to appreciate the rest of the decorative illumination.
Works like this take the concept of “book illustration” to an entirely different level.
Addendum: The Morgan is concurrently running an exhibit titled: Flemish Illumination in the Era of Catherine of Cleves featuring 18 illuminated manuscripts that should provide an excellent context for this exhibit.
(For more on miniature paintings in illuminated manuscripts, see my post on Jean Fouquet.)