Miniatures in Detail
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The Hours of Catherine of Cleves: 714 vellum pages with 157 half- and full-page miniatures and imaginative bordure adornment.

For the beholder, the facsimile of Catherine of Cleve’s private mediation and prayer book, originating ca. 1430, represents one of the most exciting and high-quality artistic works of 15th century illumination in existence. Found behind the small-format book cover of 19.1 x 13 cm are 714 vellum pages of pictorial adornment, which are still like to amaze today with their richness of detail and proximity to the lifeworld of the 15th century.

Hours of Catherine of Cleves – Folio 97R: On the Death Bed

Hours of Catherine of Cleves – Slide 97R: On the Death Bed

Surrounded by artful tendril ornamentation, colorful flowers and fruits and embellishing golden leaves, the page from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves presents a gorgeous miniature in a rectangular frame. This shows an arcane scene in an interior room: numerous people have assembled around the bed, in which a pale man lies under a red blanket. His eyes are shut and a woman with a white headscarf reaches to him with a strange golden rod, perhaps a burning candle. A second woman, dressed like a nun, turns to the man and strokes his head softly. Behind her, a doctor with a red cap examines a class jar with urine in his raised hand. A blue cloth droops on the wall above the man, across from which a man has just entered through the door. He wears flamboyant garments, the cloak expensively trimmed with fur, clad with a sword at his side. A likewise stylishly dressed young man with a humbly removed hat in his hands raises his eyes to the bed as he is immersed in contemplation. This same young man appears outside of the scene in the Bas-de-miniature, where he is bending over a chest of gold. Another nun sits in front of the bed in a black cloak praying from a book lying across her knees. Next to her stands a round table on a checkered floor with various objects strewn upon it: cups of tin and glass and other vessels for food and drink, and among them a small scroll. Sitting on a magnificent chair at the left margin of the picture is a man in a bright cloak – a man of the cloth? – reading a book at the table. The window to the rear of the picture is mostly covered and only shares a small portion of the view of the towers of a city. Thus sealed off from the outside world, the scene resembles an intimate ceremony.

Liturgical Prayers for the Hour of Death

This ceremony is concerned with the depiction of the hour of death. The miniature begins the death-matins of the Hours of Catherine of Cleves. The liturgical prayers of the accompanying text serve the purpose, which is depicted in the miniature: to pray for the soul of the deceased in the hour of death. Like the monk at the table – a Carmelite – and the woman in front of the bed – a Beguine – the beholder should take the book of hours in hand in the face of death and read therefrom. Even without this concrete background, the miniature brings the inherent impermanence and destiny of every person to the mind of the beholder.

Deep Sorrow and Inappropriate Thoughts

The man in bed, pale and naked and with eyes already closed, has just died. At his side stands his wife, who holds the funeral candle. The doctor comes too late with his aid and examination of the urine. The helpful nun has already closed the eyes of the deceased. Both of those praying in the foreground ease, with their succor, the ascent to heaven of the soul of the deceased – perhaps through the opened window? An additional interesting component is contained in the scene’s depiction of the two young men, of whom one reappears beneath the miniature. Could these be the sons of the deceased, who fight over the inheritance? In the thoughts of the young man with hat in hand, the riches that wait for him in the chest full of gold are already imagined. This thinking, totally oriented on material things, appears completely inappropriate in the presence of the recently deceased.

A Groundbreaking Masterpiece of Dutch Illumination

Lots of connections can be made from the impressive miniatures of the book of hours to other paintings of the Late Middle Ages, all of them originating from artists with great names. Thus, Catherine of Cleves miniaturist was inspired by Hieronymous Bosch, Robert Campin, and Rogier van der Weyden. He took examples from the most important artists of his time and their artworks, which are still famous today. He skillfully interweaved these examples with his own innovative pictorial inventions, which already anticipated coming pictorial subjects such as genre painting.  For the introduction of the death-matins, the miniatures specifically take on “a preeminent role for the development of the interior” with their complicated spatial arrangement. In this way, the anonymous Master of the Hours of Catherine of Cleves created an important masterpiece of 15th century Dutch illumination with his exciting miniatures.