As a student at Montclair University way back when it was Montclair State Teachers College, New York’s Morgan Library was a favorite destination.
Its collection of rare manuscripts and special showings of fine art works — one featuring the drawings of Beatrix Potter remains a favorite memory — opened fantastic windows on the brush strokes and pen strokes of artistic and literary masters.
The main show — Demons and Devotions – The Hours of Catherine of Cleves and its smaller sister, Flemish Illumination in the Era of Catherine of Cleves, afforded a wonderful glimpse into a world known only by the royalty of the Middle Ages.
The Hours of Catherine of Cleves are considered the most important and lavish of all Dutch manuscripts as well as one of the most beautiful among the Morgan’s collection.
Commissioned by Catherine of Cleves (whom we get to know by way of her stately appearances in the manuscript) in around 1440, it was illustrated by a master of the form known only to us as the Master of Catherine of Cleves.
The work is an illustrated prayer book of devotions that Catherine would recite throughout the day. The manuscripts two volumes have been disbound for this exhibition and feature nearly a hundred miniatures so spectacular in the form, grace and color that viewers stare long and hard at the pages trying to drink in all of the scope compressed so artfully in such small spaces.
As rich in pictures as it is in prayers, its 157 miniatures reveal not only landscapes of the day but detailed domestic interiors. In the Holy Family at Work, for instance, Joseph planes a board and the Virgin Mary weaves while the infant Jesus takes his first step in a baby walker!
In another, the Holy Family are pictured in divine domesticity with Joseph resting from his labors in a comfy chair while the Virgin nurses the infant Christ. The details in each tiny picture reveal so much about Medieval life with depictions of buildings, textiles, furniture, jewelry and animals painted over silver foil.
It’s all a feast for the eyes and the soul!
As literature from the exhibit points out, many of the miniatures comprise long and elaborate cycles of iconographic and theological complexity. One such cycle includes eight miniatures detailing the legend of the True Cross.
All of the miniatures are surrounded by finely drawn borders that attract as much interest from viewers as the centerpieces. Gorgeous floral displays twine around many of the small masterworks. Animals — including rabbits — are featured in a number of them. We were particularly taken with one border that featured a man roasting two chickens on a spit for no reason that any expert has ever been able to figure out.
Taking in the main exhibit and Flemish Illumination in the Era of Catherine of Cleves has the makings of a wonderful Lenten excursion, opening as they do, windows on a time when Christian belief was the compass by which everyone in Europe – royalty, burger, soldier or serf – walked.
The visit made a wonderful getaway from the snowy landscape of the Jersey Shore and might do so for those adventurous enough this weekend (Feb. 27-28) and head into the Big Apple – where, if televised reports are any indication, Mayor Bloomberg and his crew seem to have snow removal well in hand.
If you can get there this weekend, aim for Sunday afternoon when a lavishly costumed interpreter portraying the great Catherine of Cleves will stroll the galleries of the Morgan between 3 and 5 p.m, and a re-enactor portraying a medieval illuminator will demonstrate to visitors the delicate and beautiful art of painting miniatures for books of hours.
A great thing about the Morgan is that its location at 225 Madison Avenue, is well within walking distance of Penn Station so taking the train in is a real option here.l
The price is also right for a New York museum with $12 tickets for adults and $8 for children under 16, seniors 65 and over and students with current ID. The exhibit runs through May 2.
The weekend hours are 10:00 AM to 6:00 P.M. on Saturday and 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM on Sunday. For more information visit the morgan at www.themorgan.org or call 212-685-0008.