MS M.917, pp. 280–281

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St. Nicholas

Hours of Catherine of Cleves, in Latin
Illuminated by the Master of Catherine of Cleves

Utrecht, The Netherlands
ca. 1440
Tempera on vellum
7 1/2 x 5 1/8 in. (192 x 130 mm)

Purchased on the Belle da Costa Greene Fund and with the assistance of the Fellows, 1963

MS M.917, pp. 280–281
Item description: 

Created in Utrecht, The Netherlands, around 1440, the manuscript was taken apart sometime before 1856. Its leaves were shuffled and then rebound into two volumes to make each look more or less complete. The first part was acquired by the duke of Arenberg, whose descendants owned it until 1957, when it was bought by New York dealer H. P. Kraus, who sold it to Alistair Bradley Martin. This volume had been known by scholars as the "Hours of Catherine of Cleves."

Meanwhile, the second part had been acquired by the Rothschild family, who kept their manuscripts secret. In 1963 their volume was sold to the Morgan as yet another "Hours of Catherine of Cleves." Studying the newly acquired book (it became MS M.917) along with the Martin volume, Morgan curator John Plummer determined that they were actually two halves of one and the same codex. In 1964 the Morgan mounted an exhibition of both volumes, displaying all the miniatures via color transparencies. When a facsimile of the manuscript was published by George Braziller in 1966, the exhibition was repeated. Finally, in 1970, the Morgan was able to buy the Martin volume (it became MS M.945), and thus came to own both parts of this greatest of all Dutch manuscripts.

Both volumes have been disbound in preparation for rebinding the leaves in proper order.

Page description: 

In rich episcopal garb, but without any of his usual attributes, Nicholas stands in the tiled and textiled background seen so often in these pages. He carries a crozier in his gloved left hand and gives a blessing with his right. "Three" is an important number in many of the legends from Nicholas' life and posthumous miracles. The three small monsters at each corner of the border may refer to a number of different tales. They gnaw on small golder orbs, which may allude to the story of Nicholas' generosity to a man inclined to prostitute his three daughters, as he could not supply them with a dowry. Nicholas provided, anonymously and on three separate occasions, a bag full of gold to ensure that this terrible fate would not befall them. Another possible explanation is that the orbs and silver crescent hats of the monsters represent the sun and moon, attributes of the saint's role as spreader of light to the world. The trompe-l'oeil effect of peeling back cloud-like strips of vellum to reveal a starry sky could be a navigational allusion and representation of the calm skies sought by sailors, of whom Nicholas was patron.



Suffrages are short prayers to individual saints. As protectors of medieval people, saints were their doctor in plague, their midwife at childbirth, their guardian when traveling, and their nurse during toothache. If the Virgin was the figure to whom one addressed the all-important petition for eternal salvation, it was from saints that one sought more basic or temporal kinds of help. While the Virgin became, as the Mother of God, almost a goddess herself, saints retained more of their humanity and thus their approachability.


Photography courtesy of Faksimile Verlag Luzern