Office of the Dead

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Mouth of Hell
Final Absolution

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.945, ff. 168v–169r
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: 

There is no more inventive—or scary—miniature in Catherine's prayer book than this full-page depiction of hell. A gaping lion's mouth opens its batlike lips tipped with talons; inside is another, red-hot maw. Demons cast damned souls into this terrifying entrance to the furnace of hell, above which rises the castle of death decorated with skulls. Burning towers heat caldrons into which mutilated souls are pitched. A third mouth forms the domed roof. At the bottom crouches a green demon whose mouth sprouts scrolls inscribed with the Seven Deadly Sins. In the smaller miniature, the holy water and incense offered by the priest to a corpse seem like scant protection for the potential horrors depicted in the facing image.


Office of the Dead

The Office of the Dead was in the back of every Book of Hours the way death itself was always at the back of the medieval mind. While the other prayers in a Book of Hours are quasi-liturgical (reflecting but not equaling official Church practice), the Office of the Dead is identical to that found in the service books used by the Church's ordained.

It was assumed that most people's entry into heaven would be delayed by a detour (lasting, potentially, thousands of years) in purgatory, the fires of which cleansed the soul of unforgiven sin. Praying the Office of the Dead for one's deceased friends or relatives—who could not pray for themselves—was one of the more efficacious means of reducing for them the fiery price of paradise. Recited at funerals, the Office of the Dead was also ideally prayed every day.

The three Hours of the Office (Vespers, Matins, and Lauds) consist of psalms plus a series of moving readings from the Old Testament Book of Job. The trials endured by Job become an allegory for one's time on earth—and in purgatory. The voice of Job, crying for pity and mercy, becomes the voice of the dead.


Photography courtesy of Faksimile Verlag Luzern