St. John the Evangelist
Hours of Catherine of Cleves, in Latin
Illuminated by the Master of Catherine of Cleves
Purchased on the Belle da Costa Greene Fund and with the assistance of the Fellows, 1963
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.
John was an extraordinarily resilient saint. According to tradition, he is the only one of Christ's apostles to live a full life and die of old age. As we see here, however, it was not for lack of trying on the part of his persecutors. In the large miniature, the youthful John, standing on a black-and-white striped floor in front of a richly decorated green and gold background, holds a golden chalice that he blesses with his right hand. A tiny black dragon crawls up from the dregs, thus ridding the cup of the poison that constituted this particular attempt on his life. Below, with hands clasped, John prays inside a cauldron of boiling oil into which he has been thrown by the Emperor Dometian, an attack that he also survived.
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.
Image courtesy of Faksimile Verlag Luzern