Him, Too? Mirror(s) of the Hours of Catherine of Cleves

This one could be very short posting: here’s a scene of the birth of St. Mary (she is tightly wrapped, yet with a halo), and here’s the mirror (convex, on a wall, next to the window.

The’ve been a lot of such scenes already in this blog, both in the paintings, and in the manuscripts (one, two, three, and those are only the most recent one). This particular illumination will not reveal more details in this theme.

But the manuscript itself did reveal a number of new dimensions in my mirror games, so it seems to be worth a scribble posting.

For a start, here is an entire folio:

It is an exceptionally splendor edition, with very detailed and decorative margins. We also see an interesting detail, two hives; in those days it was believed bees are reproduced without any sexual intercourse (i.e., without falling into mortal sin), these images were most appropriate at the page telling about quite a perplex concept of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.

“In those days” here means around 1440, when was created this manuscript, The Hours of Catherine of Cleves (although some believe that the book was written earlier; I will comment on that later.)

I’d like to begin with a small personal story of my encounter with this book. I found the  facsimile edition of this book in a local; it was fairly old (1967), nice edition. I was struck by their beauty of the illuminations  and I decided to learn more about the original manuscript. But apparently a short-circuit of some sort happened in my brain, and I began to search for Book of Hours of Maria of Cleves. I can now understand why it happened – this Book of Hours was clearly a ‘female’ edition, it clearly commissioned for a women, and there is a strong emphasis on the St. Mary throughout the book.

The House of Cleves is a very old one, and it had lots of Marias too during its long history. One of them, Maria of Cleves, was born and lived in about the same time (1426 – 1487). But I didn’t find any reference to the Book of Hours of the Maria of Cleves, and decided that I got a really rare edition, and started to scan it scan it.

Halfway I discovered my mistake. I figured out that this Book of Hours is of Catherine of Cleves. And that is not only one of the most famous medieval manuscripts, already with a long list of the publications written about it and own page on Wikipedia (The Hours of Catherine of Cleves), but it has been also already fully digitized, and all its illuminations are available on the web in a fairly decent resolution (see it on the website of the Morgan Library).

(Note to myself: don’t scan anything anymore; somebody did it already, and beter, just search.)

And to avoid possible further confusion, this Catherine of Cleves is not the cousin of Henry of Navarre and the wife of Henry, Duke of Guise; that Catherine of Cleves de Neveres lived a century later.

Our Catherine was the daughter of Adolf of Cleves (Adolf van Kleef in Dutch) and Mary of Burgundy, the sister of Philip the Good; that is, she was a niece of one of the most powerful and enlightened monarchs of the time (I told about him and his impact on art of his age in the recent posting about Mystère de la Vengeance).

Catherine was born in 1417, and already in 1430 she married Arnold, Duke of Guelders (today his Duchy forms the Dutch province Gelderland, though his historical center, the city Geldern, is now in Germany). All these historical and geographical details are very important if we want to understand the story of this Book of Hours: for example, it was due it its proximity to Utrecht, the capital of neighboring province, the book was commissioned there, and thus presents an excellent example of manuscript of the famous Utrecht school.

Here is a portrait of the Catherine herself, as a patron the manuscript, kneeling before the St. Mary and Child Jesus, on the titular folio of the book:

As I wrote already, this is a marvelous manuscript, with so elaborate and refined  illuminations that many can’t believe it was made in the early 15th century (on the other hand, this was the heyday of the Flemish primitivists, including Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and many others, so the book fits the suite). Still, many think that there is something special about this edition, that sets its apart from many volumes of the time.

The book’s fate turned to be pretty dramatic: at some point it sank into oblivion, and no one knows where it has been kept for centuries. It resurfaced around mid-19th century, and in 1896 it was bought by Prince Charles Arenberg, and from this time is also known as the Hours of Arenberg. Then, already in the 20th century, in 1963, they discovered another manuscript, which was called Guennol Hours. Careful analysis showed that both of these books are not only the work of one master (anonymous, as usual), but in fact are the two pieces that once composed one volume!

Right now they are in one place, in this Morgan Library in New York, and there are plans to rebind into one book again.  

Now I have three-pitch a fork:

1. I would like to write about one topic, or theme, abundantly present in this manuscript. It is not about mirrors, yet also have some indirect relation to them… but most likely I need a separate posting for that;

2. I need to finish somehow the story of the Grandma and the mirror, and also mentioned few other ‘candidates’, ‘may be mirrors’ in the this manuscript;

3. Finally, there is a topic here that, strictly speaking, has no relations to mirrors, yet   can clarify a lot things about (early) Christian symbolism of light/holiness, and their  various forms, so it seems to be reasonable to talk about it too. Perhaps also later.

So, for now № 2, the other ‘may be mirrors’:

But first, let’s have another look at one ‘obvious mirror’, the one we saw already in the book:

It seems to be a typical convex mirror, but its frame a bit unusual. First, it’s quite large, and also has four symmetrically located “somethings”. I am not sure we are able to undersand what is exactly depicted; instead, we need to search for the similar frames in other illuminations, and try to compare and decode the meaning of these objects. These may be, for example, small medallions, with the images of the four evangelists, one of the most typical motifs at the time (which, by the way, would mean that this ‘mirrors’ was not just merely a ‘looking glass’, but a sacred object, with a spiritual, and purely profane and functional value).

In this very book we see the examples of such illuminations, presenting God the Father, Creator of the World, and the symbols of the four Evangelists it the corners (with a beautiful sky on the background, illustrating the wave-particle dualism):


I checked for the mirrors few other ‘potential’ scenes, such as the Annunciation:


There is one ‘suspicious’ round object laying at the bottom of the table, but it’s described as a “bowl” or “basin”, with water for washing. Uh, well, let’s believe in it for a moment.

Here is the entire folio again, to provide the full context for the scene:


Another sweet illumination shows the daily life of the Holy Family:

There might be a mirror here too, hidden somewhere – alas, I didn’t find it (but what a nice cage with wheels helping young Jesus in learning to walk!)


In addition to the main Biblical story, the Book of Hours also has the descriptions of the lives of many other saints. One of them is the so-called Saint Alexius, or Alexius of Rome (in the Russian tradition it is called Alexey, the Man of God).


Alexius is shown here with the stairs, his persistent attribute; but on the leaf we also see a tiny closet under the stairs:

I’m not going to retell its truly touching, yet also strongly Kafkaesque biography (you can read it here yourself), just note that at the head of his bed hangs a certain artifact. This is not necessarily a mirror (though it can be), but it can also be one of those ‘things’ I keep encountering in the manuscripts and paintings, and which I am still have to learn more about). Although in this case it may also be a simple candle with a  candelabrum.

The last ‘may be mirror’ is the most promising, but also the most unlikely. I’ve already written, with some surprise, about one of the mirrors that Spanish master Juan de Flandes located in a close proximity to Jesus. In this case, there is a small chance that the Baby Christ is holding a mirror himself!

First, the entire folio – it shows what is called the Visitation, or the Meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, the mother of the boy John, who later became John the Baptist.


On the same folio, and as if making a leap in time, we see two baby boys playing with each other:

The nets, traps and cages to catch birds are all fairly typical attributes of such scenes;  Christ will become (if not always been) a “catcher of human souls.”

But does he hold in his hand?

No one really knows what this round shiny thing is; it is vaguely referred to as an ‘object’.  

Even it would be a mirror, I do not think it’s aimed to be for make-up. The closest that comes to my mind is that it could be a smal disc (of glass or metal) capable to reflect  light and produce light spots, or light patch (there is a special term for these light spots in Russian, солнечный зайчик, literally Sunny Bunny, but I am unaware of the similar term in English, if such exists at all).

Have these sun reflecting discs been used to catch birds? have they been used at all at that time, and what for if yes? Light reflecting discs had been widely used in ancient times, from Ancient Egypt to Ancient Chine, this was in fact the very first use of the bronze discs that we later start calling ‘mirrors’. But to what extent all that might be relevant to Christ, I have no slightest idea as yet.


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