Painted Prayers: Medieval and Renaissance Books of Hours from the Morgan Library

Painted Prayers: Medieval and Renaissance Books of Hours from the Morgan Library

October 12, 2003 to January 18, 2004

The illuminated pages of books of hours—prayer books used by ordinary men and women—contained some of the most exquisite paintings and prints created during the medieval and Renaissance eras. They were produced, by hand and by press, in greater quantities than any other type of book from about 1250 to about 1550, and were “bestsellers,” even more popular than the Bible. Painted Prayers featured 58 of the finest manuscript and printed books of hours from the collections of the Morgan Library in New York—one of the greatest repositories of such works in the world. This exhibition examined the various images depicted in books of hours, the artists who illustrated them, and the central role of the books as religious texts in the lives of their owners.

More books of hours survive from the late Middle Ages than any other cultural artifact. Medieval life—and death—cannot be understood without examining this type of devotional work, which was owned, in various forms, by so many people and commonly known by heart. Veritable feasts for the eyes and the soul, books of hours are the enduring picture galleries of the Middle Ages, created when some of the most important painting was in books.

The holdings of the Morgan Library present a gloriously rich survey of late medieval and Renaissance illumination. The exhibition included miniatures by artists of the so-called International Style, who typically painted their elegant figures and scenes in jewel-like colors. Among French artists was the work of the Bedford Master, France’s most influential illuminator of the second quarter of the 15th century; Jean Fouquet, considered the greatest French painter of the 15th century; and the famous court artist Jean Poyet, whose masterpiece, the Hours of Henry VIII, was given (according to tradition) to King Henry VIII of England by Emperor Charles V. Also featured was the work of the great Flemish artist, Simon Marmion—called by a Renaissance poet “the very prince of book illumination,” and known for his subtle palette, delicate figures, and marvelous borders with fruits and flowers. Italian artists included Attavante degli Attavanti, one of the most celebrated illuminators of Renaissance Florence, whose patrons included the Medici pope Leo X.

Among the beautiful and representative works shown in the exhibition, two are particularly important. The luxuriant Hours of Catherine of Cleves (c. 1440) is the greatest of all Dutch books of hours. The Hours of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, completed in 1546 by Giulio Clovio, so dazzled Giorgio Vasari that in his “Lives of the Artists” (1568) he counted it among the “marvels of Rome.” Today, it is probably the most famous manuscript of the Italian High Renaissance.

Painted Prayers was organized by the Morgan Library, New York. The curator in charge of the exhibition tour was Roger S. Wieck, curator of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts at the Morgan Library. Following its presentation at the Kimbell, the exhibition traveled to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles from October 18, 2005, to January 8, 2006.

Caption: Master of Catherine of Cleves, Mouth of Hell; Final Absolution (detail), from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, The Netherlands, Utrecht, c. 1440. The Morgan Library and Museum, New York. Purchased with the assistance of various Fellows, 1970. MS M.945 (folio 168v)