NEW YORK — TO us they appear exquisite but quaint. To the relatively few Dutch art lovers of their time who saw them, however, they were startlingly novel and advanced. Almost 600 years have elapsed since the first precisely drawn and radiantly colored miniatures of the Golden Age of Dutch manuscript painting appeared, and slightly over 450 have passed since the last ones were produced. During that time, Dutch manuscript painting achieved an unprecedented level of sophistication, originality, and technical brilliance, and it stood at the ``cutting edge'' of the art of its time.
In numerous paintings and border designs, some as tiny as a thumbnail, highly skilled artists and craftsmen transformed the objects, activities, and emotions of everyday Dutch life into exquisite miniatures depicting episodes from the Bible and pious lives.
Over 100 of the most important and beautifully illuminated of these manuscripts, drawn from 50 public and private collections, are on view at the Pierpont Morgan Library here. ``The Golden Age of Dutch Manuscript Painting'' was organized by the Morgan Library in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum Het Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, where it opened last December. The exhibition and its excellent, profusely illustrated catalog represent the culmination of more than a decade of new research in this field by James H. Marrow and other scholars in the United States and Europe.
This extraordinary exhibition definitely calls for more than one visit. Everything in it - pictures and textual material alike - is too richly detailed and compact to be absorbed in one session, particularly if one's interests extend to the subjects as well as the style of the images.
A visitor is well-advised to bring a magnifying glass and to follow the exhibition chronologically, beginning with examples from the 1520s. Although the library has made the viewing as pleasant as possible (among other things, it has provided several rear-lit transparencies of individual manuscript pages), studying them still demands more than the usual amount of patience and concentration.
The extra effort pays off. In just one room and corridor, the visitor will find more exquisite examples of Dutch manuscript art than have ever before been assembled in one place.
Most have been the focus of scholarly attention for years. Others have only recently been discovered and have not been exhibited before. With the exception of a few later pieces, almost all are miniature masterpieces of draftsmanship and painting - to say nothing of lettering and design. They leave a viewer overwhelmed by the extraordinary skill, dedication, and love that went into them.
The Golden Age of Dutch manuscript painting began shortly before 1400, with the establishment of the new court of the Counts of Holland at the Hague. Presided over by Albrecht of Bavaria and his wife, Margaret of Cleves, this small but thriving court provided an important source of patronage.
The realistic detail and compelling narrative of Dutch manuscript painting owe much to the influence of the Devotio Moderna, a religious movement that advocated a deeply personal, intensely emotional brand of spirituality. Thanks to its influence, artists were encouraged to create images that made the Christian faith tangible in immediate, human terms.
A perfect example of such an artist is the unquestioned star of the exhibition, known only as the Master of Catherine of Cleves. (One irony of Dutch manuscript painting is that the names of several minor figures are known, but those of its major artists are not.)
THIS painter's ``Hours of Catherine of Cleves'' (c. 1440), generally considered the most beautiful, original, and lavishly illuminated of all Dutch manuscripts, is also one of the most fascinating. It consists of 157 full- and half-page miniatures (originally there were 168) depicting everything from domestic scenes (``The Holy Family at Work'') to vivid miniatures like ``St. George Killing the Dragon'' and ``The Judgment of King Solomon.''
Most distinctive of all is the Bosch-like ``Mouth of Hell,'' with its huge head and with flames spewing from its bright red mouth.
Had this anonymous master done nothing else, this image alone would endear him to most 20th-century artists.
But he produced much more, including one very small pen-and-ink drawing depicting Cain's death, which I consider to be the finest individual image in the exhibition. It's in his ``History Bible'' of 1439, which can be found in a display case to the right of the main gallery's entrance. Unfortunately, it can easily be overlooked in the midst of so much colorful richness.
At the Pierpont Morgan Library, 29 East 36 Street, through May 6.