Sacred Books in Silver and Gold

These illuminated manuscripts heralded the Dutch Golden Age

WONDERFUL epochs of human achievement do not come unheralded upon the world: There are always signs, for the discerning, of imminent change. Often those who have sensed this have been writers or artists, or more significantly, those of religious inspiration. All of these elements were present in 14th- and 15th-century Holland, where, long before the Golden Age of Dutch painting, forerunners of these ideas were at work in the land. This period, the waning of the Middle Ages, was troubled not only by many disasters, but also by an inner restlessness and confusion. The old patterns of life were fading, but the new order was obscured.

In the Netherlands the tyranny of the state, and more particularly that of the church, whose corruption was widespread, resulted in a great desire on the part of those with spiritual yearnings to return to the practice of faith, piety, and simple devotion.

They wanted to remain within the existing ecclesiastical framework, and yet somehow find inspiration and guidance - a feeling generally confined to rather humble people. This desire crystalized into a movement called the Devotio Moderna, which espoused an emotional spirituality, and the formation of a type of community called the Brethern of the Common Life. Neither of these were revolutionary organs, but simply sincere efforts to improve society through individual spiritual growth.

Heroic religious figures appeared to muster these ideas, men like Gerhardt de Groote, and, concurrently the much more famous Thomas `a Kempis, whose ``Imitation of Christ'' was to be read and studied throughout the Christian world.

De Groote preached and taught, moving about the country, founding centers for the Brethern. This work necessitated books - the Scriptures, breviaries, Books of Hours, and the like. Some had to be in the vernacular because the uneducated did not understand the Latin Vulgate Bible, even if they were able to read. As these were disseminated, the new familiarity with the Bible could not but expose the contrast between the lives of the prophets and saints and those of the contemporary princes of the church.

In time, all this would have a profound effect, but one of the immediate effects was to be seen in the production of books - sacred texts illustrated by amazingly gifted artists. This was, of course, no new thing, as beautiful books had been made for centuries, illuminated and embellished, costly, and generally for the rich. Scholars, even if not wealthy, had them of necessity. Erasmus of Rotterdam (1467-1536) owned a priceless library, precious not only in value, but in content, and Petrarch (1304-1374) adored his library, which was cared for by an ardent attendant who could not even read. Books were looked upon with reverence, for the learning and truth they represented.

The literate world was startled by the invention of printing in the middle of the 15th century; ideas in printed books circulated widely and gained credence quickly. Still the copying and illuminating of books by hand continued; the products of this slow process were so beautiful that they were sought after by the wealthy.

The illuminated books pictured on this page are examples of the art in its last, brilliant, stage. Often such volumes were remarkably well illustrated with amazing drawings. Although many illustrations were done by hand, artists sometimes used wooden blocks to create black-and-white prints.

The books in the Netherlands appealed both to aristocratic and humble readers. They pleased the noble donors whose portraits and feudal emblems often appeared among the illuminations. The simple student followed with joy the lively narrative pictures painted in brilliant colors, highlighted with gold and silver. The strong cream-colored pages would preserve these masterpieces for hundreds of years.

The likenesses of the saints and prophets, and of the holy family, were often surrounded by a plethora of familiar homelike objects, which hinted at the Dutch mastery of still life which was to come. The wide and beautiful borders, with their sprays of flowers, were decorated with bird cages, bakeries, mussels, rosaries, angels, and demons, all fascinating and vivid. Behind portraits were marvelous tiny landscapes and seascapes, towns and towers, animals. Interior scenes show tiny sets of dishes, perfect and complete. The only themes which are avoided are those of war and of history.

The most renowned of these Dutch painters was the Master Of Cleves, whose Book of Hours, made for Catherine of Cleves in about 1440, is considered to be the finest of the illuminated books of this period. The artist worked in Utrecht, a town of great importance at the time, and created for this volume more than 150 miniatures. The book is filled with brilliant and sumptuous border drawings.

There were many other works which were exquisite, the names of their artists often known by the towns where they worked - The Hague, Zwolle, Delft - and sometimes by the names of patrons. Each work has its special virtues, from the minute fortress towns and walls to the depictions of sheep and shepherds, of the Passion, of the life of the holy family. A few of these unknown painters have romantic names, like the Master of the Dark Eyes, or the Master of the Feathery Clouds.

The Bibles of this period are of particular interest and are associated mainly with Haarlem, then a cultural center. One of the most famous is the Zwolle Bible, made in six volumes by one man, Jacob van Enckhuysen, between 1464 and 1476.

Van Enckhuysen was one of the Brothers of the Common Life in Zwolle; his work is simple and direct, the pictures framed in great initials. For instance, Samson removing the Gates of Gaza fits into the letter ``D.''

Many of the Bibles and books of this period had a certain elasticity in their themes. Alexander the Great appears in one Bible. And in the Catherine of Cleves Book of Hours, the Queen of Sheba is shown fording a stream, rather than using a bridge, supposedly containing wood from the true cross, even though the Queen of Sheba predates the Christian era.

Somehow scholarship and art history has overlooked these great treasures of the northern Netherlands until comparatively recently, when it has been realized how important and superb they are.

The Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City has done us all a great service in reviving interest in the field, and exhibiting some of these treasures in an extraordinarily conclusive and effective way. Beautifully preserved, their colors fresh and exhilarating, their range so wide and subtle, they have presented their fortunate viewers with a far-reaching and stimulating visual experience. The show of illuminated books continues until May 6.

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