Texas museum features Renaissance prayer books

Sunday, December 21, 2003

— Some of the most ornate paintings from the late Middle Ages and Renaissance eras do not hang in a museum. In fact, they're not even in frames.

Books, some smaller than a deck of cards, contain masterpieces from 1250 to 1550 and feature religious scenes with intricate details.

Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum showcases 58 of the books in "Painted Prayers: Medieval and Renaissance Books of Hours From the Morgan Library," an exhibit running through Jan. 18.

"These are rarely exhibited. That's what makes them treasures," said museum director Timothy Potts. "It's painting which revels in details and layers of images, and there are nice touches of humor and detail. It's quite extraordinary."

Artisans in France, England, Italy and the Netherlands created the religious manuscripts -- containing various prayers, a calendar, gospel lessons and the Psalms -- with colorful illustrations on each page.

People read them at home several times a day and recited them aloud at church. From the 13th to 16th centuries, there were more prayer books than copies of the Bible.

Renovations at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City allowed the exhibit to appear at the Kimbell. The library's collection of 130 printed copies and 240 manuscripts, called books of hours, is among the best in the world, Potts said.

In the early years, royalty commissioned famous artists of that day to make books, each one hand-painted and unique. Ordinary people also had the books made, sometimes the only book a family had. By the late 15th and 16th centuries, the books were printed and even more people had access.

"They were used during the course of the day to know which prayers to say, so every pious man and woman needed to have one," Potts said.

The need to manage light levels and temperatures to protect the centuries-old parchment and bindings limits display of the books. As a result, the blues, greens, reds and golds remain vivid.

Because the works are displayed in glass cases, museum officials often had a hard time deciding which two pages of each book to display. But they made their selections based on works that "express the artists at their very best," Potts said.

One of the most celebrated books in the exhibit is "Farnese Hours," created for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese by an artist compared to Michelangelo. Giulio Clovio of Rome worked on the book nine years, finishing it in 1546. The pages entitled "Death of Uriah" and "David in Prayer" depict emotional scenes.

Another highlight of the exhibit is the book "Hours of Catherine of Cleves," painted in 1440 by an unknown artist in the Netherlands.

Considered one of the richest books of hours, it was made for Catherine of Cleves, duchess of Guelders and countess of Zutphen. The page entitled "Crucifixion With Catherine of Cleves" shows three women at the feet of Jesus on the cross with a richly detailed border.

Also in that book is a page entitled "Hell," where a border of leaves and flowers surrounds a scene in which pitchfork-toting creatures pull people into a demon's fiery mouth. It also lists the seven deadly sins.

This prayer was recited for those who died but also was intended to scare those still living, said Nancy Edwards, the museum's curator of European art. The picture of hell usually was not included in books of hours because the concept was too frightening for people in that era, she said.

One of the largest books is 121/2 inches by 81/2 inches. It is the "DuBois Hours," with 200 pages, made by an unknown artist in England about 1325. The page entitled "Virgin and Child Adored by Hawisia DuBois and Her Family" depicts the family, for whom the book was made, kneeling before the virgin Mary and baby Jesus.

Many people who commissioned the books wanted their names in the manuscript to show ownership, Edwards said.

"These books are all one of a kind, all done to order for someone," Edwards said.