member of:Observers of the Interdependence of Domestic Objects and Their Influence on Everyday Life

This group has been active for a long time and has already made some remarkable assertions which render life simpler from the practical point of view. For example, I move a pot of green color five centimeters to the right, I push in the thumbtack beside the comb and if Mr. A (another adherent like me) at this moment puts his volume about bee-keeping beside a pattern for cutting out vests, I am sure to meet on the sidewalk of the avenida Madero a woman who intrigues me and whose origin and address I never could have known...
--Remedios Varo

(Slideshow is of Artwork by Remedios Varo)
By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.
--Franz Kafka

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Escape from the Tower

Archangel Michael weighing the souls, from The Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleve.
(Note that someone’s trying to cheat.)

Archangel Michael battling the demons

Currently at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City (through May 2, 2010), there is an amazing exhibition, Demons and Devotion: The Hours of Catherine of Cleves displaying 157 beautifully illustrated pages from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleve.

Queen of Sheba refusing to step on the bridge after seeing in a vision that its wood will later be used to crucify Christ. From the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleve.

Catherine of Cleve was married on January 26, 1430. Catherine was of the wealthy family of the Dukes of Cleves, which lived in Schwanenburg, the Swan Castle, on a steep hill in Germany, near the Dutch border. Swan Castle boasts a massive (180 feet high) tower known as the Tower of the Knights of the Swan, a name which refers to a medieval legend about a mysterious knight who appears on a small boat drawn by a swan just in time to save a princess in distress. In the tale, there is one condition to his aid, and following that, their marriage--she must never ask who he is. When, of course, she does, after several years of blissful marriage, he steps back on his boat and sails away, never to be seen again. In some versions of the story, it turns out that the swan was actually her brother, whom she had been accused of killing (thus causing the previously-mentioned distress), and the knight’s final gesture of compassion is to have it turned back into her brother and so sail away led by a dove, instead. She doesn’t get to enjoy the reunion, however, as she drops dead at the sight of her beloved leaving on his boat.

“Swan Castle” from Alidelo’s photobucket album

Recognize that? That’s the Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, Wagner’s 1848 version of the old tale of Swan Castle.

Here’s another unhappy marriage tale to go with the Cleve family history: Catherine herself was engaged to be married at the ripe old age of 6, to the 13-year-old Arnold of Egmond. The families kindly waited for her to turn 13 before they went through with the marriage ceremony. The twisted affair of the wedding is described in City and Spectacle in Medieval Europe by Barbara Hanawalt and Kathryn Reyerson:

"When Arnold of Egmond's marriage contract with the young Catherine of Cleves was arranged in 1423, the capitals of the four quarters affixed their seals on the 'marriage letter.' The duke's marriage had become a matter of town political importance. Since Arnold and Catherine were still minors (Arnold was thirteen years of age, while Catherine was only six), the solemnization was delayed until 1430. In January 1430, accompanied by many noblemen, including the count of Meurs and the lords of Voorst and Berg, Arnold went to the bride's residence in Cleves. Councillors of the various towns...rode to the castle of Cleves and witnessed the effectuation of the marriage: 'daer myn here sijn vrouwe beslyep' (where our lord slept with his wife). The duke performed the rite of passage in the presence of his subjects, for his new status concerned them all."

Catherine’s Book of Hours contains, as most do, a section of Suffrages, which are prayers to individual saints. As I was leafing through the Morgan Library’s gorgeously generous free on-line version of the exhibition, I began thinking about the stories of the female saints in the context of such arranged marriages. A huge percentage of female saints, for example St. Barbara, who is showcased in the book:

“St Barbara” from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves (note how the each of the darker tiles she steps on also shows the tower).

detail from the page of St. Barbara (any comments?)

began their path to martyrdom and sainthood by refusing the marriage chosen for them and declaring themselves instead married to Christ. It occurs to me that such stories must have been hero tales to women like Catherine of Cleve, who would bear six children for Arnold in a famously miserable marriage. And she seems to have taken these stories to heart: in 1440, ten years after the wedding, (but still only 23 years old!) she commissioned the Book of Hours, carefully detailing what it should contain, and simultaneously walked out on her husband, refusing to return. That personal act would develop into a much more public one, a protracted battle for the throne between her (via her son, Adolf) and her husband.

The story of St. Barbara also contains a tower, much like the Cleve family Swan Tower, and a woman who could not be contained by it. Barbara’s father kept her shut up in that tower, sealed away from the outside world, and when she refused the offered marriage and declared herself a Christian, he “drew his sword to kill her, but her prayers created an opening in the tower wall and she was miraculously transported to a mountain gorge, where two shepherds watched their flocks.” Though she was eventually captured by the soldiers of the prefect Martinianus and tortured, each night her wounds sealed up, and the soldiers found her fresh and healthy in the morning. And though her father won the right to cut off her head as he had planned, immediately after doing so, he was struck down by lightning and turned to ash. Thus St. Barbara became the patron saint of artillerymen and explosives workers.

More on explosive fire; Monday, Monday...

The opening page for “Monday” from Catherine’s Book of Hours

Catherine’s Book of Hours was created by an anonymous artist now known only as the Master of the Book of Cleves (a common fate for Gothic artists). He was quite the innovator, though, both in the amount of meaningful detail he included in his margin works, and in the topics he was willing to flesh out. Books of Hours were a common platform for artists during the Gothic period, but as they were usually created for women, who were thought to have tender stomachs, they did not generally have any depictions of hell. This Book of Hours, however, has an extensive and extensively detailed section all about hell and its torments. These images predate the famous works of Hieronymous Bosch by fifty years, and clearly influenced them.

A Book of Hours is created as a selection of prayers for each day. Monday’s prayers were for the Office of the Dead, designed to shorten the time of a loved one in Purgatory. The full-page illumination opening this book’s Office of the Dead is again that awful tower, this time shown as the opening to the gates of hell. The tower itself is formed from one large feline mouth, and the tower’s entrance yawns open to better show you its fangs and the demons awaiting you inside.

Again, though, the idea was, you said the prayers, and your prayers led to the release of these poor souls:

Souls relieved...

Souls freed.

A Side Note: In the Tiny Details

The Cleves Master was innovative in other ways as well, using humor as well as horror to bring his points home, and giving modern viewers a rare view into the daily life of the 15th century.

The Book of Hours is 7 1/2 by 5 1/8 inches, rather small for the amount of detail given,

close-up of beastie

so it is recommended that you take a magnifying glass if you are lucky enough to travel to see the exhibition in the museum. If, however, like me, you live too far away, again I will mention that all the pages on display have been scanned and loaded onto the Morgan Library and Museum website, where you can easily zoom in on the details, press a button for full-screen view, and read the notes provided page-by-page on the left hand side.

For example, you can see here the page of St. Christopher:

There at the bottom of the page, the tiny drawing shows this:

The marginal drawings on each of the pages are also related to the main drawing, though mostly in secular ways. For example, on the page where the souls are released from their suffering, there is a small drawing of birds being released from a cage. On the page of St. James the Lesser, most known for his abstinence, the bottom detail shows a contemporary bar scene:

Selling the Book

St. Lawrence is a patron of the poor, and was martyred on a grill, so the miniature of him shows him holding a purse of alms for the poor and a grill, and the marginalia is made of fish fresh off the hook, presumably ready to grill, but it also shows the big fish eating the little fish--a common proverb of the time for the rich devouring the poor:

“St. Lawrence”

The Miniature of St. Ambrose shows a man who was famed for his sermons that could join in friendship the worst of enemies.

“St. Ambrose”

His page is surrounded by eleven mussels and a central crab--crabs eat mussels, but here, they are joined together in harmony. There is also the allegorical reference to the eleven faithful disciples and Judas the betrayer.

Back to the Tower

Catherine of Cleves took all these lessons to heart, gave alms, fortified her stomach, and dug in for a protracted battle for power with her husband. She stood behind her son, Adolf, urging him to take over what she felt was a mismanaged throne. A majority of the people of the area took her side, but not all--and because of this, though she managed to have her husband arrested and forced to abdicate, he was able, later, to escape his imprisonment, and return the favor, jailing his son. Two years after retaking the throne, however, he died, and both Catherine and Adolf soon followed.

And, because the world revolves around the artwork of Remedios Varo, I couldn’t help but note several similarities between her works and these--the miniature style, the cut-away views in buildings, the strange winged creatures, and...the towers.

Especially this tower, where girls have been locked away to create the rich tapestry of a world they are not permitted to take part in, but where one girl in particular--the one in front on the left--has found a way to weave in an image of herself and her beloved escaping down through the small slit:

The tiny couple is only visible up close:

And while we're on the subject of successful love stories and the lovers' successful escapes from towers, with hellfires sandwiched in between, I'd like to draw your attention to a more modern version of that fable, a gorgeous work of cinematic art by German director Tom Tykwer, called The Princess and the Warrior. In this story, the heroine, Simone, who was conceived, born, raised, and has begun her career all on the same locked upper floor of a (towering) mental ward, meets her hero quite by accident under very tense circumstances. The hellfire is very particular to the story, so I will leave it for you to watch. Their escape (together) from her tower, however, is shown at about 1:26 in the trailer here:

It doesn't look very successful from here, but watch the movie: my definition of magic is something that is simultaneously impossible and unavoidable, and their escape is an act of magic.

So, a few centuries later, the power of these saints has, perhaps, advanced, and a successful escape from the tower can have a happier ending...

Discovered via Bibliodyssey.


  1. Amazing ..trip to the museum, from the comfort of my home:)
    Thank you Zoe for this another elaborate and beautiful post, and another look at Remedios Varo's work.

  2. These illuminated manuscripts are something else. Isn't it wonderful that we don't have to be wealthy and royalty to own a book? That we don't have to hire scribes and calligraphers to create our book of hours or book of prayers? You are just like me. Obsessed with details. Thank you for your visits, comments and kind words.

  3. peintures pour craindre le diable..
    j'adore, comme les tableaux de jérôme bosch..

  4. What a beautiful post! I was thoroughly enchanted by the stories. I especially love the medieval legend about a mysterious knight who appears on a small boat drawn by a swan!!
    The story reminds me a little bit of HCA's "The Wild Swans". Don't you think swans have many sad stories? I wonder why?? I also wonder what towers symbolize. I enjoyed the youtube video!! Thank you so much for sharing!

  5. thank you vesna!!

    ces, i agree, i am obsessed with details...another reason i like your artwork so much!

    elfi cella--oui, comme les tableaux de bosch, mais 50 ans plus tôt! quelle surprise, pour moi!

    sapphire--i'm glad you liked the tales, they were enchanting to me as well. it's very odd that swans have such sad stories--i stubbornly stick to the good one about the ugly duckling, as for the rest of them...i recommend quitting reading in the middle, and jumping from the tower :D
    if you haven't seen the entire film of the princess and the warrior, i really recommend it!

  6. Thank you Zoe for the virtual excursus to the medieval times and interesting presentation of the subject!
    I also liked the legend about mysterious knight and a swan. Yes, there are many sad stories involving swans but I noticed that in every story coming to my memory, swans accomplish a mission of salvation - spiritual also...

  7. Thank you, Zoe. Your posts are magnificent. I love your details and how you weave them into the overarching theme. Catherine of Cleve is one of my favorite historical figures--A multi-faceted woman who recognized power for what it was. Tho sad, I agree with gypsy-village that swans also accomplish a mission of salvation. Super Post!