The Morgan Library & Museum over the last few years has added some small wonders to its collections, and now for the first time a sampling of these miniature books is on public view. Opened last month, Miracles in Miniature: The Art of the Master of Claude de France celebrates one of the last greats of the illuminated manuscript — who happened to work at a doll-size scale.
Master of Claude de France, or “the Claude Master” for short, didn’t even have his arcane name inscribed in history until 1975. That year rare book dealer H.P. Kraus gave his recently acquired tiny copies of the Prayer Book and Book of Hours to art historian Charles Sterling, who saw the connection in the style of the two books. Now the Claude Master is getting his own exhibition, some five centuries after he completed his last work in Toulouse, France.
The miniatures now identified as Claude Master’s date between 1508 to 1520. While Miracles in Miniature includes some calendar pages with agrarian scenes paired with zodiac signs (if you wonder why a scorpion hovers above some harvesters; it’s not a portent of woe, but Scorpio), and beautifully delicate paintings of flowers adorned with insects and birds representing different saints, the centerpiece is the books made for his namesake.
Queen Claude de France, wife of King François I, only lived until the age of 24, dying from “exhaustion” after giving birth to seven children in her short existence. Before she collapsed out of life, the Claude Master made her two books, a Book of Hours and a Prayer Book. It was his impressive work, where barely a brush stroke could be discerned in the elaborate scenes, that got him his cumbersome moniker.
In the fittingly small gallery at the Morgan, the most impressive, the 2 3/4 inch by 2 inch Prayer Book, is open to a Trinity scene representing Queen Claude’s fears of being able to birth a healthy son (a problem of her mother’s, although she eventually had the future Henry II, her fourth child). You can see each of the 132 gorgeous illustrations online, or on an iPad in the gallery, where the lilac, rose, and green tones and unbelievably fine details like ships sailing in the background out a window and the tiny drips of blood from St. Sebastian’s arrow wounds come into focus.
The two dozen works in Miracles in Miniature, which also includes pieces from private collections and the Free Library of Philadelphia, are surprisingly engrossing. The more you stare, the more details are revealed, from the flow of a fabric canopy over Mary’s Annunciation, to the trace of each feather of a hawk in the “Month of April.” (The Claude Master did seem a bit more skilled at the non-human elements, which sometimes are more simply depicted than their backgrounds.) While there wasn’t much in illuminated books after the 16th century, here you have one of its last glorious creators, working at such a scale as if to test the extremes of the disappearing tradition.
Miracles in Miniature: The Art of the Master of Claude de France continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 14.