Image and Meaning in the Floral Borders of the Hours of Catherine of Cleves

Image and Meaning in the Floral Borders of the Hours of Catherine of Cleves

By Elizabeth R. Schaeffer

Master’s Thesis,  Eastern Illinois University, 1987

Hours of Catherine of Cleves 1

Introduction: The Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, produced in the Netherlands in the early 15th century, is one of the most beautiful and complex manuscripts of the late Middle Ages. The Master’s remarkable originality in his choice and depiction of imagery in the borders of this manuscript has been the focus of much of the literature on the manuscript. Equally inventive is his symbolic use of the floral images in these borders, yet little has been made of this subject. An understanding of the meaning of these floral border images is, however, important to a complete understanding of the manuscript. Of particular interest are the realistic flowers seen in the borders of the illuminations of the first quarter of the manuscript—the Hours of the Virgin and the Hours of the Cross. These realistic floral images will be the focus of this paper.

The method the Master used to select and depict the realistic floral images in the borders of the Hours of the Virgin and the Hours of the Cross shows evidence of the influence of the Devotio Moderna, a vital philosophical movement in the Netherlands of the late Middle Ages having a strong influence on the culture within which the Master worked. I will structure this study of the Master’s use of floral symbolic imagery on three of the tenets of this philosophy.

Three tenets of the Devotio Moderna in particular are in accord with the Master’s choice of plant forms and his use of them as symbols in the border. The first tenet is the value of study of the immediate physical world as a means of understanding God’s will. Accordingly, the Master looked to the immediate world to find his models for the images of recognizable plant forms seen in his borders.

Hours of Catherine of Cleves 2The second tenet is the value of individual experience and interpretation in gaining that understanding of God’s will. The Master found symbolic meaning in these real plants, based not only upon accepted canonical iconography, but also upon his own experience, including both experience with the plants as they grew and experience with the uses of these plants described in herbals. In several cases, these plants are seen for the first time in art in the borders of the Cleves Master.

The third tenet is the value of expressing this personal understanding of God’s will in terms of daily common experience. While the Master used the flowers of established church symbolism, he also used plant forms that he had taken from daily experience, using these plants to convey a vernacular, rather than a canonical symbolic meaning. The Master went farther in his imaginative exaggeration to emphasize symbolism in these common plants with their vernacular meaning. This exaggeration of certain parts of an otherwise realistic floral image is one of the clues demonstrating which images were used symbolically. The influence of the tenets can be seen, then, in the Master’s 1) observation of plant forms, 2) interpretation of these forms, and 3) expression of them in forms that emphasized that symbolism.

In the Hours of the Virgin and the Hours of the Cross, the Master used the rose, violet, pea, physalis, calendula, daffodil, strawberry, bindweed, nightshade, mugwort, and honesty in borders that relate to scenes of the life of the Virgin and the Passion of Christ. More specifically, he used Rosa Gallica var. officinalis, Viola odorata, Pisum sativum, Physalis alkekengi, Calendula officinalis, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, Fragaria vesca, Convolvulus, Solanum dulcamara, Artemisia vulgaris, and Lunaria annus.

Many of these images had not been seen in illumination before the Cleves Master. Those taken from church iconography were changed to emphasize their meaning in ways that had not been seen before.

Within the borders of the first two sets of hours, the Master further related these symbolic floral images to the imagery of the miniature. The result of this was twofold. First, the relationship of the border image to the symbolism of the miniature reinforced the meaning of the miniature. Second, the relationship of border image to miniature enlarged the meaningful area of the page.

The Master’s breadth of choice and individual handling of the floral images in the borders of the Cleves Hours often make these images difficult to recognize and to interpret today. By a series of comparisons one can see that these images are important to a complete understanding of the Cleves Hours. By comparing the images in the borders to plants known to have grown in the Netherlands in the late Middle Ages, one can see that the Master did indeed choose his images from live models. By comparing his choice of plants to those plants described in herbals and used symbolically in literature, one can see that the Master’s choice of plants was often guided by non-visual influences. By comparing the floral images in the borders with both the images of the real plants and the other images of the same plant within the borders themselves, one can see that the Master often exaggerated parts of the image to emphasize this symbolism. Finally, by comparing the meaning of the exaggerated image in the border to the meaning of the miniature, one can see that the border image does indeed reflect and support the symbolic meaning of the miniature, adding significantly to the meaning of the whole.

Click here to read this thesis from SchaefferArts

Please also visit the main page of the SchaefferArts website to learn more about the reproduction of historical clothing

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Smartphone and Tablet users click here to sign up for
our weekly email