April in a book illustrating the months of the year, illuminated by the master of Claude de France.Graham S. Haber / Morgan Library and Museum
What Wieck sees in the Claude master is a marvelous painter “who worked in book form.” While “Trinity Adored by the Choirs of Angels” is the only full-page illustration in Claude’s prayer book, the artist painted 132 borders not composed of the flowers and laurels common in many manuscripts, but rather of miniature paintings of scenes from the lives of Christ, the Virgin Mary and numerous saints. Each, wrote Sterling, “contains an entire Lilliputian world alive with crowds of people, city streets and vast luminous landscapes.”
Walking around the exhibition, Wieck gets joy from singling out a few and beams (again), saying, “His colors are outstanding. I call his palette sorbetesque — raspberry, plum, lilacs, green. His deepest color is royal blue. His application of paint is so delicate that his brushstrokes are almost invisible. Also the scale: it’s of a jeweler or enamelist. There was a fashion for small books. Just as cellphones got smaller and sleeker and skinnier, so books got smaller too.” In the time of Queen Claude, who was the first wife of King François I (1494–1547), the smaller the prayer book, the more important its owner.
The fact that master of Claude worked for the royal courts attests to his prominence in his lifetime. François I was a patron of the arts; he bought the “Mona Lisa” and in 1516 lured Leonardo da Vinci from Italy to France, where he spent his last three years. Francois also vastly expanded the royal art collection that eventually formed the basis of the Louvre and started the construction of Chateau de Chambord, one of the most beautiful and largest chateaux in the Loire Valley.
Wieck is certainly sold on the Claude master; he coveted the prayer book for years, and when its owner, Elaine Rosenberg, called him in 2008 to say she would donate it to the Morgan, he got in a cab immediately and went to get it. In recent years, he has also acquired the 12 calendar pages, a single book-of-hours page showing the agony in the garden and a cutting from a choir book with the image of Christ carrying the cross, purchased just a few weeks before his exhibit opened. “In my 20s I lost my religion,” he says, “but I did not lose my appreciation for the art associated with that religion. I didn’t say, ‘I’ll never look at a church again.’ ”
“Miracles in Miniature” is on view through Sept. 14.