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Review: The Hours of Jeanne d' Evreux at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.



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Review: Prayer Book for a Queen: The Hours of Jeanne d' Evreux.

Also on view: Devotions and Diversions: Prints and Books from the Late
Middle Ages in Northern Europe.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Both run from May 11-August 29, 1999.


The Hours of Jeanne d' Evreux is  (if you'll excuse the expression) an
exquisite little book. It is 3.5/8 inches by 2.3/8. It was most likely
produced in 1324 as a wedding gift for the young Queen of France. It is a
Book of Hours, that is a book of psalms, saint's days and prayers for the
Queen's private devotions. Such books were a common status symbol for
upper-class women of the late Middle Ages. Jeanne's is among the finest,
with refined "grisaille" (grey) drawings touched with color here and
there.

That much information is provided for the visitor to this excellent show,
a lifetime opportunity to see most, if not all, of the pages of Jeanne' s
book side-by side: the book has been temporarily unbound for conservation
and photography. Some, but not all of the pages, are inserted into
two-sided freestanding frames, and each frame is equipped with a
magnifying glass so that the viewer can truly appreciate the details of
the work. It's hard not to overuse the glass, especially for the delicate
drolleries cavorting in the margins which the Museum's handouts prudently
call " highly inventive marginalia." What these "highly inventive
marginalia" might be about, or even what the book as a whole might be
about, is passed under silence.


For the women who owned them, Books of Hours may have been liberating at
first: instead of public attendance at Mass, private devotions left free
rein to the individual's private religious sensibilities; and perhaps the
strange figures, the animals and monsters cavorting in the margins, were
tokens of this freedom. Of course, that would mean imagining this freedom
from the point of view of the Protestant Ethic. Books of Hours may have
anticipated the Reformation but that is no reason to assume their original
purpose was the affirmation of individualism.

At any rate the Book of Hours soon became a means to extend social control
into women's private lives. Jeanne d' Evreux was 14 years old when she
married Charles IV of France. Her job was to produce a desperately needed
male heir for the Throne. She produced three daughters, and the
Hundred-Year War began soon afterwards.

To understand the images in a Book of Hours is to plunge into an inferno
of sexual anxiety and pressure. This is not "repression" in the Freudian
sense, since the images are exceedingly frank. While the large images at
the centre of the page usually narrate scenes from the life of Mary or
Jesus, the "images on the edge" are a scatological commentary from which
it was hoped, perhaps, that the reader would turn her eyes, just as the
monks in the cloister walk might turn away in fright and disgust from the
lecherous carvings on the columns.

Jeanne's book is dominated by sexual hysteria: it seems to have been
designed by a Dominican preacher to show her what good girls do and don't
do. There are men with their instruments (mostly horns and bagpipes),
pussy-cats and mouse-holes, mingled with scenes of promiscuity. Under the
image of the Betrayal of Christ two men practice sticking their spears
into a hole. Many of the images "rhyme," so that for instance the posture
of Jeanne praying is repeated elsewhere, in the figure of a man putting
away his, uh, sword.

None of this is mentioned in the show at the Met. There is no catalog,
unless you plan to shell out 5300.00 dollars for the facsimile (but hey,
there's a 10% discount for Museum members). The humble can buy a cd with
the usual zooms in and out, and the usual platitudes intoned in a
limp-wristed voice.

Being a medievalist is like being a figure on those medieval images of the
Wheel of Fortune: interest wanes, interest rises, and you must wait it
out. Interest in the Middle Ages is growing, once again. Unfortunately,
once again the Middle Ages are used as an instrument of repression (in the
Freudian sense, this time) by uncritical association with so-called
"traditional" values. This show is a treat; the implications drawn by its
organizers are disquieting.

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