Mary of Guelders and her extraordinary prayer book

December 12, 2017

From 13 October 2018 to 6 January 2019, Museum Het Valkhof will open its doors to the exhibition: I, Mary of Guelders. The duchess and her extraordinary prayer book, which will be organised in close collaboration with Radboud University. It will be the first extensive exposition on the life of this almost modern and self-assured medieval noblewoman, who is sometimes likened to Máxima, current queen of Holland, as there are many parallels between their respective lives. The exhibition is based on new and multidisciplinary research and will feature over 100 artefacts, including top pieces from international collections that have not been on display in Holland before, which will have the effect of immersing the visitor in the story of Mary’s life. Highlight of the exhibition is the 40 specially selected and restored pages from her extensive prayer book, one of the greatest medieval art treasures of the country. Due to its vulnerability, the book has been kept under lock and key for many years, and to keep it safe after the exposition it will have to be bound in such a way that will make exhibitions like this impossible. In addition to miniatures and manuscripts, visitors can enjoy paintings, fabrics, jewellery, sculptures, stained glass and sculptures of saints. The exhibition will be held exclusively at Museum Het Valkhof. 

Life as she knew it

French princess Mary d’Harcourt (1380- after 1427) spent her formative years at the court of Valentina Visconti, wife of Duke Louis d’Orléans. Here she became familiar with the splendour of life at court, but also with its darker aspects, such as intrigue and slander. In 1405 the well-educated Mary married Reinald IV, duke of Guelders and Gulik, whose lands stretched from Zwolle to Aachen and from Gorinchem to Bonn. The arts flourished in this region and many of the developments that characterise the 15th century originated here: painters like Johan Maelwael and the Limbourg brothers came from the area, and Cologne ranked alongside Paris as one of the most important centres for artistic crafts. In this context, the prayer book was manufactured. The exhibition follows Mary’s story by focussing on several key moments in her life that can be directly linked to artistic artefacts of crucial importance: in addition to the prayer book - the absolute highlight of the exhibition - these include a polychrome Mary statue from around 1380 from Renkum, two statues from the Saint Peter’s portal and a large panel from the alter of the Poor Clares from Cologne Cathedral that have never been on display outside of Cologne, and three precious liturgical robes and leaded windows form the Altenberg Abbey, burial church to the Dukes of Berg.

Extraordinary prayer book

Mary of Guelders’ 1,200-page prayer book is extraordinary in both length and composition. In addition to an illustrated calendar, the book contains about 100 miniatures and numerous small drolleries in the margins. The texts themselves – highly personal prayers, several of which were especially written for Mary, but also non-traditional prayers that were often adapted to fit the book – bear testimony to a highly developed literary and devotional culture. The illumination is extraordinary as well, both from a stylistic and iconographic point of view. Influences from important international centres for book illumination – Utrecht, Cologne, Paris – are brought together to form a unique visual language. Many illustrations seem to have been inspired by the work of the Limbourg brothers, who visited Nijmegen at the time that Mary’s manuscript was being illuminated.   

International and one-time premiere

Mary of Guelders’ prayer book has been kept in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin since the 17th century and was unbound 40 years ago. Over the last few decades only a limited number of pages were exhibited on the very rarest of occasions. In 2005 the book was locked away for good: due to the damage, the parchment had sustained it was deemed too vulnerable to be put on display, which is why this ‘hidden treasure’ remains unknown to the public at large. The exhibition is going to change that, with Museum Het Valkhof – almost 10 years after the successful exposition on the Limbourg brothers - getting the international and one-time premiere of exhibiting a selection of 40 pages that are representative of the unprecedented wealth contained in this highly personal document. The selection will be presented in two parts of 20 pages each, which will be swapped half-way through the exposition. 

Multidisciplinary research and restoration

A multidisciplinary team of ten scholars supervised by Professor Johan Oosterman, professor of Old Dutch Literature at Radboud University’s Faculty of Arts and guest curator of the exhibition, are responsible for the extensive art historical and technical research that form the basis for this exposition. The technical research, performed in collaboration with restaurators of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin and scientists of the Rathgen laboratory Berlin, focusses on the ageing of the parchment and the extensive mechanical damage it sustained, on the pigments and on the underdrawings and instructions for the illuminators. Art historians are taking a closer look at the working process, division of labour and the iconography of the illumination. Finally, cultural historians are delving deeper into the historical context of the prayer book. The results will be presented in 2018 during the exhibition as well as in the accompanying catalogue and during a scientific congress. To prepare for the upcoming exhibition, work on the restauration of this unique artefact has started in October 2017.   

The exhibition I, Mary of Guelders is made possible by the Staatbibliothek zu Berlin, the province of Gelderland, the municipality of Nijmegen, the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung, the Foundation for Art, Books and Collections and the crowdfunders.