In the late Middle Ages, Utrecht was considered the centre of the northern Netherlands in terms of manuscript illumination. Countless manuscripts were illuminated by Utrecht's masters in a distinctive style that that was easy to identify. The magnificently illustrated books of hours, in particular, were extremely popular items among the elite in the northern Low Countries and beyond.
In many cases, the true name of an Utrecht master has been lost in time. These masters are therefore referred to with a name derived from one of their best-known commissioners, a famous work, or a specific style. It should be noted, however, that some of these names actually refer to a group of people who used or imitated a similar style.
Passed down through the generations, there are still manuscripts in existence dating back to the late 11th century that are thought to have been decorated by Utrecht artists. The styles of individual masters can be differentiated as far back as the 14th century, although Utrecht did not become a centre for illuminated manuscripts until the 15th century, with a group of about ten renowned masters leading the way.
The Hours of Kunera van Leefdael (Ms. 5 J 26), housed in the Special Collections of Utrecht University Library, features delicate illuminations by the Master of the Morgan Infancy Cycle. The illumination of a transcript of Postilla in Prophetas by Nicolaus de Lyra (Ms. 252) is attributed to a contemporary, known as the Master of Otto van Moerdrecht.
Otto van Moerdrecht, canon of the cathedral chapter, donated this manuscript to the Carthusian monastery Nieuwlicht in 1424. It is known that the Master of Otto van Moerdrecht worked with the Master of Zweder van Culemborg on the Egmond Breviary, one page of which is also found in the Special Collections (Ms. 12 C 17).
Sometime around 1430, the Master of Zweder van Culemborg illuminated a book of hours for an unknown customer (Hs. 1037), as well as a transcript of Confessiones (Hs. 41) by Augustine. Without question, the Master of Catherine of Cleves was Utrecht’s most famous illuminator and is credited with creating the beautiful illuminations in the Liber pontificalis (Ms. 400) in around 1450. The artist’s assistants decorated a transcript of Gregory the Great's Moralia in Job (Ms. 87), which contains images of fanciful creatures.
Cathedral canon Jacobus Johannes IJsbrandus commissioned the illumination of a book of hours (Ms. 15 C 5), which was completed by the Master of Gijsbrecht van Brederode during the third quarter of the 15th century. A contemporary of the artist, the Master of Yolande van Lalaing, decorated at least two pages of an extensive missal (Ms. 403) for the chapter of Saint Mary's.
The last Utrecht master of note is Antonnis Rogierszoon Uten Broec (also known as the Master of Boston City of God). Active mainly in the 1460s, he illuminated several works including a book of hours (Ms. 5 J 27) and a transcript of Confessiones (Ms. 40) by Augustinus.
The manuscripts decorated by these masters feature the distinctive Utrecht penwork, in which small dragons typical for Utrecht illuminations are regularly depicted. The heyday of the Utrecht masters of manuscript illumination ended rather abruptly in the 1470s, when the earliest Utrecht bookprinters also left the city.
This marked the end of Utrecht’s position as a cultural centre, a distinction it had held for a long time.