The great masters of the Books of Hours were three brothers, Pol, John and Herman, from Limbourg, in the Netherlands. After serving an apprenticeship in Paris they entered the employ of the Duc de Berry. Their masterpiece is the ”Tres Riches Heures” , now in Chantilly. It includes a calendar of the months; each picture shows a typical activity in the foreground, with a famous castle rising superbly, fantastically, in the background. The colors, especially the precious lapis lazuli, are pure and bright; the figures are rendered in the round, arrested in motion. Men and horses standing in sunlight cast shadows on the ground. This, we are told, is an ”epochal innovation”.
The realism in detail is governed by a poetic, magical imagination, a suggestion of wonder, an escape from reality. It may not be indecent to mention illustrator-artist Maxwell Parrish who sought and often captured the same spirit with a similar technique; dazzlingly luminous colors, saturated hues and a similar sense of idealization. Perhaps there is another, almost secret quality in the Tres Riches Heures. The acute Erwin Panofsky remarks that in the scenes of daily life there is a sharp distinction between the nobles and the poor: ”The farmers and shephers now suffer all the cold and do all the work whereas the court of the Duc de Berry does all the feasting, hunting and love-making.”
To Panofsky, the style had two prevalent characteristics, aside from the hybrid qualities of being both art/illustration and literary manuscript. First and foremost it was a style of display, of social display; a demonstration of conspicuous consumption as a means of reasserting leadership and control in terms of a social hierarchy in a period of rapid social mobility. ”Les Riches Heures” is not the first impression of a harmonious and fertile social order, but of a managed, and perceived to be necessary, social differences. Though the styles social insecurities may be glimpsed the ”nocturnal aspect” of late medieval culture, was bubbling and present; an emphasis on disillusionment, morbidity, and nostalgia in the pathological sense of the word.
But after all, this is a mere matter of common observation, hardly implying protest. If any social criticism was intended , it was surely imperceptible to the duke and his court. The most we dare say is that the contrast between rich and poor, between penury and magnificence, increases with deepening misery. The deprivations of the poor seem, strangely enough, to provoke the ostentations of the rich.
”Meiss’s emphasis on the “realism” of the miniatures in the Très riches heures has been significantly tempered by more recent scholars. Jonathan Alexander has emphasized that the miniatures should not be seen as transparent windows into the fifteenth century, but rather the calendar images should be understood as constructions based on the codes and conventions of the princely culture of the early fifteenth century….Where modern critics like Meiss and Panofsky put a priority on the “realistic” details of the miniature as evidence of the inscreasing naturalism of art of the period, the contemporary viewer would have focused on the splendor of the objects represented in the miniature. The rich colors especially the ultramarine blue and gold were seen as clear symbols of status. The blue used here would need to have been ground from a semi-precious stone known as lapis lazuli that would need to have been imported from the orient. The contemporary viewer would have clearly been aware of the preciousness of the materials used in the creation of the miniature. It is not by chance that the dominant colors associated with Jean de Berry in the miniature are the blue of his gown and the gold of the firescreen that acts almost like a halo behind the duke. With its emphasis on display, court culture put a major emphasis on the quality of the fabric worn. The fine fabrics with embroideries of gold and silver threads were signs of social position.”
Jean,Duc de Berry, outlived all his brothers and died in 1416. In his last moments his confessor enjoined him to return to the Abbey of St. Denis the great manuscript of the ”Chroniques de France” that he had ”borrowed”. He was a collector to the last.
”Although the Duc de Berry owned a large part of central France and governed the Languedoc, he was often unable to meet the enormous expenses of his extraordinarily luxurious life. A great patron and friend of artists and a passionate collector, he commissioned works of all kinds; he loved sumptuous buildings, rare jewels, and richly illuminated books.
Accompanied by his servants, chaplain, and artist, he moved constantly between the seventeen or more palaces, châteaus, and hôtels or private mansions that he owned, some of which are depicted in the Très Riches Heures. Even his tapestries, decorated with historical scenes, were transported to adorn the walls of each residence in which he gave magnificent receptions for his family and retinue, served by his personal cup-bearers, pantlers, and carvers, such as we see in the Très Riches Heures in the painting for January (folio 2r) . A relaxed atmosphere existed between this princely patron and the artists he employed, for he enjoyed their company and often guided them in their work; Jean Froissart describes him deeply engrossed in a discussion of new works with André Beauneveu, his master s
tor and painter. He bestowed favors upon them, and they in turn were generous with their gifts to him. In 1408 the painter Jean d’Orléans presented him with “une belle pomme de musc” (“musk in an apple-shaped container”) that opened in the middle and was decorated within. In 1410 and 1415 Paul de Limbourg gave him similar gifts.