“In its dissected form, the Belles Heures is an immersive look at life, death and devotion in 15th-century France. Its seven picture-book insertions distinguish it from other books of hours and amount to a remarkable cache of well-preserved medieval painting. They look back to Giotto’s 13th-century frescoes and ahead to the Northern Renaissance.”
The “Belles Heures” , a prayer book commissioned in the early years of the fifteenth century, is now receiving its due as a radiant masterpiece of the late Middle Ages.Think of it as religion in the form of the graphic novel. If art can be said to reveal the spirit of an age, then the decorated pages of the “Belles Heures” of the Duc du Berry are proof only that the fifteenth century in France was a period of extraordinary contrasts. Certainly, the sparkling minatures of saints and angels seem to have little or nothing to do with the mundane horrors that people faced.
By all accounts, the dawn of the fifteenth century was a time of chronic war, injustice, misery, and pestilence.¨Poets like Eustache Deschamps wrote melancholy lyrics of a world in decline: ” Time of mourning and temptation,/ Age of tears, of envy and torment,/ Time of languor and damnation,/ A declining age near its end,/ Time full of horror…
Even the church was in trouble. It was rumored that not one soul had entered paradise since the Great Schism began. Outbreaks of the plague were common, taxes were high, and political stability…whats that? In such a world, a beautiful Book of Hours provided welcome escape, at least for the few who could afford one.
The “Belles Heures” is the first of two Books of Hours with miniatures by the Limbourg brothers, artists in the service of the Duc de Berry. The later work: the “Tres Belles Heures” in the Musée Condé, Chantilly, has been widely reproduced, but it took longer for The “Belles Heures” to attain the same recognition. The prince commissioned the “Belles Heures” some time around 1405, toward the end of a long life as the powerful ruler of the duchy of Berry in central France. Son of the Valois king John II, the Duc de Berry and his brothers; King Charles V, Philip the Bold of Burgundy, and Louis of Anjou; were the great collectors and art patrons of their time.
“All the 172 miniatures of the Limbourg brothers have a vivacity and colourfulness that secure for them a place in the history of illumination. Every miniature and every page of the text of the Belles Heures of Jean Duke of Berry is surrounded by decorative filigree scrollwork with up to 500 gold glowing ivy leaves. But even this sumptuous decoration is excelled by the playfully arranged luminous elements on the prime pages introducing the Office of the Virgin and the Office of the Dead. This luxurious decoration, which is extraordinarily exuberant even for a Book of Hours from the ducal library, achieves perfection in the use of countless ornamented initials that extend over one or several lines and are painted in red, blue and glowing gold – the colours of the ducal crest. The combination of gold leaf and shell gold in the miniatures creates permanently glowing and glittering effects. The fruitful combination of his generous patronage and their unique talent brought about a working atmosphere of unmatched creativity without which a masterpiece such as the Belles Heures would never have been possible.”
Of them all, the Duc de berry seems to have had the greatest love for his collection, and the closest relationship with the artists he employed. Much of the duke’s enormous collection has disappeared. During his lifetime, he was occasionally forced to sell gems and melt down precious gold jewels to pay his soldiers. Over the centuries the tapestries that brought warmth and color to drab castle walls have almost all disappeared; most of the castles the duke built have crumbled. But, of the nearly three hundred manuscripts known to have been in his library, about a third remain today. Portable and relatively easy to protect, the books are his enduring legacy.
aption-text">"Diocrès, Bruno, and Carthusians Diocrès Cries out from his Coffin, Folio 94v When the deceased scholar lifts his coffin lid to cry out during his funeral, the attendant monks react with expressions ranging from dismay to wonderment to horror. The scene takes place in a deep space in a cathedral, seen behind a framing double arcade."