Miniatures in Detail
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Belles Heures of Jean Duke of Berry

John, Duke of Berry and the Belles Heures

As far as the work is concerned, the Belles Heures was the most expensive of the six Books of Hours commissioned by the Duke. Nowhere else were such amounts of gold leaf used; even with one-line initials and the line fillers, highly polished gold leaf was the chief component. Only the Très Riches Heures can compete in this light, but since this work only contains several scroll borders, it falls behind the Belles Heures that boasts ivy leaf vines with up to 500 radiant, golden leaves of exquisite quality on every of its 448 parchment pages. Thus, it is no surprise that the overall impression of this book is all but defined by the ivy leaf ornamentation. If we take into account that the Duke of Berry, in the same years in which the Belles Heures was created, also commissioned the Très Belles Heures and the Grandes Heures, such a distinction must also have supplied its appeal to the Duke himself. However, the filigree borders do not detract from the splendid illustrations. To optimise their creative potential, the Limbourg Brothers did not fit their illuminations into predestined spaces among the text. Many images filled an entire page and functioned as independent cycles, uninterrupted by text. Their composition reminds the viewer of larger canvases, of panel paintings, stained-glass imagery, or of frescos. And precisely this pictorial riches makes the Belles Heures one of the most alluring books of all time. When the book was first commissioned in 1404, its planned imagery seems to have been quite modest, but the first finished pages with their miniatures and initials so thrilled the Duke that he ordered more cycles of paintings. Les Belles Heures du Duc de Berry This is how the Duke's most richly decorated Book of Hours came into existence. The 172 miniatures did not merely start off the common divisions within a Book of Hours, but also illuminated atypical text sequences in a manner not seen outside picture books. On top of this, the miniatures offered innovations in abundance: the highly dramatised rendition of a storm-swept sky, and the surging waves deserve special mention. The landscape of Sinai with the monastery of St. Catherine, built from enormous stones, shows the rugged mountainous surroundings in a depiction of never-before precision. The treatment of shapes and light reaches an unsurpassed mastery, with breathtakingly glowing colours, forceful reds and blues, combined with delicate greens and yellows. It is the otherworldly shine of these colours, the beauty of which reflects the ideal beauty of God, and a paradisical-utopian world devoid of shadows. No wonder, then, that this Belles Heures represented a special treasure to the Duke. Contrary to his habit, he did not apply a personal property note, but instead asked his scribe Jean Flamel to add a kind of Ex Libris in the most elegant, ornate lettering. Added to this sign of the owner's pride, five pages show representations of the Duke's crest, two portraits of him, and one of his second wife, Jeanne de Boulogne - all of these clear indications that this magnificent manuscript should be seen as the most personal of all of the Duke's Books of Hours.

The Cycle of Pictures on the Life of St. Jerome and the Legenda Aurea

To the rarer parts of a Book of Hours belongs the cycle of pictures on the life of St. Jerome. St. Jerome (born in 347 in Dalmatia, died 30 September 420 in Bethlehem) was a Church Father, Saint, scientist, and theologist. He is one of the four Western church thinkers of late antiquity, together with Ambrose of Milan, Augustine, and Pope Gregory I. Among his greatest achievements is his translation of the Holly Scripture, the Vulgata. Often in mediaeval Evangelions, one finds a letter he wrote to Pope Damasus, in which he justifies his translation apologetically. Yet it was this Vulgata which formed the canonically recognised Holy Scripture for 1500 years.

What the Limbourg brothers illuminated about St. Jerome, was his story concerning the Legenda Aurea. This Golden Legend is a collection of originally 182 treatises, pertaining to church festivals and above all to the life histories of saints and their legends, authored by the Dominican Jacobus de Voragine (circa 1230-1298). With this collection, Jacobus, Archbishop of Genoa from 1292 until his death in 1298, created the most famous and widely-read religious book of folk tales in the Middle Ages. The stories in it may not have always been factually true; they did constitute, together with the martyrologies, one of the most important sources of the veneration of saints for many centuries. Also the saints' attributes, so important to iconography, have the Golden Legend as their primary source. In the miniature on fol. 186V (which directly precedes the one mentioned below), for instance, St. Jerome is shown with his symbols: a book and a red cardinal's hat. He is also often portrayed with a lion, and the origins of this depiction have been masterfully painted by the Limbourg brothers here: the saint pulls a thorn from the lion's paw. In the Golden Legend the story is described as follows: "One day a lion came into the monastery's enclosure. While others fled, Jerome welcomed it as a guest. The lion showed him its paw and was relieved with meticulous care, and it lived, having relinquished all dangerousness, among them." Of this lion speaks the following miniature, which we would like to regard more closely now.

Fol. 187r: Of the Lion and the Disappeared Donkey

On a smaller scale as usual for the Belles Heures, many people and animals are shown. A sizeable story is told here: to earn its stay in the monastery, the lion had to make itself useful during daily work. Its job it was to look after the donkey. Yet the lion fell asleep one day and the donkey disappeared without trace. This is shown in the excerpt on the right.

The friars suspected the lion of having consumed the donkey. In reality, however, travelling salesmen had taken it to guide their camels on the dangerous trails through the desert. Still, the lion was punished by having to do the donkey's work: at left we see how the friars burden it with their firewood.

One day, however, the lion makes out the caravan with his donkey at the head. The lion drives the camels and donkey back to the monastery while the salesmen flee. Here we see how the salesmen are praying to St. Jerome for forgiveness, and to ask him if they can have their heavily-laden camels back. What will Jerome decide?

These and many other interesting stories, masterfully illuminated with 172 miniatures by the Limbourg Brothers, coupled with the golden glory of the vines and initials, make up the Duke's Belles Heures fascination, a fascination that will spellbind every lover of books.