People, Places, and Backgrounds
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Jean, Duke of Berry

John, Duke of Berry

Jean de France (1340-1416), Duke of Berry, was the third son of King John II of France. He was born 30 November 1340 in the Castle of Vincennes and would become Duke of Poitiers and later of Berry and Auvergne. He was the brother of King Charles V of France, of Duke Louis I of Anjou and of Philip the Bold of Burgundy. Finally, he was the uncle of the later mentally-ill King Charles VI and of Duke Louis of Orleans. This list of names illustrates that John, Duc of Berry was not a poor and historically insignificant figure. We cannot call him 'modest', either: despite not being blessed with beauty, no less than 66 representations of him survive on seals, in miniatures and in sculpture, that he commissioned and allowed to resemble him closely. Among the best-known portraits are the January miniature of his Très Riches Heures, portraying him as the host of a New Year's Reception, and his founder's image in his Brussels Book of Hours, in which he kneels, praying to his patron saint, John the Baptist, and to St. Andrew, commending himself to Our Lady.

John, Duke of Berry and his day

France during the times of the Duke of Berry was certainly a country rich in contrast - or even in contradictions. On the one hand, most citizens lived in bitter poverty, continually threatened by disease, hunger, and death. Flagellants walked the countryside, as depicted here in an image from the Belles Heures. On the other hand, there were a few privileged 'members' of society: noblemen and clerical aristocracy, whose simultaneous wastefulness and treasure hunting formed their trademark. A contemporary chronicler writes: "The nobility hates and despise the commoners (…), they suppress the farmers and take their villages. They do not concern themselves with the defence of their land, but only think about how best to kick down and rob their subjects." And politically, things did not look any better. Les Belles Heures du Duc de Berry Since 1337, France was fighting the Hundred Years' War with England, during which the young Duke, after a defeat, was taken hostage to London for a time. This happened to be also where he fell for an English lady-in-waiting. The unlucky outcome of the relationship can still be viewed in the miniatures of (wounded) swans, heraldic animals which the Duke worked into his manuscripts' coat-of-arms.

John, Duke of Berry as collector and patron of the arts

Important to art history, of course, are his both role as patron of the leading artists of his time in France, and his role as a collector. In altogether 17 castles and fortresses that he established or had converted, he collected spectacular wealth: the inventories speak of splinters of the Holy Cross, the chalice from which Christ drank at the Cana Wedding, the engagement ring of St. Joseph; even the bones of the Holly Innocent, and a baby tooth of the Madonna. Added to that we find many boxes and capsules with poisons and antidotes, "miracles of nature" such as ostrich eggs, snake teeth, porcupine breasts etc. He possessed three bags with azure paint, which is the rarest powdered lapis lazuli, and no fewer than 20 rubies of extraordinary quality - one of the stones weighed 240 carats - thus, perhaps, the most beautiful collection of all time. All of it was lost eventually, as was the bulk of the Grails and Crosses, the Byzantine vases, the clocks and antique coins, the paintings in their gem-studded frames, the gold fabrics of Lucca, and the porcelain. Yet his true love was reserved for his books...

John, Duke of Berry and his library

The Duke was practically born with a love of books: his father, John the Good of France, already had a magnificent book collection by the time he became King of France (1350-1364) and Bonne of Luxembourg. His successor and the Duke's brother, Charles V, had built up the richest book collection of his time by the end of his reign in 1380. From contemporary sources, we know that John of Berry had his own collection of almost 300 books, among them the most beautiful ones ever to come from Europe, such as the Book of Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux (1325-1328), or the Book of Wonders by Marco Polo (1410-1412). Altogether, John of Berry owned 41 Chronicles, 38 chivalric novels, 24 manuscripts on science and art, and 14 treatises on politics and philosophy. Marco Polo - The Book of Wonders Added to these were 14 bibles, 16 psalters, 17 breviaries, 6 missals, and 15 Books of Hours. He 'forgot' to return borrowed book treasures on several occasions, and when he gave a book as a present, he would demand its return once the recipient had died. Even his younger brother, Philip of Burgundy, managed to collect 200 manuscript of his own, and his sister Isabella deserves to be mentioned here also, as she played an important role in the founding and development of the exquisite libraries in Milan and Pavia as the wife of Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti.

John, Duke of Berry and his Books of Hours

The undisputed crown on his collection were his magnificent Books of Hours. Six of these have survived to this day, and are counted among the most beautiful of all European art history. These six Books are:

  • The Petites Heures (Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, Ms. lat. 18014), whose miniatures were mostly created before 1388 by Jacquemart de Hesdin and four anonymous masters
  • A Book of Hours, today divided into three parts: a) The Très Belles Heures de Nôtre-Dame (Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, Ms. nouv. acq. lat. 3093), started in 1384 and later continued among others by the Limbourg brothers. These artists created, before its division in 1413, one of the most monumental manuscripts of their times. Today, the name Très Belles Heures denotes the actual Book of Hours. b) The Turin-Milanese Book of Hours (Museo Civico, Turin, Inv. Nr. 47), the part with the missal with miniatures by Jan van Eyck, and c) The pages in the Louvre (Louvre, Departement des arts graphiques, Paris, RF 2022-2025), i.e. the saved folios of the last part of the book of prayer, which was damaged by fire in 1904
  • The Brussels Book of Hours, started before or right after 1402
  • The Grandes Heures (Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, Ms. lat. 919), by Jacquemart de Hesdin, as well as the so-called Pseudo-Jacquemart, started in 1409 by the Bedford Master and completed by a painter from the workshop of the same master who illustrated the Book of Hours of Marschalls Boucicaut
  • The Belles Heures (Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters, New York, Acc. No. 54.1.1) illustrated by the Limbourg brothers and completed around 1410
  • The Très Riches Heures (Musée Conde, Chantilly, Ms. 65), commissioned around 1410 but still uncompleted at the Duke's death, and finished only around 1485

Each one of these splendid manuscripts deserves a detailed description, but here the Belles Heures ought to take centre stage - and with it, of course, the Limbourg Brothers.

John, Duke of Berry and the Limbourg Brothers

The brothers Paul, Jean, and Herman Limbourg (born 1385/90 in Nijmegen, the capital of Gelderland, and died 1416 in Bourges), came from a family originally from the Aachen area. Their father was a woodcarver, their uncle the celebrated Burgundy court painter Jean Malouel. He had designed heraldic patterns for the tapestries for Isabeau of Bavaria, the wife of the mentally-ill King Charles VI. Later, in 1397, he advanced to the position of court painter of Philip the Bold of Burgundy, the brother of the Duke of Berry. It was also Malouel who invited Jean and Herman to Paris and thus to one of the artistic centres of Europe, where the two brothers worked as goldsmith's apprentices in 1399. Paul, the most talented of the three, came later. Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy commissioned the illumination of his Bible Moralisée to them, at wages so high that they must have already made a name for themselves by then. After Philip's death, the Duke of Berry managed, probably around 1408, to hire the Limbourg Brothers as replacements for the deceased Jacquemart de Hesdin. When the Duke moved the atelier to Bourges, Paul, the oldest and most respected of the three brothers, received a beautiful house in 1411, in which the treasurer of the Duke had lived before, and which was later, in 1434, described as one of the most distinguished residences in the town. The relationship between the Duke and the brothers must have been close; sources disclose how especially Paul was showered with gifts. The Duke sent them to Italy to study the Lombardy art which he admired. The Brothers' work forms the highlight of the time around 1410, as well as the end of an era and a transition into the next epoch. But by 1416 all three painters, not even 30 years old, had died, probably of the same plague that claimed the Duke the same year, at the age of 76. The Très Riches Heures remained unfinished, yet is together with the Belles Heures one of the most beautiful books of all time.