Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry: Squared Humanity inscribed in the Universe of God

Among art works preserved in the Condé Museum in Chantilly, in France, there is a lavishly illuminated and decorated manuscript created at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Commonly known from French as Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry [The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry], the bookcontains undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and important cycle of Gothic miniatures shaped by the Late Middle Ages (Żylińska 1986:236; Białostocki 2008:213).

The Limbourg Brothers and the Duke of Berry

Jean de Berry, the Duke. Detail from January. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020).

It is believed that the medieval masterpiece was produced by the three Limbourg brothers who came from the Low Countries. The authorship of the Book of Hours is also ascribed to other great contemporary illuminators, namely Barthélemy d’Eyck and Jean Colombe, who successively illuminated the manuscript after the death of the Limbourg, in the years between 1440s and 1480s (“Très Riches Heures …” 2020). As a matter of fact, it took a number of skillful craftsmen to produce a manuscript of that kind. (Husband, Cambell 2010). The writing, the calligraphy and the text was done by scribes (Ibid.). Somebody else did the decorating of the letters, the line enders and all the decorations within the text (Ibid.). Yet other craftsmen did all the rest of the borders (Ibid.).

The duc d’Aumale with a friend in his study at Chantilly. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020).

As the name of the book indicates, the manuscript was commissioned by a well-known great patron of the arts Jean, Duke of Berry. Although he had already owned a few books of such kind, he was always eager to get involved in a new ambitious project. (Secomska 1972:14-25; Husband, Cambell 2010). One can almost envisage the Duke flicking through his precious books by candlelight, savouring their charming illuminations (Husband, Cambell 2010). One of his other famous manuscripts, the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry was also painted by the brothers Limbourg, between 1405 and 1409 (Ibid.). What makes the manuscript really unique among other Books of Hours is that it consists of seven inserted “story-like cycles that read like picture books” (“Belles Heures …” 2018; see Husband, Cambell 2010). They are devoted to saints, particularly venerated by the Valois princes, and to other important historical moments in Christianity (Husband, Cambell 2010). “Each section of the Belle Heures is customized to the personal wishes of its patron” (“Belles Heures …” 2018) and the Duke’s ownership of the book is indicated by representations of his coat of arms and personal emblems, namely the swans and bears, in each elaborate border of its pages (Husband, Cambell 2010). “Along with the Très Riches Heures, […] the Belles Heures ranks among the great masterpieces of the Middle Ages. The manuscript is now in The Cloisters in New York (“Belles Heures …” 2018).

The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry. (Husband, Cambell 2010)

The Very Rich Book of Hours was painted by the Limbourg between circa 1412 and 1416 but eventually, the manuscript could not be finished by the three brothers who died, as their patron, in 1416 (“Très Riches Heures …” 2020). In 1856, the masterpiece was acquired by the Duke of Aumale and now it is preserved as the MS 65 in the Musée Condé in Chantilly, France (Ibid.).

Livres D’Heures

BOOK OF HOURS A book of prayers to be said at the canonical Hours, intended for a lay person’s private devotion (e.g. Hours of the Blessed Virgin). Popular in the Late Middle Ages and often containing rich ILLUMINATION.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:36)

Books of Hours were used as prayer books that developed in late medieval Europe World (Digital Library 2017). Although they were made for the wealthy laity and so were used for private devotion, it had been based on the books used by the clergy but much simplified (World Digital Library 2017; Husband, Cambell 2010). Accordingly, they were devotional manuals used as personal prayer books; usually beautifully covered in jewels and with a silver fastening (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213). Sometimes they open with a portrait of an owner and of their patron saint (Ibid.).

An Example of an Illuminated Book of Hours. Photo from Raptis Rare Books (2020).

Books of Hours universally include a register of Church feasts together with multiple texts of everyday prayers (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213; Digital Library 2017). The text is accompanied by rich miniature cycles, representing the Christian iconography characteristic of the Middle Ages, such as the Annunciation, Nativity, the Three Wise Men, the Life of Christ, the Virgin, various Saints, and sometimes also scenes depicting episodes of the Old Testament (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213).

Illuminated manuscript page illustrating the Annunciation from the Belles Heures du Duc de Berry. Photo from “Belles Heures …” 2018. Books of Hours were mainly dedicated to the “Hours of the Virgin”. That component begins in the Belles Heures with the scene of the “Annunciation” (Husband, Cambell 2010).

One of the most dominant and significant parts of Book of Hours, particularly in the case of the Très Riches Heures, is unquestionably a multi-coloured calendar year with vibrantly dynamic miniatures (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213).

Owning such a manuscript was also a way for wealthy individuals to establish a more direct relationship with God than exclusively through the Church, and in particular to express a more personal prayer to the Virgin Mary for at the core of each Book of Hours, there are the “Hours of the Virgin” (World Digital Library 2017; Husband, Cambell 2010).

Art of Luxury

The Art of Illuminating. Photo from Dormer 2012).

The Reign of Saint Louis the Ninth in France (1226-1270) was the very peak for medieval illumination being developed mainly in Paris. Dante, the author of the Divine Comedy, describes the moment while he meets the most famous illuminator of his times in Purgatory and pays honour to this art (Pijoan 2006:56), which “is in Paris called illuminating” (Alighieri: CantoX:79).

ILLUMINATION The illustrations and book decorations found in medieval and later manuscripts, usually painted in GOUACHE or TEMPERA with gold highlights – hence the name. Synonym of ILLUMINATIONMINIATURE.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:117,139)

Not only the Bible and canonical books were decorated at that time – like in the Carolingian epoch – but there were also various texts, psalters and prayer books for a personal use. The most characteristic books of the times of Philip August and Louis IX were definitely psalters illuminated with two kinds of miniatures. Some in their forms imitating stained glasses cover the pages in circles, within which various episodes are told; in others, the entire compositions of scenes are enclosed in an intricate frame of Gothic architectural motifs: pinnacles, rosettes, roofs and arcades with flying buttresses (Pijoan 2006:56).

Château de Saumur, France. Its representation is shown in the miniature of September. Photo from: Stephens, B. (2020)
Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, in the miniature of June. Photo from: Encyclopedia of Art and Design (2020).

After a thousand years, non-religious themes in art had reappeared and the Limbourg brothers painted the Duke’s properties: castles, lands and peasants (Beckett 1996). Towers, battlements, pinnacles – a castle seems the main witness to events illustrated by the Limbourg brothers and the Duke of Berry actually owned seventeen castles (Ibid.). Regrettably, not much original architecture depicted has been preserved; some of the examples painted by the artists that survived to our times are the castle of Saumur by the River Loire (Ibid.), the castle of Vincennes to the east of Paris, and St. Chapelle on the Île de la Cité.

Château de Vincennes, shown by the miniature of December. Photo credit: Shutterstock. Pfoto from: Ladonne 2019.

As the artwork commissioned by the Duke of Berry, his Very Rich Book of Hours also “celebrates the luxuries and sophistication of court life. Partially, it was designed to delight, flatter and amuse the patron” (Prof. Elizabeth 2019).

European Courts of the Late Middle Ages

The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry was created in the Late Middle Ages where the world of art was becoming smaller (Beckett 1996). Artists were travelling and meeting one another (Ibid.). Consequently, the so-called international style had been born (Ibid.).

In the span of the years 1320-1420, royal and duke’s courts, mainly of Paris, Berry, Dijon, Burgundy and Low Countries, started to witness an unusual florescence of miniature painting within contemporary manuscripts. In the fourteenth century, together with a transformation of the feudal society hierarchical structure and a formation of a new social stratum, namely the rich intellectuals, a considerable need for a decorated book substantially increased. In about one hundred years the same need would result in the invention of the printing press, which rapid development consequently brought the end to the illuminated manuscript (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213).

The Nativity of Jesus, folio 44v. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020).

In the heyday of the medieval handwritten book, there was also a rapid artistic growth of illustrations within its frame. With the development of a medieval image in wooden panel paintings, the illustration had also flourished on parchment or vellum used for miniatures and illuminated manuscripts, particularly lavishly in prayers books of hours, called in French, livres d’heures. Their rich and intricate decorations at the time constituted a manifestation of a luxury and personal wealth, and even satisfied snobbery (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213).

Calendar in Medieval Art aka Labours of the Months

Life at the Duke’s Court is the subject of the secular scenes that portray the seasons (Prof. Elizabeth 2019). “The pictorial calendar convention […] has a very long history and a very wide circulation” (Henisch 1999:vii). In Western Europe its origins date back to “the ninth century onwards; by the twelve century it had become firmly established, and was to grow especially strong and popular in France, Italy, England and Flanders” (Ibid.:5). Medieval calendar year not only was represented on sheet of vellum inside devotional books but also designed by skillful artists in wood, stone, glass, and woven into mosaics, most universally, however, used in the magnificent sculpture of Gothic cathedrals (Henisch 1999:4; Białostocki 2008:211-213; Cerinotti 2009:68-69).

The Limbourg brothers. Christ Led to Judgment, folio 143r. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020).

Wherever it is depicted, and irrespective of small deviations in its details, the calendar pattern always consists of twenty-four scenes. Twelve of them stands for each month of the year. Correspondingly, they unfold tasks, popular occupations at the countryside, detailed scenery landmarks, and all other features characteristic of a given month (Henisch 1999:vii-3; Białostocki 2008:213; Cerinotti 2009:68-69). The successive months of the year chase one another like shifting scenes in a wheel of a vibrant kaleidoscope, “and each of these represents one stage in the never-ending process of providing food for society” (Henisch 1999:vii). Hence the medieval calendar year is also known as the “labours cycle” or the “Labours of the Months” (Ibid.:vii).

“As the year unfolds, each season has its own character and concerns. The winter months are spent indoors, in feasting and keeping warm by the fire. In the early work spring begins on the land, getting it ready to yield the best crops in the months ahead. At spring’s high tide, in April and May, there is a pause to celebrate the new life bursting out of the ground, the vigor and vitality coursing through the world’s veins. After the joy, the hard work starts again. June, July, and August are dominated by the raking of hay, the reaping of wheat, and the threshing of grain. In September, attention turns to the grape harvest and the making of wine. In the late autumn fields are plowed and seed in sown, for next year’s food supply, and animals are fattened and killed, to make sure there is plenty to enjoy when the year swings around once more to the time for feasting by the fireside.”

(Henisch 1999:2)

General plan

The overall pattern of the monthly labours inscribed in the framework of the calendar was thoroughly set up, conventionally repeated by artists throughout centuries, and therefore recognized elsewhere by the medieval mind (Henisch 1999:3-7).

“Little jingles, [usually chanted by children] – like the following, copied down in mid-fifteenth century England – also served to make the general plan well known and easy to remember” (Henisch 1999:3).

January: By thys fyre I warme my handys

Februar: And with my spade I delfe my landys.

Marche: Here I sette my thynge to sprynge;

Aprile: And here I here [hear] the fowlis synge.

Maij: I am as light as byrde in bowe;

Junij: And I wede my corne well I-know [enough].

Julij: With my sythe [scythe] my mede [meadow] I mawe [mow];

Auguste: And here I shere my corne full lowe.

September: With my flyll I erne my brede:

October: And here I sawe [sow] my whete so rede.

November: At Martynessmasse I kylle my swine;

December: And at Cristesmasse I drynke redde wyne” (Henisch 1999:3)

From Labours of the Months to the Cycle of Occupations

LABOURS OF THE MONTHS A series of twelve scenes, one for each month, each showing a different country occupation, and usually accompanied by the appropriate sign of the zodiac. Found in medieval sculpture and STAINED GLASS and often in the calendar of the BOOK OF HOURS decorated with ILLUMINATION.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:127)
igns of the Zodiac and Labours of the Months within gothic frames. Cathedral of Amines, France. Photo from Krén, Marx 2020).

By the end of the epoch in question, however, a set of the illustrations – traditionally called the Labours of the Months – had become more often known as  “a cycle of occupations than labors” (Henisch 1999:7). It was because instead of duties people usually carried out in due seasons, artists started to illustrate seasonal activities and pleasures the contemporary society themselves indulged in with a full engagement and fantasy (Ibid.:7) “from snowball fights in December to boating parties in May” (Ibid.:7).

Signs of the Zodiac

In the medieval calendar the twelve scenes of the Labours or Occupations of the Months are always matched pair with the remaining twelve scenes representing each month’s principal zodiac sign (Henisch 1999:vii-3). It is because every month is identified with a certain planet and the divine power, an influence of which was believed to be very present in the world of nature and human disposition (Battistini 2005:47). In view of that, “the occupation scene for each month is usually linked in some way with the month’s zodiac sign, whose familiar emblem helps to pinpoint the position of each activity of the year’s map” (Henisch 1999:2). Just as it is illustrated by the cycle of stained glass scenes depicted in the Cathedral of Chartres in France (below), where a particular zodiac sign on the right is ascribe to each of monthly human occupations on the left (Slides 1-9 from Frame Pool 1996).

“January – Aquarius, the Water Carrier,

 February – Pisces, the Fish,

 March – Aries, the Ram,

 April – Taurus, the Bull,

 May – Gemini, the Twins,

 June – Cancer, the Crab,

 July – Leo, the Lion,

 August – Virgo, the Maiden,

 September – Libra, the Scales,

 October – Scorpio, the Scorpion,

 November – Sagittarius, the Archer,

 December – Capricorn, the Goat” (Henisch 1999:2-3).

The Anatomical Zodiac Man, folio 14. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020).

In the Very Rich Book of Hours of the Duke of Berry, the zodiac signs depicted at the top of the page tract the cycle of months represented below (Prof. Elizabeth 2019).

Long Ancient Tradition Inscribed in the Medieval Iconography

As the tradition goes, the zodiac signs were first of all to represent the endless, subsequent cycle of the passing time. Still they also gave the evidence of a close and harmonious relation between human activities and the movements of heavenly bodies in the sky. Their origins reach the ancient civilizations, such as of Egypt, China, Persia, and India. The zodiac was then adapted by the Christianity on the way of the religious syncretism, to eventually find its central place in the medieval iconography, where it was linked to twelve labours depictions characterizing twelve months of the year. As it was said above, the calendar year was being commonly worked out in the stones of Gothic cathedrals where, like in the late medieval illuminations, the zodiac signs correspond to human occupations (Cerinotti 2009:68-69).

Accordingly, while the sign of Aries, the Ram is joined with March’s activity of trimming the Vines, Libra, the Scales illustrates a grape picking in September (Maye, Stones 2009). Sometimes, the zodiac signs are placed in a tympanum semicircle, surrounding the figure of Christ; in this case they show a close connection between the earth and the Heavens, people and God, and so they illustrate that the actual order of the Creation and events on the earth meets the order imposed by the Creator (Cerinotti 2009:68-69).

Far Left – Spring (partial) – Sign of Gemini (Twins); Reaping – Sign of Cancer (Crab)
Right – Sign of Leo (Lion) – Harvesting; Sign of Virgo – Threshing (partial). Photo from Vadnal, J., Donahue, G., D. (1997).

“The zodiac is the narrow pathway across the sky, in which the sun, the moon and the principal planets seem to move throughout the year. It is divided into twelve equal sections, or signs, each named after a constellation, whose position once, long ago lay within it. The sun passes through one of these sections each month, as it makes its progress from one year’s end to the next. Because the sun was all-important in the life of men and women, its movement was studied with the greatest attention, and it was only natural and fitting, that the twelve divisions of the calendar should be marked with the zodiac signs, as reminders of the sun’s journey through the sky, as well as with the scenes that show the round of labors needed to sustain society on the earth below.”

(Henisch 1999:2)
Miniatures of the twelve Zodiac signs from the Hunterian Psalter, AD 1170, England. Photo from Baez, R. (2020).

Square and Cycle Intertwined

January: A New Year’s Day feast including Jean de Berry. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020).

The zodiac signs and labours of the medieval calendar many a time were represented as scenes inscribed in the forms of cycles (medallions or quatrefoils). A cycle – an ideal geometrical figure – was believed to have been created to reflect the perfection of God. Correspondingly, its shape incorporated into art assured the balance of the universe, and so regulated the cycle of life (Cerinotti 2009:68-69). In this context, the shape of a square on the other side stands for the earthly world and human sphere of influence. Not without reason these two geometrical figures predominate in the calendar illuminations of the Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry. The entire composition of the calendar including two scenes is thus divided into two geometrical zones: at the bottom of the framework there is a square-shaped image of human labours, whereas at the top – a semi-circular forms with zodiac signs and the symbols of the planets (Białostocki 2008:213). In each of the zodiac spheres, there is additionally a representation of “the Greek deity Apollo who rides his [heavenly] chariot while carrying the Sun across the sky (Prof. Elizabeth 2019). Such an illustration referring to the ancient tradition not only introduces a divine element in the human everyday life but also it is a sing of the coming Renaissance.

December: Château de Vincennes. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020).

The overall set of illustrations in the Book of Hours successfully “depicts the year as a round of seasonal activities on the land, […] almost always drawn from the countryside and the farm, [which sequence] represents the annual, endlessly repeated cycle of necessary, basic tasks which put food on the table” (Henisch 1999:vii,1-2). On the other side, all the human occupations framed in the squares are regulated by the divine element above – the earthly world of a human being inscribed into the sphere and order of God.

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