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Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions



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Limbourg Brothers: Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry – 1410 – 15

Chantilly, Musée Condé

Jean, Duc de Berry was the brother of King Charles V of France; his personal fiefdom consisted of the central and western territories of Berry, Poitou and the Auvergne with his principal residence in the city of Bourges the capital of Berry. The duke, a committed bibliophile had amassed one of the largest libraries in Europe (which contained more than a dozen books of hours) but his insatiable appetite for ever more splendid acquisitions combined with his very considerable wealth meant that he was able to attract the most talented artists and craftsmen to his court, often working on a complex project for years at a time. One such undertaking was the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, one of the most beautiful and sumptuous illuminated manuscripts ever made – the work of the brothers Limbourg.

Paul (Pol), Herman and Jan Limbourg had left their home city of Nijmegan in the Netherlands for Paris and had worked for Jean’s brother, Philip the Bold of Burgundy. In 1404, after the death of Philip the Bold, Jean enticed the brothers to produce exquisite objects at the duke’s princely court in Bourges.

Tragically all three brothers perished (probably in an outbreak of the plague) along with their patron the Duc de Berry in 1416 with their masterpiece in an unfinished and unbound state. The loose leaves were assembled into a finished book some years later and further miniatures (including the calendar page for November) were added by Jean Colombe in the 1480’s and by an unknown hand. The book now consists of 206 vellum pages. This amazingly luxurious book of hours represents the apogee of the International Gothic style culminating in the brothers’ unsurpassed ability to capture a wealth of charming detail whether it was at the court of the duke or in the countryside where the labours of the peasantry are often presented against the background of one of the duke’s many castles.

A Book of Hours is a Christian devotional book – very popular during the medieval period. A compendium chosen from various sources, it would usually contain excerpts from the gospels, a selection of Psalms, the Office of the Dead, the Hours of the Virgin and various other prayers. A typical book of hours would open with a calendar. If the book is illuminated (and many were not) then the illustrations for the calendar would usually show the labours associated with each month. Although there are many miniatures created by the Limbourg brother in the Très Riches Heures, it is those showing themes illustrative of the months, which are justly the most celebrated for their extraordinary beauty.


The occasion is perhaps a New Year’s day banquet, probably in Bourges, portraying the splendour of duke Jean’s court and the extent of his largesse. The brothers’ patron appears to the right of the composition in a sumptuous blue robe with a gold collar. A large fire screen protects him from the sparks which can be seen disappearing up the chimney – the screen also helps to distinguish him from the rest of the revellers. Above the fireplace a canopy bears the French fleurs-de-lis and the duke’s own emblems, the bear and the swan. A bishop, probably of Bourges or perhaps Chartres, is guest of honour – the only other person seated at the table at which servants are laying out gold and silver plates and preparing meat. Near the duke a gold ship contains more dishes. Nearby is another table displaying a huge quantity of gold vessels and plate.

Near to the duke a squire holding a staff cries ‘Approach, Approach’ as more guests wait to greet the duke. The duke’s servants, busying themselves in the foreground with preparing food and drink, seem to be almost as expensively attired as the guests – their elongated proportions conveying a sense of elegance typical of the International style. Behind the guests, the walls are covered with tapestries showing an episode from the Trojan War as if it were a contemporary battle; an example of the brothers attention to detail can be seen at the top of the walls of the chamber where the tapestries sag between each fixing.


This is one of the least convincing pages in the calendar sequence as regards spacial development. A group of ostentatiously dressed courtiers gather in a bucolic setting with the Château Dourdan, to the south west of Paris in the distance. These figures bear no relationship to the trees nearby or to the wall of a kitchen garden to their right which rears up at a surprising angle, failing to create any perspectival illusion. Consequently, the courtly figures do not seem to inhabit the scene but appear rather as two dimensional cutouts placed on the surface plane of the page.


In contrast to the illustration for April, the artist responsible for October has triumphantly succeeded in creating a believable three dimensional space. Peasants are seen working in the autumn fields against the backdrop of the impressively fortified Louvre which dominates the composition. One worker casts seed, his progress leaving footprints in the fine tilth, while another rides a horse dragging a harrow over the ploughed field. Recession is inferred by diagonal hedges and the miniature figures seen against the curtain wall of the great fortress beyond the waters of the Seine. Shadows cast by the sower and the horse create a sense of natural illumination.

Image: Wikimedia Commons


Contemporary Works

1410 Lorenzo Monaco: Virgin and Child Enthroned with Two Angels, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum

1410 Gentile da Fabriano: Coronation of the Virgin, Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

Further Paintings of Interest

Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan

Hans Holbein the Younger

Tommaso Portinari and his wife Maria

Hans Memling

Martyrdom of St Denis

Henri Bellechose