BY VICTORIA ROMEO
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently hosting the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry- a private book of devotional illustrations that is considered one of the hallmarks of the pre-Renaissance age. As luck would have it, this masterwork by the Limbourg Brothers- the great French illustration trio, has been disassembled for conservation work. Before being rebound into book form, the prowess of the Met was able to leverage a temporary display of the separated 178 pages. This is an exhibition that is now in its final weeks, and not to be missed.
A certain amount of basic knowledge about medieval manuscripts is essential to understanding why the Belles Heures is so special. This work is a book of hours, a simplified prayer book based on those used by the clergy. Books of hours were the most common type of publication produced in medieval times and were intended to bring the reader closer to God through solitary prayer and devotion. Their small size allowed for a strong bond to develop, as an owner could hold one comfortably and contemplatively, making the experience both personal and private. Only the wealthiest of individuals could afford such a luxury, much less be able to read them, as literacy was extremely low during the late-Medieval period.
Virtually all books of hours contained a devotional section to the Virgin Mary, known as the hours of the Virgin. Other common elements include calendar pages, but typically the contents reflected the wishes of the book’s patron. In the case of the Belles Heures, the patron and passionate collector Duc de Berry expanded his book considerably with the addition of seven pictorial cycles with full-page illustrations and just a few lines of narrative text. Although the scenes are religious narratives, the focus of the book shifts from piety to visual pleasure.
Jean de France, Duc de Berry was the son, brother, and uncle of three successive kings of France. Although he lived during the Hundred Year’s War and acted as a regent of France for some time, he was never in the royal hot seat himself. In turn, Jean found other diversions to occupy his time.
Conspicuous consumption was one of them, and the Duc became renowned for his art patronage. His vast collections of antiquities, jewelry, fine metalwork, tapestries and illuminated manuscripts were thoroughly documented during his lifetime, which has given us a good idea of what a voracious and knowledgeable collector he was.
In 1404, he commissioned the brothers Herman, Paul and Jean de Limbourg to illustrate his latest book of hours. Apparently, the fourteen versions that the Duke already owned weren’t enough. In this instance however,the spoils of excess led to one of the finest manuscripts ever made.
The Belles Heures is the only illuminated book entirely painted by the hands of the Limbourg Brothers; all three died by 1416. We know relatively little about each, who were just teenagers when they began this work. None of the them signed their works, leaving us unable to assign attributions.
They must have, however, possessed relatively comparable abilities. Some scholars believe that the Duke recognized their tremendous talent and balance, and decided to expand his commission to include the unusual and lengthy picture cycles because of it.
Due to the circumstances of this extended work (the book took about four years to complete) one of the interesting developments that the viewer can take note of in the Belles Heures is the technical progress the young artists made.
Early illustrations lack a clear understanding of the pictorial space, yet the artists seem to work through these problems as they progress, leaving us with vibrantly colored vignettes are mind-bogglingly engrossing. The Met was apt enough to provide magnifying glasses for a closer inspection of the impossibly miniature details, some invisible to the naked eye.
The Belles Heures contains pictorial cycles of both familiar and unusual biblical chronicles. Illustrations of the life of the Virgin, the infancy of Christ, and the Passion will be familiar to many viewers, while more obscure narratives of the lives of the saints present some bizarre and unexpected scenes. Many of these tales come from the Golden Legend, a medieval book describing the lives and deaths of some of the most important saints.
It’s both shocking and refreshing to see Christian art from this period take a more explicit route. Illustrations in the Belles Heures take on many tones- they can be violent, graphic, sexually suggestive, charming and even humorous. The Limbourg brothers also understood that pictorial messages could be conveyed in more subtle ways as well, and had a great talent for imbuing emotion through facial expression and body language, which was quite uncommon for the time.
Some of the most memorable visions come from unfamiliar stories. For example, the cycle of Saints Paul and Anthony depicts the circumstances that led St. Paul to become a hermit. Here, we see a voluptuous woman seducing a young man while Paul looks on in the background. The young man resists her advances by biting off the tip of his own tongue and spitting it in the woman’s face. The Limbourg brothers do not spare us the gory details- a close inspection reveals the spray of blood.
In another, more lighthearted illustration finds St. Jerome’s fellow monks playing a practical joke on him. The derided saint is tricked into putting on a woman’s dress instead of his monk habit and arrives for morning prayers as a medieval cross-dresser. This episode is said to have put St. Jerome over the edge and into hermit cave of solitary confinement.
The exhibition also contains period objects, including jewelry, metalwork and religious reliquaries, some of which were in the Duc de Berry’s own collection. These works of art give viewers a sense of the Duc’s opulent taste but ultimately do not draw much attention away from the superb illuminations.
The sheer amount of visual information on display here is a feast for the eyes that is both stimulating and overwhelming due to the extent of the devotions and narrative cycles.
However, a complete understanding of the complexities of Christian iconography is not necessary to appreciate such meticulously crafted beauty that invites long periods of contemplation and extraction.
It’s heartwarming to think of the Belles Heures as the fruits of a long and determined effort. Here were the Limbourg Brothers, a gifted group of youths that had been bestowed with a tremendous opportunity to shine, and matured artistically working their way through the compositional challenges of the commission. In return, it would be fair to assume that the Duc de Berry got what he had hoped for from the prodigious threesome. In the palm of his hand was a stunning visual journey that could be taken on the daily. Intricacy this vast welcomes repeat viewings.
The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through June 13, 2010.
For more information, visit the Met’s exhibition website here.