THE BELLES HEURES OF THE DUKE OF BERRY -
ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST FRENCH MANUSCRIPTS
Exhibition unveils the unbound folios of this extraordinary illuminated manuscript on loan from The Metropolitan Museum of Art
May 5, 2008
LOS ANGELES —One of the greatest examples of French medieval manuscript illumination will go on view in its unbound form in the exhibition The Belles Heures of the Duke of Berry. From the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the luxurious Book of Hours was commissioned by Jean de France, duc de Berry (1340-1416), in the early 15th century. The exhibition, which is on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, November 18, 2008 through February 8, 2009, provides visitors a rare opportunity to walk through its pages. Following its showing at the Getty, the book will return to New York, where it will be on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, opening September 2, 2009.
Around 1405, Jean de France, duc de Berry (1340-1416) commissioned Franco-Netherlandish master illuminators Paul, Herman, and Jean de Limbourg (active in France, by 1399–1416) to create a luxurious Book of Hours for private devotional prayer, one of the most celebrated types of medieval illuminated manuscripts. Referred to as Belles Heures in the duke’s inventory, the book belongs today in The Cloisters Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is the only manuscript that the celebrated Limbourg brothers completed and one of the most splendid books to have survived from the duke’s extensive library.
The manuscript was recently unbound to allow for restoration and the production of a facsimile edition. Before the manuscript is re-bound, 180 pages containing more than 80 miniatures from the Belles Heures (ca. 1405-1408/09) will travel to Los Angeles, allowing West Coast audiences to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view this medieval treasure in its unbound state.
“We are grateful to The Metropolitan Museum of Art for their exceptional generosity in lending this extraordinary manuscript to us,” says Thomas Kren, senior curator of manuscripts at the Getty Museum. “The Belles Heures of the duke of Berry is a terrific complement to the Getty’s stellar collection of western European manuscripts from the same period.” Kren continues, “We’re delighted to have these magnificent illuminations on view at the Getty while they’re unbound, thus enabling visitors to experience its wonders as only the duke of Berry, himself, and other owners of the book, have been able to.”
The Belles Heures of the duke of Berry is beloved not only for the splendor of its miniatures but also for its sheer ambition. While every book of hours contains a collection of devotions with corresponding illustrations, the duke found the Limbourgs’ style so new and exciting that he decided to make the book much larger. In addition to the familiar subjects common to most books of hours—such as the story of the infancy of Christ—the Limbourgs added more extensive cycles. They included 11 miniatures of the life of Saint Catherine, a saint especially beloved by the French royal family, and 12 miniatures from the life of Saint Jerome, with whom the duke felt a special affinity.
Produced in France, likely in Paris or Bourges, the Belles Heures of the duke of Berry is an illuminated manuscript consisting of ink, tempera, colors, and gold leaf on parchment. Using a luminous palette, the artists blended an intimate Northern vision of nature with Italian modes of representing the human figure. The keen interest in the natural world and the effects of light, so striking in its illuminations, foreshadow the art of Jan van Eyck (active by 1422-1441) and the achievement of Netherlandish painting through the 15th century.
Jean de France, duc de Berry
The manuscript was commissioned by Jean de France, duc de Berry (1340-1416), one of the most famous art patrons of his time and, in fact, one of the greatest of all time. Jean was the third son of Jean II of France (r. 1360-64), brother of King Charles V (1364-80), the leading French bibliophile of his day, and the uncle of King Charles VI (1380-1422). Jean de Berry controlled a large territory in France during the middle period of the Hundred Years’ War and was very involved in politics throughout his long life. But he was also a sensualist, deeply involved in art, a great lover of beauty and objects, and he spent lavishly on works of art. In addition, he was a patron of tapestry, paintings, enamelwork, metalwork, jewelry, sculpture, and architecture and a ravenous collector of these same types of objects along with ancient cameos, jewels, and other artifacts.
Jean de Berry loved beautiful books above all, and he sought out the finest artists, not only in France, but also from Italy and the Netherlands, to decorate them. Indeed his two commissions of the Limbourg brothers—the Très Riches Heures (Musée Condé, Chantilly) and the Belles Heures—are considered among the finest illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. Yet they are but two among the 300 books that the duke had commissioned and acquired. By the time the duke met the Limbourg brothers, ca. 1405, when the Belles Heures was likely begun, the duke had already been a patron of art for more than 30 years. He had by then commissioned a series of books that by themselves would have assured his reputation as one of the greatest art patrons of the era. The Limbourgs’ work proved to be his crowning achievement as a patron.
The Limbourg brothers
The Limbourg brothers—Paul, Herman and Jean de Limbourg—were barely 20 years old when they moved to Paris from southeast Holland, and a few years later, became the court artists of Jean, duc de Berry. The Belles Heures was their first major commission with him and the duke was so enamored of their work that he encouraged them to greatly expand the book with scores of additional miniatures. When the Limbourgs began to work on the Belles Heures, ca. 1405, art in France was undergoing one of its greatest periods and the art of manuscript illumination was leading the way.
In the previous decade artists such as Jacquemart de Hesdin and André Beauneveu had introduced an entirely new way of viewing the world, observing in detail the myriad aspects of nature, depicting settings with a kind of truthfulness that was new to painting. The Limbourg brothers took this interest in describing the physical world to a new level of sophistication especially in their representation of the human body—how it moves and even its sensual character. The extravagant costumes of the court, intricately patterned backgrounds, rich color palette, and graceful vine scroll borders on every page were elements learned from artists of their own and the preceding generation, but they added their own sensibility to the Belles Heures, including a dazzling use of white in some miniatures, soaring architectural elements, and tall figures with elegant profiles. They rank with the earliest refined painters of the unclothed human form. In addition they were superb colorists whose sensitivity to light gave their works an unsurpassed delicacy.
Within a few years the duke had assigned the brothers to a still more ambitious project, the Très Riches Heures of the duke of Berry, perhaps the most famous of all medieval manuscripts. The artists died unexpectedly in 1416, possibly due to the plague, when the oldest among them was around 30 years old. Their deaths left the Très Riches Heures unfinished. Awarded with riches and fabulous commissions in their brief lives, their talent was fully recognized, but their meteoric careers were dramatically and tragically eclipsed by their early deaths.
The Belles Heures of the Duke of Berry was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in association with the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. The Getty's presentation is curated by Thomas Kren, senior curator of manuscripts at the Getty Museum. Following the exhibition at the Getty, the manuscript will return to New York, where it will be on view in a related exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, opening on September 2, 2009. The exhibition at the Metropolitan is organized by Timothy B. Husband, Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, who also wrote the scholarly publication accompanying both exhibitions.
Note to editors: Images available upon request.
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