12 The 'Belles Heures'


The Duc de Berry was convinced that with the three young men from Nijmegen he had hauled in very talented and driven artists. Within a short time he gave them their first big assignment: they had to make a book of hours (or breviary) which would surpass all others in his possession, with respect to size, ambition, beauty and preciousness. 
The brothers did not disappoint their Maecenas: within four years, while working on other assignments as well, they created a series of paintings without equal. The duke himself did everything he could to support his protégés. He created the perfect surroundings for the Van Limburgs to flourish. He brought them into contact with other artists and with scholars who could advise on the details of the planned representations. Also, he allowed them free access to his own extensive art collection, which could thus serve as example or inspiration. The duke would himself decide in the end which variable themes would be included in the manuscript. Breviaries had a traditional structure, but, increasingly, new subjects could be added, determined by the patron. At the same time, traditional subjects could be interpreted more loosely or detailed differently. The duke requested visualisation of themes which were dear to him. These were for example the cycle about the life of John the Baptist, for whom he was named, the cycle on the discovery of the True Cross to which Christ had been nailed (a splinter of that cross was Jean's most beloved relic), and the cycle on the foundation of the Carthusians, the strict monastic order to which both Jean and his deceased brother Philip of Burgundy felt attracted, though without adjusting their own life of luxury and splendour at all. Remarkable are also the many painted references to study and science, unique in their time and an indication of the growing interest in knowledge, characteristic for the duke and his time.

The Belles Heures consisted of 224 folios of 24 by 18 centimetres. Many folios contained one or two miniatures, 172 in total. The most striking difference with previous breviaries is the amount of space which was offered to the paintings, in the literal and figurative sense. Though it used to be customary to add illuminations in frames which had been left open within the text, the Van Limburg brothers operated differently. They literally and figuratively gave the painting a central place. The illuminated textbook was changed into an illustrated album with accompanying texts. The illustrative folios were just put between the previously made text pages. Until the very last, patron and executors thought up new, challenging subjects. Even after the completion of the work, a considerable number of paintings was added; the final one was a picture of the duke and his entourage as they reach a powerful castle after a long and probably dangerous journey. Nor is there much text here either, only a short prayer for a safe homecoming (BH. Fol. 223v.). A sensible addition, because towards the end of his life it was not safe to travel anywhere in France anymore, not even for a powerful lord like the Duc de Berry.

Almost all of the pictures (with the exception of a number of heraldic motives and the twelve signs of the zodiac in very small vignettes) had a religious subject, usually an episode from the Old or New Testament, but also from 'The Gold Legend', a popular medieval collection of saints' lives. Only in the last years of their lives, the brothers would regularly leave the religious dimension, and produce paintings which at first sight are completely 'worldly' and represent a completely different genre.

Most of the paintings in the Belles Heures are made by Paul van Limburg, the most talented brother. Even more than Herman and Jan, he emphasised the esthetical qualities of his work, without at the same time neglecting the edifying, Christian content. 

Herman van Limburg's work can also be clearly recognised by experts. His pictures catch the eye because of their flourish and drama. When there is a lot of blood, suspicion immediately falls on Herman. A good example of his view is 'The martyrdom of the eleven thousand virgins', an episode from the history of Cologne (BH. Fol. 178v.).
Jan, the third brother, also stands out in the Belles Heures with his own style: elegant, lyrical and delicate. All the faces he paints are different, finely detailed and painted with great delicacy. Jan's tendency towards naturalism is at least as great as that of his brother Paul. This is also shown by the realism with which he paints exotic animals: crocodiles, camels, giraffes.

The work on the Belles Heures was finished in 1409. The patron must have been extraordinarily satisfied, because he immediately ordered another book of hours, even more great and ambitious than the Belles Heures. The Van Limburg Brothers were not able to complete this work, the world-famous Très Riches Heures. It was roughly interrupted by the early death of the three brothers from Nijmegen. The Belles Heures is therefore the only complete book of hours which was ever made by the Van Limburg Brothers. The Duc de Berry was not able enjoy it for a very long time. In the seven years between the completion of the manuscript and his death in 1416, he suffered from bad health and cruel setbacks in his personal and political life.


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