13 The 'Tres Riches Heures'
|Of all the breviaries from the Middle Ages,
the Très Riches Heures de Jean, Duc de Berry, is undoubtedly the most famous. Every art lover is at least familiar with the world-famous calendar pictures. There are several reasons for this fame: the intrinsic quality of the work itself, the cult-like status of exclusiveness created by noble possessors and the Institut de France and the remarkable history of reproductions of the manuscript which goes with this (see: 15 Oblivion and fame).
The quality of the artwork is convincing, even when reproduced. The few people who have seen the original manuscript itself are without exception enchanted by the original colours, of which the lapis-lazuli blue is always mentioned first. Apart from a lot of gold, the brothers also often used powder from precious stones or semiprecious stones as pigment. The colours have lost little of their original splendour in the virtually eternal dark of their depository.
Although the colours in their most beautiful lustre are reserved to the happy few, the pictures themselves are known across the whole world through countless reproductions. Because of this, especially in the past hundred years, the calendar sheets have become icons of Western culture, and are now seen as archetypical medieval scenes. They show an idealised world in which everyone has his place under God. Because the perspective is not yet perfect, among other things, the paintings of the Van Limburg Brothers have a glow of innocence and tempting artlessness, while at the same time they are technically and artistically sophisticated. Because there is a clear development between the completion of the Belles Heures and the beginning of work on the Très Riches Heures, some art historians presume that Paul van Limburg, with or without his brothers, must have made a journey to Italy around 1410. The differences between both books of hours are great: the traditional vines in the margin of the Belles Heures are replaced by varied and detailed motives; the calendar does not any longer consist of small emblems, but of almost page-size pictures.
The choice of subjects in the Très Riches Heures is daring and innovative. The paintings are more elegant, balanced and harmonious. There is increased coherence between the colours and especially the landscapes are depicted very maturely and modernly.
The Très Riches Heures shows the first shadows, the first reflections in water, the first snow landscape and the first realistic night scene in Western painting. Many art historians look upon the Très Riches Heures as the beginning of European landscape art, and upon Paul van Limburg's depiction of the month of February as the first genre painting in history.
All together the more than one hundred paintings which the Van Limburg Brothers produced for the Très Riches Heures are the absolute top in European painting of the first quarter of the fifteenth century. Millard Meiss, pre-eminent expert on this period, phrases it thus: "Due to their extraordinary gift of observation and their technical talents, nourished by the surroundings in which they grew up, the Van Limburgs were able to connect Northern as well as Italian influences with the Northern French tradition of painting, and thus to create an original oeuvre which will always be the pinnacle of International Gothic."
The work on Très Riches Heures probably started in 1411. In this period and until their death, the Van Limburg Brothers (there were four of them now; priest-brother Rutger had joined them from Nijmegen) mainly lived in Bourges, the capital of Berry and around 1400 one of the most prominent cities in France. The region of Berry (presently called Cher) is situated 200 km to the south of Paris and is the geographical centre of France. Berry was fertile and prosperous of old. Bourges, with its beautiful cathedral and rich city palaces, did not seem a bad place to create a masterwork, but circumstances were often far from quiet. War and pestilence reigned. Gangs of absconded mercenaries violated the country. The Burgundians (them again!) laid siege to the city. While the brothers were painting Earthly Paradise, the flower of French nobility was butchered at Agincourt by the English. Two favourite nephews of the Duc de Berry were among the dead.
When, shortly after the disastrous news from the battlefield, first Jan van Limburg and then the old duke died, the work was far from completed. Roughly a third of the planned paintings had been finished. A number of folios was partly done; sometimes there was only a sketched plan. It is uncertain whether Herman and Paul stopped work at the death of their brother, or at that of their patron, or whether they perhaps continued until their own mysterious death a few months later.