14 The Van Limburg Brothers: Death and legacy
|At the height of fame and creative ability, fate intervened. In the middle of their work on the
Très Riches Heures Jan, Paul and Herman van Limburg died one after the other within a short time. The exact moment of their death is unknown, but documents from the town archives of Nijmegen record that the news of Jan's death reached his town of birth in the early autumn of 1416. The death announcement of his two brothers only reached Nijmegen in the autumn of that year.
The Van Limburgs cannot have been more than about thirty-five years old. None of them left any children. Paul is the only one whom we know to have been married. His wife was the little girl that the Duke of Berry had kidnapped from her parents' home for his protégé. Gillette van Limburg le Mercier was 16 years old when she was widowed. She remarried a few years later.
The cause, or causes, of death are not mentioned in any documents of that time, but it is generally speculated that it was possibly a contagious disease. The Black Death, as the bubonic plague was often called, made most victims in 1349/1350, when roughly a third of Europeans was killed by this disease. But this was not the end; during the following hundred years, the epidemic broke out regularly, although usually confined to a certain town or region.
Other causes of death are possible as well. Civil and moral order had completely disappeared in France. Even Bourges and Berry were no longer peaceful, safe places. All able-bodied men, including courtiers, participated in the defence of a town. It is very well possible that one or more of the brothers died at the siege of Bourges, or during a breakout. They had joined their destiny to one of the factions in France which opposed each other with great fierceness.
But more theories can be imagined. During the making of their colours and gold leaf, they were daily working with substances like cobalt, mercury, lead, lead oxide, lead monoxide and arsenic, all of which are poisonous materials which could be deathly within a short or long time (even the childlessness of the three brothers might be explained by this, although that is of course even more speculative).
Whichever way it was: just like all medieval people, the Van Limburgs were in the middle of death while in the middle of life. Their death media vita was nothing unusual.
Because none of the brothers had children, the family in Nijmegen was involved in their inheritance. Years of argument and legal actions followed, in which brother-in-law Derik Neven looked after the interests of the Nijmegen family. In order to do this, he travelled from Nijmegen to Paris at least once.
The death of Jan Maelwael, one year before in 1415, was relatively well documented. Data on the death of Paul, Herman and Jan are very scanty and give little hold. It may be assumed that they died in company of their own family, almost all of them from Nijmegen. Probably, they spoke their last words in the Nimweegs dialect which they had spoken in their youth, because that is often the case. And if they died in their own home, they died in the shadow of the St. Steven's Church. It's true that it was not that of Nijmegen, but that of Dijon or Bourges. All three of these three cities - with which the name Maelwael/Van Limburg will be connected for ever - had the first Christian martyr as their patron saint.