And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Welcome to day 6. Today we journey into the wonderful world of illuminated manuscripts. They are one of my favorite art forms, tiny perfection. The Limbourg Brothers (there are 3 of them) wrote and illustrated the Belles Hours for Jean de France, the Duc of Berry.
A book of hours is a Christian devotional book that was produced for the laity. Thousands of these books from the medieval period to the early Renaissance have survived until today. These books contain some of the best drawings and paintings from these eras, and they provided the inspiration for many artists who came after. Interestingly, this is the arena women artists were able to participate in.
Based on the books used in monastic orders, book of hours were used to foster religious devotion in the laity, those outside vocations of the church. As each book was individually written and decorated each book was unique, often adapted for the customer who ordered it. The intended owners name might be written into the prayers, the selection of saints or other decorations might be specifically meaningful to the owner.
The term ‘book of hours’ was due to the inclusion of a series of prayers that were said during certain hours of the day and evening. In monastic orders and among ordained clergy observing prayers at certain times throughout the day was the practice. Those of the laity who wished to increase their religious practices began to copy what was done in the monasteries.
Along with this cycle of prayers books also commonly included these other elements:
- A Church Calendar to keep track of saint’s days and feast
- A Set of gospel lessons
- Prayers and Psalms of penitence
- Suffrages, or prayers to saints.
- Hours of the Cross, another cycle of prayers focused on Christ work on the cross.
- Prayers or Psalms of personal importance to the owner
When a book was ordered the person paying the commission would decide how many illustrations there would be, how many initials would be decorated, and if and to what extent the borders would be decorated. Most book of hours were fairly plain, so that they were affordable for more than the nobility. A rising middle class of merchants and craftsmen made a larger market for these books which were previously only made for the nobility.
When we see the highly illustrated manuscripts in museums or their images online we might think that these are normative, they are not. Highly decorated works were commissioned by the very wealthy and were relatively uncommon. The celebrated editions are normally singular works of art that are a touchstone for that locations artwork.
The page we are going to be examining is unique in many ways. First we know who the artist is. There are few illustrators who signed their works, or who were famous enough for their names to have come down through the centuries to us. However, the Limbourg brothers were the most gifted of the Northern illustrators.
The three Limbourg brothers, Paul, Jean, and Herman were from a family of artists from the Netherlands. They were orphaned, due to the plague, and went to live with their maternal uncle, also an artist, who worked for the Duke of Burgandy. The two older brothers were apprenticed to an artists, but the plague erupted and after just 2 years they had to returned to the family. Upon the Duke’s death, they worked for his successor, Jean de France, the Duke of Berry. During this era, the late 1300’s and early 1400’s the plague was a constant threat, and all of the Limbourg brothers would succumb to the plague in 1414 while still in their 20’s.
The Duke of Berry was a major patron of the arts and an avid collector. He commissioned two book of hours. The one we are going to examine today is called the Belles Heures, or Beautiful hours. Later, after one brother had traveled to Italy, and been exposed to the art their, they completed Tres Riches Heurers or The Very Rich Hours.
The Belles Hours was completed in 4 years, between 1405 and 1408. At this time the brothers would have ranged in age from about 14 to 20, true prodigies.
The book is 9 3/8 inches by 6 11/16 inches, quite small. The artwork is done on vellum with tempera, gold, and ink. This is the only book completed in its’ entirety by the brothers.
There are 7 picture cycles, more than had ever been done before. The paintings were of events significant to the Duke. The brothers worked hard to use the illustrations to create a cohesive narrative from one picture to the next.
As we look at this illustration, keep in mind the small size, and the delicacy and precision required to paint it. The paintings done in the margins are exquisite. The vibrancy of color, the figural articulation, the fully realized space, and the architectural detailing in the arches in the foreground all add to our experience.
There are several details that, if you have been reading along with our previous posts, should be familiar to you. The angel enters from the left, and in this interpretation carries lilies to signify the purity of Mary. Mary is wearing blue robes, a reference to the divinity she carries within her, and to the heavens, of which she will be queen. The dove, signifying the Holy Spirit, is over her head. In the center above the scene we see God the Father painted onto one of the panels of the balcony like structure. Coming down from there are rays of light, showing us that the immaculate conception is taking place.
When viewing the amazing art in these books it is hard to believe they were created as personal devotional books for an individual to use during their prayers. The illustrations were intended to create a reflective attitude during personal devotions.
If you would like to see more of the book, you can view this video here.
If you want to read other articles in this series you can access them here.
E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)
Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses
Professor William Koss, History of European Art Lecture series, Great Courses
Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)
Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)
National Gallery of Art website www.nga.gov
Metropolitan Museum of Art website www.metmuseum.org
The Getty Center www.getty.edu
Let’s Explore Art.wordpress.com
And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.
Stein, Author: Wendy A. “The Book of Hours: A Medieval Bestseller | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Mar. 2017, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hour/hd_hour.htm.