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The Limbourg Brother’s Book of Hours

The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de Frace Duc de Berry 1405-1408.

The Limbourg Brother’s Book of Hours

Today we journey into the Limbourg Brother’s Book of Hours, or the wonderful world of illuminated manuscripts. These manuscripts 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.

What is a Book of Hours

A book of hours is a Christian devotional book that was produced for the laity.  Fortunately for us, thousands of these books from the medieval period to the early Renaissance, have survived. The illustrations are truly some of the best drawings and paintings we have from these eras. Additionally, illuminated manuscripts provided inspiration and instruction for later artists. Interestingly, illuminating manuscripts was an arena women artists were allowed to participate in.

Article on illuminated manuscripts
Page from the Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry 1405-1408

Based on the books used in monastic orders, book of hours were used to foster religious devotion in the laity, or those outside vocations of the church. As each book was individually written and decorated each was unique, often adapted for the customer who ordered it. The intended owners name might be written into the prayers, or 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 part of their routine. Those of the laity who wished to increase their religious practices began to copy the practices of monasteries.

What was included in the books

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 on the amount of work included, thereby deciding how expensive the book would be.  The number of  illustrations, decorated initials, and borders would determine the price. Most book of hours were fairly plain, so that they were affordable to more than the nobility. However, a rising middle class of merchants and craftsmen had created a large market for these books, which were previously only made for the nobility.

Celebrated Editions

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 Limbourg Brother's Annunciation from the Belles Book of Hours. Annunciation. Created for Jean de France the Duc of Berry.
The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry 1405-1408 Also referred to as the Beautiful Hours, Book of Hours

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

The three Limbourg brothers, Paul, Jean, and Herman were from a family of artists from the Netherlands. Orphaned by the plague, they were raised by a maternal uncle who was an artist. The uncle worked for the Duke of Burgundy, an avid art collector. When the two older brothers were old enough they were apprenticed to a nearby artist, however the plague erupted and after just 2 years they had to returned to the family.

Eventually trained and grown, the brothers began to work for the Duke. 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 sadly, all of the Limbourg brothers would succumb to the plague in 1414 while still in their 20’s.

International Gothic StyleDetail from the Annunciation in the Book of Hours

The Belles Hours is an excellent example of the International Gothic Style which emphasized highly decorative patterns. This style was exceedingly popular with miniaturist painters like those who produced illustrated manuscripts Figures were elegant and elongated, trees, flowers and other natural elements were accurate and detailed. Patterns, particularly in borders and on clothing were intricate and often symbolic. Gold leaf was used extensively and was always popular.

Belles Hours

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 there they brothers 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.

The Annunciation Illustration

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.

Detail of the angel in the Limbourg Annunciation illustration

Symbolism in Annunciation Paintings

Many of the common elements in Annunciation works are present here. The Angel is entering from the left interrupting Mary as she is reading. Here we have Mary pictured with books and scrolls to emphasize her education and devotional practices. The Angel is kneeling, a sign of respect and is carrying lilies which signify the purity of Mary. The beautiful white robes of angel, along with the gold decoration is to remind us that the angel has come from heaven.

Bookcase

Next to Mary is a fascinating bookcase. Shaped to resemble a church with a sculpture of Moses on the top and a scroll winding around the roof. Moses holds the 10 commandments, the reminder that we have all broken God’s law and are condemned. Then beneath Moses is the scroll, perhaps a reminder of the prophecies that a Messiah was coming who would save his people. Mary is often shown reading in annunciation works to show that she was a devout woman, well versed in the scriptures.
Detail of Mary in the Limbourg Brother's Annunciation

Mary

Mary is robed in blue, a reference to divinity and the heavens. In this instance it is not that Mary who is divine, but the Christ Child that she carries. Additionally the blue, and the star on her shoulder are a reference to her role as the future Queen of Heaven, a doctrine promoted by the Catholic Church during this time.

Mary’s posture is meant to denote humble acceptance of the words of the angel. The words ascribed to Mary in the Biblical accounts is, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”

The Trinity

Above Mary’s head We see a dove descending. The dove, signifying the Holy Spirit, or the third person of the Trinity, consisting of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The dove descending toward Mary in annunciation paintings is often used to denote that this is the moment that the Virgin miraculously conceives the Christ Child, and with the divine conception Jesus will be into the world born fully man and fully God, and without original sin.

In the center of the illustration, above the scene, we see God the Father painted in a balcony with angels flanking him. Coming from God the Father are rays of divine light that the dove is carried down on.

This illustration is just one of the beautiful pictures used to illustrate this Book of Hours. Remember these books were for individual use during prayers, not to be enjoyed by a congregation in a church, and the illustrations were intended to create a reflective attitude during personal devotions. The detail, and expense, of this particular Book of Hours is truly remarkable.

If you would like to see more of the Book of Hours, you can view this video here. 

If you want to read other articles in this series you can access them here.

Sources

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.

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