Upon the death of Jacquemart de Hesdin in about 1409, the Limbourg brothers -
Herman, Paul, and Jean - seem to have succeeded him as Jean de Berry's miniaturists.
The consecutive execution of the Belles Heures and the Très Riches Heures (the first between about 1409 and 1412 and the second between 1413 and 1416) reveals the Duke's insatiable desire, as soon as he had the latest book in hand, for another more beautiful, more sumptuous Book of Hours that would surpass all his others.
The two manuscripts reveal similarities of style: there are the same beautiful colors and graceful figures, the same kind of bearded Christ with long curly hair, and the same kind of female nude, with a high bosom, thin waist, and protruding stomach (thus Eve in the Très Riches Heures resembles Saint Catherine in the Belles Heures). Similar also are the conventional architectural settings, the conical mountains, and the indistinct background monuments.
But what great differences there are between the two books! The liturgy and the subjects (notably illustrations of the devotions to saints) of the miniatures, probably chosen by the Duc de Berry, differ. In the Très Riches Heures the conventional borders of foliage and small vine leaves have given way to charming and imaginative motifs scattered throughout the margins; its calendar contains large scenes of each month, apparently also suggested by the Duke, which replace the traditional two medallions; the theme of each miniature is approached afresh so that repetition is scrupulously avoided. Most important of all, however, the more balanced and harmonious composition, the relationships of color, the bolder execution, and the extraordinary innovative landscapes reveal a maturity, skill, and knowledge that make the Limbourgs' earlier work seem youthful by comparison.
We are led to believe that one of the three Limbourgs renewed their art by introducing these new qualities. One, probably Paul as master of the workshop, must have worked in Italy, almost certainly in Milan and Siena, and this experience left its most obvious imprint on the Hours of the Passion (folios 142v-157r). Jean Porcher has dated this fruitful trip between 1412 and 1413, which would explain the rapid evolution between the Belles Heures and the Très Riches Heures. But even the influence of Italian art does not clarify the mystery of how and why the Limbourgs introduced landscapes in what was to be their last work. For suddenly they included sites and châteaus dear to the Duc de Berry: Lusignan, Dourdan, the Palais de la Cité, the Château du Clain in Poitiers, Etampes, Saumur, the Louvre, Vincennes, Mehun-sur-Yèvre and the astonishing winterscape for the month of February (folio 2v), whose white starkness is so strikingly realistic.
Although the Sienese were accomplished landscape artists (and perhaps Paul saw Ambrogio Lorenzetti's charming rural scenes in the Buono Governo fresco cycle in the Palazzo Publico), they still used oblique, extremely foreshortened settings and constructions, such as the Limbourgs had used in the Belles Heures. How, then, did the artists discover the linear and proportional art of the landscape that we see in the Très Riches Heures? Could their work have been achieved by means of some optical device, a dark room, a "light room," or a frame strung with vertical, horizontal, and transversal strings through which they observed nature?
The Limbourgs' new and original collective work combines elements which could be considered contradictory: an extraordinary feeling for the countryside along with an affinity for the luxury of court life, a charming elegance with a sometimes crude realism, classical nudes similar to those of antiquity with fashionably shaped female figures. The architecture was painted with two different methods: either distance or aerial perspective rendered buildings indistinct, as in the case of the châteaus of Dourdan and Etampes (folios 4v and 8v); or, as in the most beautiful miniatures, an exceptionally talented draftsman precisely recorded the most minute details of the Palais de la Cité (folios 5v-6v), Saumur (folio 9v), the Louvre (folio 10v), and Mehun-sur-Yèvre (folio 161v), without upsetting the harmony of the whole.
Several eminent scholars have tried to use this distinction to identify the work of each brother, but without success, because insufficient evidence of the artists' individual characteristics exists, and the manuscript has an overall unity despite differences among the Hours of the Passion, scenes from the life of Christ (folios 168v and 171r), the Meeting and Adoration of the Magi (folios 51v-52r), and the calendar (folios 2r-12v).
The Très Riches Heures was unified under the guidance of the head of the workshop by a skillful use of luminous colors and tones and the artful composition of figures in varied settings. Due to their exceptional gifts of observation and execution, nurtured by the milieu in which they grew up, the Limbourgs were able to blend Northern and Italian influences with the French pictorial tradition, to create an original work that remains the highest expression of what is known as the International Style.
Its mastery cannot be overemphasized, especially when one considers the youthfulness of its creators who attained the height of their art in such expressions of their personal vision as the brilliant images of the Garden of Eden (folio 25v) and the Coronation of the Virgin (folio 60v) and the extraordinary scenes of the Fall of the Rebel Angels (folio 64v) or Christ in Gethsemane (folio 142v). One can imagine the Duc de Berry's joy upon seeing the results of his artists' inspiration, for none of these subjects were usually included in a Book of Hours and these in fact were added to the Très Riches Heures in the form of inset pages. What might these gifted artists have produced had they lived longer?
The Très Riches Heures is constantly referred to as "le roi des manuscrits enluminés" or "the king of illuminated manuscripts," but more than that it is a pinnacle in the entire history of painting.
Upon the deaths of the Duc de Berry and the Limbourgs, the Très Riches Heures was left unfinished, to be completed at a later date by another artist in a completely different style. The Man of Sorrows (folio 75r) shows us the second patrons of the manuscript, the Duc Charles I de Savoie and his wife, Blanche de Montferrat. Since Charles I married Blanche in 1485 and died four years later, in 1489, the Très Riches Heures must have been completed between these two dates.
It is no surprise that the manuscript had passed into the hands of the ducal couple of Savoie, since Bonne, one of the Duc de Berry's two daughters, had married Amedée VII de Savoie, and as Amedée's direct descendent the Duc Charles I inherited the Très Riches Heures.
Paul Durrieu's extensive research led him to decide that the illustrator or "historieur" of the manuscript's second series of paintings had special ties with the town of Bourges and that he had completed an Apocalypse figurée for Charles I de Savoie.
Because an Apocalypse in the Escorial, containing miniatures similar to those in the Très Riches Heures, was known to be completed about 1482 by a certain Jean Colombe then living in Bourges, Durrieu concluded that the "historieur" and Colombe were identical. Almost nothing was known of Jean Colombe until the recent discoveries of Jean-Yves Ribault, Archivist for the Department of the Cher, who has made important additions to the research of his predecessors, Paul Chenu, Alfred Gandilhon, and Maurice de Laugardière.
Born about 1430-1435 of Philippe Colombe and a certain Guillemette, Jean was
probably the elder brother of Michel Colombe, the sculptor. The Colombe family
was perhaps originally from Sens and moved to Bourges only toward the end of the
twelfth century. In 1463 Jean Colombe finished his apprenticeship with Clement
Thibault, "écrivain de forme" ("calligrapher of manuscripts"), and married the following year, establishing himself in a house opposite his mother's. In 1467 he undertook the construction of a house elsewhere in Bourges, on the site of a building that had burned down, where he lived with his wife, Colette, until his death in about 1493.
We know that Jean Colombe traveled at least once to Savoie and to the Piedmont, from acts dated June 3, 1486 and signed by Charles I in Turin in the presence of the artist, which retain as his illuminator, "maître Jean Collumbe" whose services were declared satisfactory. However, Jean-Yves Ribault believes this stay lasted no more than a few months or a year at most since the artist's continuous presence in Bourges is proven by the almost complete accounts of the chapter house of Saint-Pierre-le-Puellier.
Furthermore, a document from the archives of Charles I's treasurer fixes the payment of 25 gold écus to Jean Colombe, "in villa de Bourges, pro illuminatura et historiatione certarum horarum cannonicarum" ("in the town of Bourges, for the illustration and decoration of some canonical Hours") for August 31, 1485, a date which agrees perfectly with the completion of the Très Riches Heures and establishes the presence ofthe artist in this provincial capital that same year.
Besides the Très Riches Heures and the Apocalypse figurée there exist several other manuscripts illuminated by Jean Colombe. Le Livre des douze perils d'Enfer (Bibliothèque Nationale ms. fr. 449) was executed in a similar style for Queen Charlotte de Savoie, wife of Louis XI and the artist's protectress. Between 1469 and 1479 she requested that "ung povre enlumineur à Bourges nommé Jehan Coulombe" might be exempted from the tax and from watch duty, and it was probably she who recommended the painter to the court of Savoie.
Jean Colombe also illustrated Sebastien Mamerot's Romuléon (Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. fr. 364), which bears the artist's signature, for Admiral Louis Malet de Graville, and Mamerot's Passages d'outre mer (Bibliothèque Nafionale, ms. fr. 5594) probably for Louis de Laval.
He illuminated a Vie de Christ in three volumes (Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. fr. 177-179) for the bastard Louis de Bourbon, Comte de Roussillon. Henry Joly credits him with the Missel de Lyon (Bibliothèque de Lyon, ms. 514), which is closely related to his other works, particularly the second series of miniatures in the Très Riches Heures.
Faced with the problem of finishing what the Limbourgs had begun, Jean Colombe apparently decided to work in the spirit of his time rather than try to imitate the past.
In seventy years, tastes and fashions had changed considerably: the arched brow had become stylish for women, clothes were different, the interest in orientalism had waned. Colombe rendered modeling with small parallel lines, visible to the naked eye; his colors became almost violently bright, dominated by deep blues, much gold heightening, and currant red. The deliberate boldness of his figures and foregrounds was undoubtedly a reaction against the former style of frailty, which had outworn its popularity. Architectural decor was constructed with knowledge but, here again, in a style quite different from the Limbourgs'. Colombe's landscapes receded into vaporous horizons of diminishing blues, which contrasted with the severity of the foregrounds and perhaps helped furnish the public with the escape it craved. Whether painting the landscapes of Berry or Savoie, Jean Colombe seemed to excell in rendering these château-covered hills and mountains among which wind bodies of water flecked the boats.
The Très Riches Heures, as we know it, consists of 206 bound sheets of extremely well-prepared, fine vellum. Each sheet now measures 29 cm. by 21 cm., but originally they must have been larger since the binder obviously cut into some of Jean Colombe's miniatures (the Man of Sorrows [folio 75r], the Ascension [folio 184r]).
Each signature theoretically consists of four sheets of parchment folded in two, or eight folios, but re-collations have sometimes altered the number of folios in a signature. At the foot of the last page of each signature was placed a catchword corresponding to the first word of the following signature, to avoid errors in assembling the book.
The pages were ruled in red, and the beginning of each office and hour was cursorily indicated in the margin to provide the layout for the calligrapher, who neverthless was often obliged to adapt the size of his writing to the space allotted him. The name of the scribe responsible for the Très Riches Heures remains unknown, and we can only note than in 1413, the Duc de Berry had in his employ an "escripvain de forme" named Yvonnet Leduc.
As in all the most beautiful manuscripts of this period, initial capital letters and line endings are decorated; their calligraphy and that of the text is in the same style throughout the manuscript with a few exceptions necessitated by the Duc de Savoie's re-collations. This is the case with folio 52v, in which the ink and style unfortunately differ from that in the rest of the manuscript. The exquisite little self-contained scenes and portraits within the initial capital letters constitute an important part of the manuscript's illustration. Like the miniatures, they were executed partly for the Duc de Berry and partly for the Duc de Savoie, with marked differences between the two styles as well as between the accompanying foliage in the margins and center columns.
A layout artist indicated the placing of each illustration. Small miniatures were inserted in the text, which, up to the Last Judgment (folio 34r), contained legends in blue and gold related to the subject represented; larger miniatures occupied an entire page, in which case the text was reduced to two columns of four lines each at the foot, as in the Coronation of the Virgin (folio 60v). When confronted with these larger spaces, Jean Colombe either retained two columns of text while violating the frame indicated at the time of the Duc de Berry (Paradise [folio 126r]) or deleted the established text and re-inscribed it only in part on the miniature itself (as in folio 95r).
From the outset, the Limbourgs used entire pages with no text at all for some illustrations, as in the calendar months and several miniatures in the Passion cycle (folios 142v-157r). Furthermore, the Très Riches Heures includes several large paintings, some of which are most unusual for a Book of Hours: Anatomical Man (folio 14v), the Garden of Eden (folio 25v), the Fall of the Rebel Angels (folio 64v), a Plan of Rome (folio 141v), and others of a more conventional theme such as the Adoration of the Magi (folio 52r) and Hell (folio 198r). These miniatures were not originally planned for the manuscript and were executed on inset pages; the artists' or the Duke's reasons for adding them as afterthoughts remain unexplained.
The painters' illustration of the prepared pages began with a light pen and ink sketch, one of which is still visible in the marginal decorations of the Annunciation (folio 26r), left incomplete at the time of the Limbourgs' death. In the painting itself, the sky and landscape or architectural background was executed first, followed by the foreground and figures, and last of all the heads and faces. This sequence of steps is most obvious in miniatures left incomplete by the Limbourgs; the month of September (folio 9v) was begun by the brothers, who started with the upper two-thirds - the sky and the Château de Saumur - and was completed by Jean Colombe, who filled in the harvest scene with its different figures; the Procession of Saint Gregory (folios 71v-72r) was almost entirely executed by the Limbourgs except for the heads (the last stage) on the right-hand folio by Jean Colombe.
The colors used by the miniaturists were prepared in their workshop, ground with a muller on a slab of marble and then moistened with water thickened with either arabic or tragacanth gum, which served as a binder and ensured their adherence to the vellum and their preservation. Besides black and white, there were approximately ten shades of blue, green, red, yellow, and violet, obtained from minerals, plants, or chemicals, whose composition is described in various treatises on painting, and notably a fourteenth-century Art d'Illuminer.
Of the two blues, the most beautiful, called azur d'outremer was an ultramarine made from costly Oriental lapis-lazuli (pierre d'azur), which was considered so precious that two leather bags containing the mineral were mentioned in the Duc de Berry's inventory: "deux sacs de cuir où il y a dedans de l'azur." It is with this deep and yet transparent blue that the Limbourgs created their luminous skies. The second blue, azur d'Allemagne, or cobalt blue, was made from Saxony cobalt ore and was less transparent than the ultramarine. Jean Colombe seems to have used it for the gradation of his background landscapes.
The beautiful tones of the young women's robes in the month of May (folio 5v) were painted in one of the two greens used at the time, vert de Hongrie, or malachite green, which was made from the green crystal of the same name, a carbonate of copper. The other green, vert de flambe, was obtained, according to the Art d'Illuminer, from wild irises by mixing newly crushed flowers with massicot, while a seventeenth-century book of formulas explains that it was actually the leaves of the iris that were used.
Vermilion, the brightest of reds, was made from cinnabar, or mercuric sulfide, obtained by heating one part quicksilver with two parts sulphur. The other chemical red, mine, consisted of red oxide of lead produced by heating white lead. The third, darker red was made from an earthy substance, red ocher, a kind of red mineral.
Pink, or rose de Paris, was extracted from the decoction of red dyewood.
The two yellows were obtained from minerals: massicot from a monoxide of lead, and orpiment from arsenic trisulfide.
Violet was a vegetable color extracted from the sunflower.
White was made with white lead ore, which the Art d'Illuminer describes as the "seule espèce de blanc pour l'enluminure" ("the only kind of white suitable for illumination").
Black was obtained either from soot or from ground charcoal.
There were two kinds of gold: gold leaf, applied on an "assiette" ("gold sizing") and held in place with a paste called "cerbura" in the Art d'Illuminer, and ormolu, a gold powder applied with a brush.
The microscopic work characteristic of the Limbourgs required extremely fine brushes and, probably, lenses. Jean Colombe's brushwork was slightly less delicate, as we can see in his part of the month of September (folio 9v).
Charles I, Duc de Savoie, was not destined to enjoy the Très Riches Heures for long since he died childless in 1489, leaving all his possessions to his first cousin, the Duc Philibert le Beau. The latter also passed away without progeny, and the manuscript was left to his widow, Margaret of Austria, the daughter of the Emperor Maximilian and at that time responsible for the government of the Netherlands.
Paul Durrieu demonstrated the probability of the inclusion of the Très Riches Heures in a group of manuscripts belonging to the House of Savoie which the Princess had transferred to the Netherlands; he identified it with "une grande heur escripte à la main" ("a large Book of Hours written by hand") mentioned in the Princess' chapel in Mechlin in 1523.
Upon Margaret's death in 1530, this Book of Hours went to Jean Ruffaut, chief treasurer and paymaster of Charles V of Germany and one of the executors of the Princess'will.
The history of the manuscript would be totally unknown for three centuries thereafter, if it had not been bound during the eighteenth century in red morocco leather decorated with the Spinola arms. How this famous Genovese family acquired the manuscript remains a mystery, but it is not unreasonable to explain it by the military activity of the family members, especially Ambrosio Spinola, in the Spanish Netherlands in the seventeenth century.
The Très Riches Heures eventually passed into the hands of the Serra family, whose escutcheon was applied to the front cover over the Spinola arms, and then to the Baron Felix de Margherita, who lived in Turin.
Toward the middle of the nineteenth century, the Duc d'Aumale learned of the manuscript's availability and saw it during a trip he made in 1855 to Genoa. He immediately recognized it as a work executed for the Duc de Berry, by the Duke's portrait in the month of January (folio 2r), the numerous bears and wounded swans, the mysterious initials "VE" (folio 14v), and the fleurs-de-lys escutcheons engrailed in gules.
But it still remained to identify the manuscript among Jean de Berry's numerous Books ofHours. On February 14, 1881, the eminent scholar Leopold Delisle wrote to the Duc d'Aumale: "Monseignur, je ne doute pas que vos heures du Duc de Berry ne répondent à l'article suivant du procès-verbal d'inventaire et prisée dressé après la mort du prince et conservé à la Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève: " En une layette plusieurs cayers d'unes très riches heures que faisoient Pol et ses frères, très richement historiez et enluminez - 500 livres." ("Sir, I have no doubt that your Hours of the Duc de Berry correspond to the following article in the official report of the inventory and appraisal made after the Duke's death and preserved in the Bilbiotheque Sainte-Geneviè:'in a box several signatures of a very rich Hours undertaken by Paul and his brothers, richly illustrated and decorated - 500 livres ".
Delisle's opinion was based on three factors: the inventory's high evaluation of an unfinished manuscript, the absence of any other incomplete Book of Hours in the Duc de Berry's inventories, and the collaboration of three artists, which would explain "Les différences de main remarquées par Votre Altesse dans les peintures de la partie ancienne du livre" ("the different hands recognized by your Highness in the earlier parts of the book"). Returned at last to France after passing through Savoie, the Netherlands, and Italy, the Très Riches Heures recovered its correct attribution thanks to Leopold Delisle and was included in the Duc d'Aumale's generous donation of all his collections and his estate of Chantilly to the Institut de France . It has belonged to this learned body since 1897 and constitutes one of the most precious treasures of the Musée Condé.