The late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries were a turbulent time of unrest and strife in France. Yet there lived one of the greatest patrons in the history of art, whose lavish and imaginative support made possible the illustration of two of the most exquisite illuminated manuscripts known today: the Belles Heures (New York, The Cloisters) and the Très Riches Heures (Chantilly, Musée Condé), both of whose
miniatures were painted by the three Limbourg brothers.
Jean, Duc de Berry, the third son of Jean II, le Bon, King of France (reigned 1350-1364), was born on November 30, 1340, in the Chateau de Vincennes. His brothers were King Charles V (reigned 1364-1380), the Duc Louis I d'Anjou, and Philippe le Hardi, Duc de Bourgogne, and his nephews were King Charles VI (reigned 1380-1422) and the Duc Louis d'Orléans.
In 1360 he received the duchies of Berry and Auvergne in appanage, to which in 1369 Charles V added Poitou, recently recaptured from the English by Jean.
He married twice: Jeanne d'Armagnac in 1360 and, after her death, Jeanne de Boulogne in 1389. His position as son, brother, and uncle of the Kings of France forced Jean to become involved in politics in the latter part of his life, especially during the dissension incurred by Charles Vl's insanity. He played an essentially conciliatory role, concentrating his efforts on three main aims: negotiation with the English, ending the Great Schism that divided western Christendom, and reestablishing the peace that was constantly disturbed by the rivalry of the Houses of Burgundy and Orléans.
When the murder of Louis d'Orléans in 1407, and the threatening ambitions of Jean sans Peur, Duc de Bourgogne, forced the Duc de Berry to commit himself politically, he was immediately considered the head of the "Armignacs," an anti-Burgundian faction bitterly hated by the people of Paris. In 1411 his Paris residence, the Hôtel de Nesle, was ransacked, and his Château de Bicêtre, on the outskirts of the capital, was pillaged and burned.
The following year he was besieged in Bourges, the capital of Berry, by the Burgundians, and in 1413 the extremes attained by the cabochien movement forced him to take refuge in the cloister of Notre-Dame. He had barely recovered from these dramatic events when the French found themselves involved once more in a war with England, which ended with their disastrous defeat at Agincourt in 1415.
The Duke died shortly thereafter, on June 15, 1416, in the Hôtel de Nesle, deeply saddened by this fateful battle in which the majority of the noblemen of France were either killed or taken prisoner, including his favorite grandsons, Charles d'Orléans and the Comte d'Eu.
Although the Duc de Berry owned a large part of central France and governed the Languedoc, he was often unable to meet the enormous expenses of his extraordinarily luxurious life. A great patron and friend of artists and a passionate collector, he commissioned works of all kinds; he loved sumptuous buildings, rare jewels, and richly illuminated books.
Accompanied by his servants, chaplain, and artist, he moved constantly between the seventeen or more palaces, châteaus, and hôtels or private mansions that he owned, some of which are depicted in the Très Riches Heures. Even his tapestries, decorated with historical scenes, were transported to adorn the walls of each residence in which he gave magnificent receptions for his family and retinue, served by his personal cup-bearers, pantlers, and carvers, such as we see in the Très Riches Heures in the painting for January (folio 2r) . A relaxed atmosphere existed between this princely patron and the artists he employed, for he enjoyed their company and often guided them in their work; Jean Froissart describes him deeply engrossed in a discussion of new works with André Beauneveu, his master sculptor and painter. He bestowed favors upon them, and they in turn were generous with their gifts to him. In 1408 the painter Jean d'Orléans presented him with "une belle pomme de musc" ("musk in an apple-shaped container") that opened in the middle and was decorated within. In 1410 and 1415 Paul de Limbourg gave him similar gifts.
His master architect Guy de Dammartin and his brother Dreux, André Beauneveu and his disciple Jean de Cambrai, who executed the funerary sculpture on the Duke's tomb, the miniaturist Jacquemart de Hesdin, and the three Limbourg brothers were considered friends and protégés of the Duke. The creations of these congenial collaborators were renowned: in 1393 Claus Sluter and the painter Jean de Beaumetz traveled to the Duke's château at Mehun-sur-Yèvre to "visiter certains ouvrages de peintures et d'images" ("visit works of art") in view of a project Philippe le Hardi, the Duc de Bourgogne, was planning in Dijon.
An avid builder, Jean de Berry personally supervised his restorations and constructions. The master architect for most of them was Guy de Dammartin, who successfully created in the upper stories a graceful decoration that fit in with the imposing grandeur of the whole. The palace and Sainte-Chapelle in both Bourges and Riom, the renovation of the palace and the Château du Clain in Poitiers, and the completion of the facade of Bourges Cathedral were accomplishments worthy of the importance of the Duke's three capital cities as well as monuments to his good taste in architecture.
By restoring châteaus and by building anew, the Duke provided himself with a series of beautiful homes throughout France: Nonette in Auvergne, Lusignan in Poitou, Genouilly and Concressault in Berry, and Gien, Montargis, Etampes, and Dourdan between the Loire and the Seine. The most famous residences, noted for their beauty and magnificence, were the Hôtel de Nesle on the left bank of the Seine facing the Louvre, the Château de Bicêtre to the south of Paris, and the Château de Mehun-sur-Yèvre, four leagues from Bourges.
A born collector, the Duke was possessed by an insatiable curiosity and the desire to own everything that caught his fancy. As well as buying and receiving, he enjoyed giving objects which he sometimes found himself buying back or asking for if he came to miss them too much. His tastes were broad.
He was interested in exotic animals and, since he owned ostriches, dromedaries, chamois, and bears, the representations of camels in the Très Riches Heures (folios 51v-52r) is not surprising. Each animal, including the Pomeranians that we see on the banquet table in the month of January had its own keeper, and the bears and their guardian followed the Duke on his travels.
Bears and swans were his emblems. The number of outstanding objects mentioned in his inventories is striking: historiated and emblazoned tapestries, Florentine and English embroidery, Luccan gold brocade, silk wall hangings, enamels, porcelains and plates, forks, and spoons of silver and gold, all of which reveal the unimaginable luxury in which he lived.
Jean de Berry's most passionate interest was in jewels and works of art, which took the greatest pains to find. The predominantly Italian and Jewish dealers of the period knew his preferences and strove to present him with the rarest gems. His collection of at least twenty exceptional rubies was the most beautiful of his time and perhaps of all time; one stone weighed 240 carats. Breathtaking was the richness of his religious orfèvrerie or goldwork, most of which he bequeathed to the Sainte-Chapelle in Bourges: crosses, chalices, retables, and reliquaries in solid gold that fairly glistened with precious stones.
He loved beautiful books, which he bought, commissioned, received, and offered as gifts. Although his library was not so big as that assembled in the Louvre by his brother, King Charles V, the remarkable quality of his manuscripts established him as the prince of all French bibliophiles.
He lovingly followed the execution of each page of the books he ordered, hardly waiting for the completion of one before commissioning another. In addition to French works, the library also included Italian manuscripts known as "historiés de l'ouvrage de Lombardie " or "de l'ouvrage romain " (Lombard or Roman illuminations). His librarian was, in fact, a Milanese illuminator, Pietro da Verona, who had come to France to sell his works and had remained in the service of the Duc de Berry. As sumptuous as the books' illuminations were the silk, velvet, or red leather bindings, with their small gold or silver fastenings studded with enamel work, pearls, or precious stones and often adorned with pipes - small strips of precious metal that bore the same decoration as the fastenings and held the signatures to the binding.
The Duke's library naturally reflects something of the personality of its founder.
The 41 histories that dominate the secular works, followed by 38 chivalric romances, attest to his interest in the mundane, but he was also curious about natural phenomena and had acquired Marco Polo's Book of Travels, Gossuin's Imago Mundi, Aristotle's De Coelo, Le Livre de la Sphère by Nicolas Oresme, Fleur de la terre d'Orient, three mappe-mondes or maps of the world in two hemispheres, a book of divination, and an astrological treatise on the seven planets.
But even these important works were overshadowed by the extraordinary number and quality of religious works, and in particular, the prayer books: 14 Bibles, 16 psalters, 18 breviaries, 6 missals, and 15 Books of Hours, which included the most beautiful manuscripts.
Books of Hours, generally intended for private use, were the most popular devotional books of the later Middle Ages. They were collections of the text for each liturgical hour of the day, hence their name. However, a typical Book of Hours contained many texts supplementary to these "Little Offices," which were usually preceded by a calendar and followed by the Hours of the Cross, of the Holy Ghost, and of the Passion. These Hours were placed between extracts from the Gospels, various prayers and daily devotions, the Penitential Psalms, the Litany of Saints, and masses for certain holy days.
Although the Très Riches Heures can be considered the most beautiful of all the Duke's Books of Hours, he owned others of exceptional interest. Several had been executed for members of his family, such as the Heures de Jeanne d'Evreux, illuminated by Jean Pucelle (1325-1328 ; New York, The Cloisters), or the so-called Heures de Savoie, begun in Pucelle's workshop, completed during the reign of Charles V, and destroyed in 1904, leaving only the fragment presently in the Library of the Bishop of Winchester.
Not entirely satisfied with any of these manuscripts, whose style was already antiquated, Jean de Berry commissioned the most famous contemporary artists - André Beauneveu, Jacquemart de Hesdin, Parl de Limbourg and his two brothers - to illustrate numerous devotional books, already distinguished from one another in his inventories by their different attributes.
The Petites Heures (Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. lat. 18.014) is believed to have been executed before 1388 with the exception of a miniature showing the Duc de Berry leaving on a trip, added by the Limbourgs. Millard Meiss believes that at least five painters collaborated on the illuminations: Jacquemart de Hesdin and four anonymous artists.
The Grandes Heures (Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. lat. 919), larger than any of the Duke's other Books of Hours, was probably illuminated mainly by the Pseudo-Jacquemart, one of the unknown artists who worked on the Petites Heures. It was completed in 1409 by the Bedford Master and an artist from the workshop of the Boucicaut Master.
Because the Cloisters' Belles Heures was listed in the Duke's inventory of January, 1413, it is generally agreed that the Limbourgs probably illuminated this manuscript between 1410 and 1412, or just before the Très Riches Heures.
The Très Belles Heures, now in Brussels (Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique, ms. 11060-61), was painted for the Duke under the supervision of Jacquemart de Hesdin. It disappeared for several centuries, but despite divergent opinions, the manuscript in the Bibliothèque Royale seems to correspond without doubt to that described in the inventory of 1402.
More complicated is the provenance of the Très Belles Heures de Notre Dame. Begun about 1384 by an artist very close to the Parement Master, it was left unfinished, perhaps at his death; between 1405 and 1409 three pages were painted by an illuminator influenced both by André Beauneveu and the Limbourgs.
In 1413 the still incomplete manuscript appears in an inventory compiled by the Duke's "registrar", Robinet d'Etampes, who shortly thereafter divided it into two parts. The finished section was kept by Robinet, and the rest was acquired by the House of Bavaria-Holland, which promptly commissioned the Van Eyck brothers, Jan and Hubert, to complete it. This portion of the manuscript was again divided in two, half of which burned with the Royal Library of Turin in 1904 and the rest of which, known as the Heures de Milan, is presently in the Museo Civico of Turin. Thus the Très Belles Heures de Notre-Dame is presently divided among the Bibliothèque Nationale (ms. nouv. acq. lat. 3093) and the Louvre (RF 2022-2024) in Paris, and the Turin museum.
The part that perished is known only through reproductions published in 1902.
Lastly, we cannot omit the beautiful Psalter (c. 1386; Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. fr. 13.091), in which the figures of the apostles and prophets are thought to be by André Beauneveu, an attribution which corresponds to the inventory of 1402.