Les Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
(The Very Full Hours of the Duke of Berry)
[examine the calendar]
Les Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry is the classic example of a medieval "Book of Hours." These books were so named for their collections of texts for each liturgical hour of the day. Also included were calendars, prayers, psalms and masses for certain holy days and other, supplementary, texts.
Les Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry is one of the great art treasures of France and marks the pinnacle of the art of manuscript illumination. The pictures in the calendar section, painted some time between 1412 and 1416 are the best known part of the manuscript; and, let alone their historical and cultural importance, rival in beauty even the more famous Mona Lisa.
The calendar pictures were painted by the Limbourg brothers, Paul, Hermann, and Jean, at the behest of Jean, Duke of Berry, one of the most notable, and also the richest, art lovers in France. Illustrations by them are also in Les Trés Belles Heures (The Very Fine Hours). Other of their works are lost and many were destroyed in 1411 when the Duke of Berry's Chateau de Bicetre was burned to the ground.
The Limbourg brothers were known as Germans; having come from Nimwegen in what is now Flanders. Biographical details of them are few. In 1402 they had entered into the service of the Duke of Bourgogne as artists, evidently following in the artistic family tradition exemplified by their father, a wood sculptor, and their uncle, an artist, who had worked occasionally for the Duke of Berry and the French Queen. The three Limbourg brothers died at age younger than thirty, possibly killed by an epidemic February 1416.
The Limbourgs used a wide variety of colors made from minerals, plants or chemicals and mixed with either arabic or tragacinth gum to provide a binder for the paint. Of the more unusual pigments were vert de flambe (green of flames), a green obtained from crushed flowers mixed with massicot, and azur d'outreme, an ultramarine made, at huge expense, from crushed Middle Eastern lapis-lazuli, was used to paint the brilliant blues.
The minute details, which yet amaze, in the Limbourgs paintings were achieved with extremely fine brushes and, almost certainly, lenses. In a rather less delicate mode are later additions to Les Trés Riches Heures by the then contemporary artist Jean Colombe. However, only November of the calendars includes a substantial amount of his work.