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A Book Beyond Time:
Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

Sara Marie Massee
22 April 2003


In 1859, the Duc d'Aumale bought the manuscript of a Book of Hours that he believed to have been commissioned by the Duc de Berry in the early 1400's. By 1881, the scholar Léopold Delisle had confirmed this and had even established the identity of the manuscript. This was the Très Riches Heures that was described in an inventory of Jean de Berry's possessions at the time of his death. The manuscript had been lost since the 1500's. Thus, for the first time in three centuries, one of the most famous illuminated manuscripts in history came to light (Longnon, 26).

Jean, duc de Berry

As already mentioned, Jean de Berry was the man who commissioned Les Très Riches Heures. He was born in 1340, the third son of Jean II, King of France (Longnon, 13). In 1360 he received the duchies of Berry and Auvergne from his father. Later, his brother, Charles V gave him Poitou as well. He married twice, first to Jeanne d'Armagnac and later to Jeanne de Boulogne. He died in June of 1416, shortly after the Battle of Agincourt, a major French loss in the Hundred Years War (Longnon, 14).

Jean de Berry is known as one of the great art patrons of his time, perhaps even the greatest. He was one of the most prolific collectors, amassing jewels, gold and silver pieces, tapestry, illuminated manuscripts, and even châteaux (Longnon, 14-15).1  The inventories of his collections were extensive. Jean was also knowledgeable about the art he collected. He encouraged eclecticism, enjoying fine workmanship of all kinds, rather than slavishly sticking to the current fashion. This allowed his artists to experiment freely--or to use out-dated modes of representation if that suited their work best. He also invited his artists to use unfamiliar media (or at least to borrow from them) to see what effects they would be able to create (Thomas, 10-11).

The duke not only collected works, he directed them (Thomas, 9-10). Many of the pieces in his collections were commissioned rather than acquired. He involved himself deeply in the artistic process, instructing his artists closely in the elements that he wanted in the final product (Longnon, 18). For example, Jean's interest in the exotic can be seen in the high amount of oriental elements to be found in Les Très Riches Heures (Thomas, 17-19). In the two paintings dealing with the Magi, several camels and other exotic animals appear. Since the artists that Jean de Berry instructed were some of the best in the period, he had a profound impact on the art of his time. This impact was particularly strong since copying was common in medieval art (Thomas, 25).

The Duc de Berry's relationship with the artists he patronized was particularly informal and close (Longnon, 14). The artists were his friends --so much so, that the Limbourg brothers once gave him a gag gift instead of a real present on January 1st, the traditional time for gift exchanges (Longnon, 18).2  He protected his artists politically, financially, and legally, even braving the wrath of the French Parliament for them. In doing so, he helped Pol (Paul) Limbourg attain a profitable marriage with an upper middle class woman (Thomas, 13).

In addition to collecting and building extensively, Jean lived in fantastic luxury. His court was one of the most splendid in Europe and he employed a large number of specialized servants that followed him whenever he traveled from one of his seventeen houses to another. As a result of all this luxury, the duke often had trouble paying off his expenditures (Longnon, 14). This was true even though he owned a large portion of France. Jean de Berry made himself unpopular with the lower classes by taxing them heavily. When King Charles V went mad, he took advantage of the situation by extorting even more money out of the common people of France (Pognon, 9). After the assassination of his nephew Louis, duke of Orleans, he made himself even more unpopular in Paris by siding politically with the Armignacs, a group that the Parisians hated. As a result, in 1411 they burned down his Paris home, the Hôtel de Nesle and his palace on the outskirts of the city, the Château de Bicêtre. The very next year, the Burgundians besieged him at his castle in Bourges, the capital of Berry (Longnon, 14). These losses were quite a blow to Jean as they were some of the most beautiful and richly decorated of his homes. Still harder was the blow that came with the French defeat at Agincourt, in which most of the French nobility, including his favorite grandsons were taken hostage. It was only a year later that he died.


Although much is known about Jean de Berry, the patron of the Très Riches Heures, much less is known about the artists who created this book--or indeed about individual illuminators in general during this period (Thomas, 14). Still, some information does exist. Records make it clear that Paul, Herman, and Jean (or Jannequin) Limbourg were the painters that started the Très Riches Heures (Pognon, 10). However, they died, leaving the text unfinished. In 1485, the new owner of the Très Riches Heures, Charles I paid an artist named John Colombe to finish the illumination (Longnon, 22). These are the only artists for which records exist. However, some scholars have proposed theories about other, unnamed artists who worked on the Très Riches Heures as well (Pognon, 12-13). Although this is possible (at that time, lots of artists worked anonymously, leaving no record behind), no definite evidence survives to prove that they did exist (Thomas, 14-15).

The Limbourg Brothers

The Limbourg brothers grew up in Nimwegen, a German city. They were three of the six known children in the Limbourg family. Arnold de Limbourg, their father, was a sculptor. Their mother was the sister of a painter who went to France to work for the Duc de Bourgogne (Longnon, 17).

Around 1399, Jean and Herman traveled to Paris to become apprentices to a goldsmith. However, they turned back because of an outbreak of the plague (Longnon, ibid). After some trouble in Brussels, they the Duc de Bourgogne, their uncle's patron, rescued them. They worked for him for around four years (Rorimer, 3). Between 1403 and 1408, no record of the Limbourgs exists. However, by 1408, Paul de Limbourg was working for the Duc de Berry, who got him out of some trouble with the Parliament. By 1410, records show that Herman and Jean had joined Paul at the duke's court, although Paul remained the closest to him and the highest in his favor (Longnon, 18).

Little is known of the Limbourgs' works other than the Très Riches Heures. Between 1410 and 1413, they worked on a Book of Hours called the Belles Heures for Jean de Berry (Rorimer, 3). They completed this book just before starting the Très Riches Heures. Many similarities exist between the two. They use the same type of bearded Christ with curly hair, the same type of female nude, the same bright colors, and the same graceful figures. However, the Limbourgs were careful not to repeat themselves and several important innovations appear in the Très Riches Heures that were not present in the Belles Heures (Longnon, 20). Besides, these two books, Paul and Jean illuminated a "très belle et très notable Bible" for the Duc de Bourgogne, a book that no longer survives. All that remains of their work are three illustrations in the Très Belles Heures de Notre-Dame, one illustration in a Petites Heures, and a series of pictures in a Bible historiée. Two other books look like they came from the Limbourg workshop, but this attribution is uncertain (Longnon, 19-20).

The Limbourgs seem to have worked in a workshop setting, overseen by Paul. Although many scholars have tried to tell their hands apart and attribute specific pages or specific parts of pages to each one, their style is so similar that in the absence of written evidence, certain attribution is almost impossible.3  In fact, the Limbourgs are remarkable for their unity of style.

John Colombe

Less is known about John Colombe than the Limbourgs. He was born between 1430 and 1435 and is probably the brother of the sculptor Michel Colombe (Lognon, 19-20). He lived in Bourges. In 1463 he finished an apprenticeship to Clement Thibault, a calligrapher and illuminator. He married in 1464 and moved to a new house that he had built in 1467. Records seem to indicate that he completed the Très Riches Heures in 1485 for Charles I de Savoie. He died in 1493 (Longnon, ibid).

The Paintings

The Très Riches Heures is well named. The illuminations are indeed rich and they are numerous. However, their richness is not the only reason for their fame. The Limbourg brothers were responsible for several important innovations in painting. They played with the traditions associated with painting cycles in Books of Hours, they portrayed peasants in a new way, they redefined the meaning of portraiture in a series of paintings, and they also made important steps in illusionistic painting by adding shadows, showing reflections, and experimenting with receeding landscapes.

For example, August in Book of Hours calendars was supposed to depict the reaping of grain (Wieck, 48). The Limbourgs do show this activity (fig. 1). 4  However, the main focus of the painting is actually a hunting scene with two lords and three ladies carrying falcons. Grain reaping is only part of the background and it even shares this function with a scene of peasants swimming. The Limbourgs do similar things in several of the other Calendar paintings.

Similarly, it was traditional for books of hours to contain decorative scrolls of vines and flowers around the text or around miniatures (fig. 2). 5  The Limbourg brothers used little bits of scrolling, but they also expanded on them, adding bears, angels, birds, snails, and even knights in castle towers to the margins of the page (fig. 3).

Also new in the Très Riches Heures is the treatment that the Limbourg brothers give to peasants (Pognon, 12). At the time, peasants got little attention in the world of art. Here, peasants feature prominently. Furthermore, the Limbourgs portray peasants sympathetically, showing their tired faces and their hard-working bodies (fig. 4). Nor do the Limbourg brothers refrain from showing the less glamorous aspects of peasant life. The horse in figure 4 is not a stately beast like the ones in figure 1 (Pognon, ibid).

Another innovation is the way that the Limbourg brothers use their illuminations to create a portrait of their patron and his surroundings as well as a work for religious devotion (Meiss, 8). Although other Books of Hours included portraits of their patrons and attempted to glorify them, none went so far to create a sense of the personality and the life behind the work.

This "portraiture" can most clearly be seen in the illuminations from the Calendar (Meiss, 8-9). The Calendar opens with the scene of Jean de Berry holding a feast (fig. 5). One the one hand, this scene serves as a traditional illumination for the month of January. Feasting was the typical iconography for January in Books of Hours (Wieck, 48). However, the person depicted feasting was not usually the patron. Thus, the Limbourgs start breaking tradition by using a portrait. They continue in the rest of the painting. This is not just a portrait of Jean de Berry feasting alone. The painting shows the entire court. Furthermore, this depiction of the court seems to be based on the Duke's real court, rather than an imagined one (Meiss, 9). Scholars have identified many of the objects in the painting from an inventory of Jean de Berry's possessions, including the large saltcellar on right hand side of the table (Musée Condé, 2). They have even made suggestions about who each of the courtiers portrayed is (Musée Condé, ibid). In other words, this is a portrait not just of the Duke, but one of his surroundings.

This "portraiture" continues in the rest of the Calendar. Every month but February and November includes a picture of one of Jean de Berry's many castles and châteaux (fig. 6). However, John Colombe did the picture for November. This leaves only one Limbourg picture that does not include a reference to the Duke's palaces (Meiss, 10). Furthermore, several images from the Calendar include courtly scenes, giving a sense of the life Jean de Berry would have led (figs 1 and 6). Even the paintings that focus on peasants show viewers the types of scenes that would have been familiar to the Duke of Berry (fig. 7).

The Limbourg brothers made other important innovations as well. As far as scholars can tell, they were the first ones to paint the shadows of the people, animals, and objects they portrayed (Meiss, 10) (fig. 4). Figure 4 is also the first painting in Western art to show the reflections of objects on water. Furthermore, the ground in this image recedes inward, rather than moving upward to show farther distance. Although this innovative linear perspective does not appear in every Limbourg painting, it does appear in several, such as the picture of March (fig. 8).

The style of John Colombe is very different from that of the Limbourgs (compare figs 9 and 10). The brushstrokes are visible in Colombe's work whereas in the Limbourg paintings they are invisible (Meiss, 12). His figures are less graceful and less naturalistic. Often his faces are flat ovals with heavy, almost squashed features. Colombe enjoyed heavy decoration that framed the picture whereas the Limbourgs preferred light, delicate frames. Colombe's landscapes look heavier as well.

Some scholars have disparaged Colombe's work because of these differences. 6  However, Colombe was not trying to imitate the Limbourgs. He studied them closely (Meiss, 12), but chose to work in the style popular in the 1480's rather than in the seventy-year-old style of the Limbourgs (Longnon, 23). Tastes had changed considerably since the Limbourgs had started the Très Riches Heures. So had fashions in looks, clothes, and architecture. Colombe's boldness of form and color can be seen as a reaction to the Limbourgs' style rather than a debasing of it (Longnon, ibid).

Furthermore, Colombe's paintings were highly effective. His rendition of The Entombment is quite emotional (fig. 11). The expression of the Madonna, the stiffness of Christ's body, and the kneeling figure of the Magdalene give poignancy to the scene. Meanwhile, the spectacular sunrise in the background attests to Colombe's skill in rendering landscapes and reminds the viewer that Christ will rise again.

Relationship to the Lipscomb Book of Hours

The Très Riches Heures is at the upper end of manuscript production. Its cost must have been exorbitant, considering the richness of the decorations. This makes sense. The Duke of Berry was extremely wealthy, he admired illuminated books, and religious books were supposed to be decorated with as much lavishness as the patron could afford (Harthan, 36).

However, not all Books of Hours were this rich. People of less means than the duke aspired to have Books of Hours as well (Harthan, 34). These books required decoration that was not overly expensive but that would do honor and justice to the religious material inside. It is to this group that the Lipscomb Book of Hours belongs. This book no longer has figural decoration. In fact, some pages contain no decoration at all (fig. 12). 7  However, decorated, enlarged capital letters and playfully scrolling vines and flowers embellish many pages (figs. 13 and 14). In this, even a simple Book of Hours resembles the Très Riches Heures (compare figs 13 and 14 to fig. 15).


1  Although not an artistic endeavor, the duke also collected exotic animals.

2  The gift was a richly decorated book that turned out to be completely blank and, in fact, would not even open.

3  Two of my sources disagreed on this point. The book by Pognon spends a good deal of time creating a theory of attribution. Longnon's introduction responds directly to Pognon and asserts that such attribution is impossible. I tend to side with Longnon. No irrefutable evidence exists to support a definite attribution of the Limbourg paintings. While Pognon's theory is well argued and plausible (it could easily be right), it remains unprovable.

4  All of the images of the Très Riches Heures referenced in this paper come from The Très Riches Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry by the Musée Condé, Chantilly.

5  Image from page 32 of Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life, by Roger S. Wieck.

6  Pognon included several derogatory comments about the lack of grace and refinement in Colombe's work.

7  This and the other images of the Lipscomb Book of Hours come from the R-MWC website, http://library.randolphcollege.edu/hours/.


Harthan, John. The Book of Hours. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1977.

Longnon, Jean. Introduction. The Très Riches Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry. By Musée Condé, Chantilly. Trans. Victoria Benedict. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1969.

Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Belles Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry Prince of France. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1958.

Meiss, Milard. Preface. The Très Riches Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry. By Musée Condé, Chantilly. Trans. Victoria Benedict. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1969.

Musée Condé, Chantilly. The Très Riches Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry. Trans. Victoria Benedict. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1969.

Pognon, Edmond. Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry: 15th-Century Manuscript. Trans. David Macrae. Fribourg: Productions Liber S.A.; Genève: Editions Minerva S.A., 1979. N.p.: Crescent Books-Crown Publishers Inc., n.d.

Rorimer, James J. Introduction. The Belles Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry Prince of France. By the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1958.

Smith, Katherine A. "The Neville of Hornby Hours and the Design of Literate Devotion." The Art Bulletin 81 (1997): 72-92.

Thomas, Marcel. The Golden Age: Manuscript Painting at the Time of Jean, Duke of Berry. Trans. Ursule Molinaro and Bruce Benderson. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1979.

Wieck, Roger S. Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life. New York: George Braziller, Inc.; Baltimore: The Walters Art Gallery, 1988.


These pages are the work of the students enrolled in Art 238, "Art and Medieval Mentalities," taught by Professor Christine Hamza during the Spring Semester, 2003.

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