Happy first day of July. Celebrate the fact you are getting ready for the 4th, rather than working in wheat fields.
The Très riches Heures du Duc de Berry, or the very rich hours of the Duke of Berry, if english is your preferred language, is one of the great treasures of European art. Back in the olden days, a book of hours was a private prayer book with illustrations for the owner to reflect on throughout the day. Prayer books like these are some of the best preserved art from the middle ages. This bad boy dates from 1416.
The Duke of Berry’s Book of Hours is renowned for its realism. Compare it to another book from the period, completed only 10ish years earlier. Below is Christine de Pizan’s Treasure of the City of the Ladies illustrated by the Master of the City of Women (if you’re a really good anonymous medieval illustrator, they give you a fancy name like that). Christine de Pizan and the Master of the City of Women are an incredibly cool duo that focused on courtly advice for the ladies — total catnip if you’re into gender studies. But, you can see that the Treasure of the City of the Ladies doesn’t come close to the fine details and realism of Berry’s Book of Hours.
Berry’s Book of Hours gets its stunning realism from the Limbourg Brothers. The brothers Paul and Jean were originally from the Holland/Flanders area. Unlike France or England, the Dutch at this time were killing the realism game by the 1400s. So the Limbourgs in their commission brought with them this elegant sense of veracity.
The Book of Hours consisted of calendar pages in addition to prayer sections. Over the course of the coming months I’ll be looking at each of the Calendar pages from the series. For July, the Limbourg brothers depicted the Duke de Berry’s Palais de Poitiers. Peasants are enjoying toiling in the wheat fields under the hot sun. Another group of laborers are shearing sheep, which I image is a more entertaining, if smellier, job than cutting wheat. The Palais de Poitiers in the background still stands today, although its surrounded by a modern town instead of agricultural countryside.
The Book of Hours of the Duke of Berry is not notable simply for it’s realism and expense. Although that blue paint isn’t cheap in the 1400s. The Duke himself is a key player in a wild time in French history. And not to spoil it for you, but the Limbourg brothers don’t make it in time to complete their own masterpiece. So stay tuned to learn more about all the politics, myths, and artists behind the Trés Riches Heures of the Duke de Berry come August.