Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
By The Limbourg Brothers
Meaning of International Gothic Miniature Illuminated Book of Hours

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Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry By the Limbourg Brothers
Month of May - Detail from
Les Tres Riches Heures
By the Limbourg Brothers.
Regarded as one of the best
illuminated manuscripts of
the Middle Ages.

Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1413)


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Painting: Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
Date: Started c.1413
Artist: Limbourg Brothers (fl.1390-1416)
Medium: Gouache on parchment (vellum)
Genre: Illuminated Book of Hours
Movement: International Gothic
Museum: Musee Conde, Chantilly, France.

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Interpretation of Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

Considered to be the finest example of Medieval manuscript illumination of the fifteenth century, Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry is an exquisite richly decorated Book of Hours - one of the most famous of all International Gothic illuminations - which was commissioned by John, Duke of Berry, around 1413. A Book of Hours was a popular type of devotional prayer book, which included a text for each liturgical hour of the day, plus calendar, as well as prayers, psalms and masses for specific holy days. Painted in gouache on parchment (vellum), The Tres Riches Heures includes 416 pages, 131 of which have large miniatures, while many more are decorated with border illustrations or large historiated initials, as well as 300 ornamented capital letters. Comparable, as a work of fine art painting in miniature, with the likes of the Mona Lisa, this work of art is now in the Musee Conde, Chantilly, France (Ms.65). The creators of this outstanding example of 15th century French religious art were the Flemish Limbourg Brothers, Pol (Paul), Herman (Hennequin) and Jean (Jan or Jannequin) - nephews of Jean Malouel, court painter to the Duke of Burgundy - all three of whom died of plague in 1416. Some art historians believe one of them may have been responsible for the exquisite Wilton Diptych (1395-99, National Gallery, London).



More Analysis of Les Tres Riches Heures

Jean, Duc de Berry: Collector of Illuminated Manuscripts

Pol is believed to have been head of the workshop, and up until 1404 he and Jean had been working for Philip the Bold, Duke of Normandy. When Philip died in 1404, Pol together with both Jean and Herman went to work for his brother the Duc de Berry. Jean, Duc de Berry (1340-1416) was the brother of King Charles V of France, and an eminent connoisseur of fine and decorative art. He was one of the most avid art collectors of illuminated manuscripts, possessing a vast library of astronomical treatises, cartographical folios, psalters, breviaries, missals, bibles, and 15 Books of Hours. He commissioned the Limbourgs to paint two Books of Hours: the first was the Belles Heures (1408, Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); the second was the brothers' masterpiece, the Tres Riches Heures. As it was, all three painters, together with their patron, died in 1416 before the Tres Riches Heures was finished. Later acquired by the Duke's cousin, René d'Anjou, the unfinished work was added to in the 1440s by Barthelemy van Eyck, before Charles Duc de Savoie commissioned its completion by the French illuminator Jean Colombe (d.1495) in the late 1480s.

Highpoint of Courtly International Gothic

Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry - with its subtle variation of line, painstaking technique, and minute rendering of detail - marks the highpoint of book illustration in the stylized, courtly idiom known as the International Gothic. Its creators based many of their motifs on elements from the classical antiquities, Flemish tapestries, gold metalwork, Lombard miniatures, and drawings of Tuscan frescoes from the Duc de Berry's art collection. Particular influences, possibly absorbed by Pol Limbourg during his travels in Italy, were the fresco murals of Giotto's godson Taddeo Gaddi (d.1366), who worked with his godfather for more than 20 years, and the naturalistic frescoes of Ambrogio Lorenzetti (active 1319-48). The way that these two painters modelled their figures, and organized the spatial planes of their paintings through the use of simple linear perspective, was imitated and taken to a new level by the Limbourg brothers. The Sienese School of Painting, as the upholder of the Byzantine tradition of Gothic art, would have been another influence absorbed by the brothers.

Miniature Paintings of the Monthly Calendar

The most famous section of Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry is the Calendar. Common to most Books of Hours, this part consists of a standard calendar marked with church feasts and saints' days. It is usually illustrated, but the twelve full-page miniature paintings which decorate the months in the Tres Riches Heures are regarded as the most exquisite and original feature of the entire work. The majority of the images - featuring some of the greatest genre paintings of the Middle Ages - feature one of the Duc de Berry's castles in the background, as well as scenes of both leisure and work which characterize the different months. Above each painting is a hemisphere showing the signs and degrees of the zodiac, the numbers and days of the month, as well as details from the ecclesiastical lunar calendar.

The Calendar of Les Tres Riches Heures

This painting illustrates the giving of New Years' gifts. Jean de Berry himself is visible wearing a vivid blue robe.

This shows winter in a peasant village. Peasants warm themselves by the fire, while in the background daily life goes on as normal.

This scene features early sowing and ploughing. The chateau in the background is Lusignan, a favourite of the Duc's.

Here, Spring arrives. A newly engaged couple are exchanging rings flanked by friends and family. The chateau shown is that of Dourdan.

This painting illustrates a May pageant. The chateau known as the Palais de la Cite is in the background.

Harvest time with a background featuring the Hotel de Nesle, the Duc's Parisian home.

This depicts sheep are being sheared and hay being reaped.

Here, noblemen are hawking with falcons. Peasants are harvesting and swimming in the background. Behind everything is the Chateau d'Etampes.

It's time for the grape harvest. The featured castle is the Chateau de Saumur.

Peasants are shown tilling the soil and sowing seeds against a backdrop of the Louvre - the royal palace in Paris.

The only monthly illustration painted by Colombe, it shows a peasant crudely harvesting acorns to feed his pigs.

This features a boar-hunt in the forest. In the background stands the Chateau de Vincennes.

For a comparison with earlier Gothic illuminated texts, please see: The Belleville Breviary (1323-26, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) and The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux (1324-28, The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art), both by Jean Pucelle (c.1290-1334).

How Miniatures in Les Tres Riches Heures Were Made

Each miniature painting is marked by an extraordinary amount of detail - such as a woven pattern in a floor-covering, or a tiny touch of shadow, or a detail on a cloak - which adds significantly to the realism of the scene. The paintings in the Tres Riches Heures are also marked by an intensity of colour that lights up (illuminates) the page with a similar effect to that of a stained glass window.

Art experts believe that each miniature was built up in sections, beginning with a preparatory drawing. Gold leaf was then applied to some parts and burnished. Background elements like landscape were then added, followed by clothing for the figures, and finally their flesh tones and facial details.

The wide variety of colour pigments used in the gouache paintings were obtained in the traditional manner, from minerals, plants or basic chemicals and combined with either arabic or tragacinth gum to provide a binder for the paint. Sometimes chalk was added to make the paint more opaque and reflective. The more unusual colours employed included vert de flambe, a green pigment obtained from crushed flowers mixed with massicot, and Azur d'Outreme, a shade of ultramarine made by crushing the hugely expensive semi-precious stone lapis-lazuli.

Although their specific contributions have gone unrecorded, it is likely that the Limbourg brothers, Pol, Herman and Jean, specialized in certain content or aspects of painting. In fact, given the fantastic amount of miniaturized detail, the work is likely to have required the skill of many different craftsmen, along with specialized brushes and magnifying lenses. In any event, they remain three of the best miniaturists of their period.

See also: How To Appreciate Paintings.



Further Resources

If you're interested in early illuminated religious texts, try these resources:

Christ's Monogram Page (Chi/Rho) (Book of Kells) (800)
Illuminated Manuscripts: History (600-1200)
Making of Illuminated Manuscripts
Jean Fouquet (1425-80)

• For more masterpieces, see our main index: Homepage.

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