Limbourg Brothers
Biographies of Netherlandish Miniature Book Painters.

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Month of May - Detail taken from "Les
Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry"
(1413-83), Musee Conde, Chantilly.

For an idea of the pigments
used by Limbourg Brothers
in their illuminations, see:
Renaissance Colour Palette.

For details of 15th century painting
in Flanders and Holland, see:
Netherlandish Renaissance.

Limbourg Brothers
Herman, Jean, Pol (all died 1416)

The Netherlandish manuscript illuminators Herman, Jean and Pol de Limbourg - nephews of Jean Malouel (d.1415) - are world-famous for their small-scale Medieval manuscript illumination, for the Duc de Berry and others. According to written records, in 1402 Jean and Pol began working for Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Following Philip's death in 1404, all three Limbourgs were employed by his brother Jean, Duc de Berry until their deaths in the plague of 1416. Greater even than the talented French illuminator and miniaturist Jean Pucelle (c.1300-50), they are best known for their exquisite Christian art in two French illuminated manuscripts - Les Belles Heures (c.1408, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (Musee Conde, Chantilly). The latter was unfinished at their deaths, and completed by the French illuminator Jean Colombe (d.1495), during the early 1480s. Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry is one of the finest of International Gothic illuminations, and a typical example of the new humanism and naturalism of the International Gothic style of art, being a magnificent evocation of chivalry and courtly love painted in its final years of existence. Other book illustration by the Limbourg Brothers includes The Nativity (c.1385-90, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) and The Anatomy of Man and Woman (c.1416, Musee Condee Chantilly).

A page from the calendar of the
Tres Riches Heures manuscript
showing the household of John,
the Duke of Berry exchanging
New Year gifts. The Duke is
seated at the right, in blue.
(1412-16) Musee Conde, Chantilly.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

For a guide to easel art, see:
Fine Art Painting.
For a guide to oils, see:
Oil Painting.

Note: In fine art, "Illumination" refers to the hand-painting of books - usually biblical or gospel - typically ornamented with a wide variety of motifs and elaborated first letters, in rich colours. Borders and other elements may also be illuminated. Celebrated works in the history of illuminated manuscripts include the Book of Durrow (650-680), the Lindifarne Gospels (c.700), the Echternach Gospels (c.690-715) the Lichfield Gospels (c.730), and the Book of Kells (c.800). For details about how these gospel manuscripts were put together, please see: Making of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Documentary Evidence

All our knowledge of the work of the Limbourg brothers stems from a discovery by L. Delisle who, towards the end of the 19th century, set out to identify the author of the famous book Les Tres Riches Heures which was in the possession of the Musee Conde at Chantilly after being acquired in 1855 by the Duc d'Aumale. Delisle based his research on, and wrote an article about, the final inventory of the collections of Jean, Duc de Berry, drawn up in 1416. In this, the manuscript of Les Tres Riches Heures, which remained unfinished on account of the death of the Duke and of his painters, but which was later completed by Jean Colombe for Charles de Savoie, was described as: "Several books of tres riches heures made by Pol and his brothers, mostly richly told and illuminated". This mention, when linked with other documentary sources, became a determining factor in the piecing-together of the careers of the Limbourg brothers.


Pol, Herman and Jean de Limbourg came from an artistic family which had its origins in Gelderland, and on which recent researches have shed new light. Their father, Arnold, was a sculptor and their uncle was Jean Malouel, from 1397 painter to Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. A document dating from 1399 reveals the presence of two of the brothers, Herman and Jehanequin, then trainees in the studio of a Parisian goldsmith.

Philip The Bold

By 1402 their reputation was sufficiently established for Philip the Bold to engage them in his exclusive service in order to illuminate a "very fine and notable Bible". It is possible that this first commission of religious art (which was interrupted by the death of the Duke in 1404) was in fact the Bible Moralisee, the first three books of which are by the Limbourg brothers (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris).

Jean, Duc de Berry

Although there are no supporting documents, it seems probable that the three brothers moved into the service of Jean de Berry soon after the death of their first employer. In any case it is known that in 1405 they illuminated for the Duc de Berry a charter, which has now disappeared. But it is not until 1409 that there occurs a number of mentions of favours granted to the Limbourg brothers by their new patron, particularly to Pol who seems - of the three - to have been the most gifted at miniature painting. Gifts of homes, the title valet de chambre, and valuable presents recompensed their work for the Duke. These favours continued until 1416, the year of Jean de Berry's death, probably preceded some months earlier by those of the Limbourg brothers themselves.

Jean, Duc de Berry was in fact one of the most generous and extravagant art collectors and patrons of medieval artists. Lavished with favours, the Limbourg brothers travelled with him around France, from one magnificent mansion to the next.


The Limbourg brothers' most important works, Les Belles Heures (1408, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Les Tres Riches Heures (begun 1413, Musee Conde, Chantilly), date from the time of the patronage of Jean Duc de Berry. To these should be added various illuminations in the two other books of hours previously executed for the Duke, as well as a painting in the Petites Heures (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) of the Duke setting out on a journey and illustrations to the prayers to the angels and to the Holy Trinity in the Tres Belles Heures de Notre Dame (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris).

With the exception of Les Tres Riches Heures, which definitely dates from between 1413 and 1416, the chronology of the works remains unclear. It would seem that even Les Belles Heures, generally reckoned to date from between 1410 and 1413, but the style of which is clearly closer to that of the Bible Moralisee in the Bibliotheque Nationale than to the Heures at Chantilly, should be ascribed to an earlier period. The place which these Belles Heures occupy in the 1416 inventory shows that they were finished by 1409. It is likely that the pages added to the Tres Belles Heures, and also the Livre d'heures in the Seilern collection in London, were executed at around the same time, whereas the more mannered paintings of the Petites Heures would seem to date from late in the brothers' careers.

Now ranked among the best miniaturists of the period, even in their earliest works the Limbourg brothers appear profoundly original; nothing produced by the studios or illuminators of Paris at that time can truly be compared with what came from their hands. Perhaps their situation as painters (it is not impossible that Jean de Berry employed them from time to time to paint monumental works) explains their comparative isolation; in any case, it is with the very rare easel paintings that have survived from this era, in particular those attributed to their uncle Jean Malouel and to Henri Bellechose, that their art reveals the closest affinities. The constituents of this art include acute powers of observation inherited from their northern forebears, together with a monumental sense of composition quite plainly acquired from Italian Proto-Renaissance art - including artists of the Florentine or Sienese School of painting - which they could have studied in the collections of Philip the Bold and Jean de Berry without the need to travel to Italy. The diversity of these Italian sources - Siena, Florence, northern Italy seems to confirm this view.

What is unique in the works of the Limbourg brothers, apart from the almost fairytale quality of their colour, is their ever-increasing skill in representing nature in its various aspects. This is what makes their final masterpiece, the Tres Riches Heures, a monumental achievement of European Gothic art, free from most of the features of the International Gothic style, yet one of its most refined expressions. Like most books of hours, the Tres Riches Heures contains a calendar. In this case it is illustrated by 12 miniatures, each showing scenes typical of the time of year. These illustrations have become justly famous for their observation of the ways of both upper and lower classes, for their architectural portraits, and for their pioneering landscape paintings (and animals) which stand at the beginning of the history of western Europe's Early Renaissance.

Paintings by the Limbourg Brothers are too rare to be seen in more than a tiny handful of the best art museums.

Note: Other important painters associated with the Late Gothic style, were: Jean Pucelle (c.1290-1334), Ugolino di Nerio (active 1317-27), Simone Martini (1285-1344) Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427), Lorenzo Monaco (1370-1425), Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), Robert Campin/Master of Flemalle (1378-1444); Melchior Broederlam (c.1350-1411), Masolino (1383-1440), Jacquemart de Hesdin (fl.1384-1409), Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni) (c.1395-1450), Antonio Pisanello (1394-1455), Stefan Lochner (1400-51) and Jean Fouquet (1425-80: see his extraordinary Melun Diptych).

Other major examples of International Gothic style illuminated books include: The Annunciation by Jacquemart de Hesdin (1400, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris); the Brussels Hours (Brussels, The Belgian National Library) and the Hours of the Marechal de Boucicaut (Jacquemart-Andre Museum, Paris). French court art underwent a revival during the later reign of King Louis XI (1461-83), as shown by the illuminated religious manuscript Le Livre du coeur d'Amours Espris (1465, Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna).

For a guide to European arts under Charlemagne, Otto the Great, Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald, see: Carolingian Art (750-900); Ottonian Art (900-1050); Romanesque Art (1000-1200).

• For more biographies of manuscript illuminators and book painters, see: Old Masters.
• For more about miniature painting, see: Homepage.

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