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Book of hours, calendar, miniatures

Limbourg brothers, Jean Colombe, Barthélémy d'Eyck

1411-1416, years 1440, 1485-1489

Musée Condé Museum, Chantilly, France


Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry is a book of hours which the Duke John I of Berry commissioned from the brothers Paul, John and Herman of Limbourg. Begun around 1411, the three artists would never live to see the project completed: they all died in 1416, the same year as the Duke himself. Jean Colombe would go onto finish the manuscript for Charles I of Savoy between 1485 and 1489.


A book of hours is a liturgical text for Catholic laymen – different from a breviary, aimed at clerics – which allows its readers to follow the Liturgy of the Hours. In addition to this collection of prayers written for various moments of the day, a book of hours usually includes a calendar illustrating the evolution of liturgy throughout the year, as well as psalms, gospels and services. Although not all are decorated, books of hours are the most common type of Medieval illuminated manuscript. As such, they play an important documentary role, depicting daily life at the end of the Middle Ages and Medieval Christian iconography. At this time, people’s activities were structured by the cycle of the seasons and religious life.


The Duke of Berry, shown seated at the bottom right with his back to the fire, is dressed in blue and wearing a fur hat. He is waiting for his followers and friends to come over to him. Behind the Duke, we can see an inscription: “Approche Approche” [“Come Come”]. Several of the Duke’s acquaintances are shown approaching, while servants bustle: cupbearers pour drinks and two equerries are shown from behind, carving meat. Both are wearing white scarves, rallying symbol of the Armagnacs during the Hundred Years’ War. A young guest, dressed in green with a red head covering, displays the Duke of Orléans’ necklace, which takes the form of a twisted branch. A bread basket sits at one end of the table. Above the fireplace, we can see the Duke’s coat of arms, “azure sprinkled with golden fleurs-de-lys, with a red indented border”, with little bears and injured swans, emblems of the Duke of Berry. Several domestic animals are depicted: small dogs on the table, a hound on the floor. The tapestry at the far end of the room seems to show episodes from the Trojan Wars.

In this miniature, the duke actually takes the place of the two-faced god Janus, who was traditionally depicted as part of Medieval calendars’ January scenes, feasting and observing both the year just gone and the year to come. The most popular hypothesis sees this scene as representing the New Year’s feast organised by the duke on 1st January 1415. The celebration aimed to reconcile the Armagnacs and the Bourguignons after the peace treaty signed at Arras in 1414. Charles of Orleans and his brother Philippe, who had taken part, may be shown amongst the “meat-carving equerries”.


March is represented with the pruning of the vines. This image depicts a scene of agricultural labour. Each field hosts a different stage of the process, and are separated by paths which meet before a small monument, known as a montjoie. In the foreground, a peasant tills cereals in a field using a two-wheeled plough; we can observe him driving his pair of oxen with a long stick. Other workers prune vines in an field to the left and aerate the soil with a hoe. To the right, a man bends over a sack, probably containing seeds for sowing. Finally, in the background, a sheepdog watches over the shepherd’s herd.


The background shows the Chateau de Lusignan (located in the Poitou region of France), one of the Duke of Berry’s properties and modernised under his watch. To the right of the image, above the tower, a winged dragon represents the fairy Melusine. In 1392, Jean d’Arras wrote a prose romance for John of Berrry entitled La Noble histoire de Lusignan [The Noble History of the Lusignans], or Roman de Mélusine, which tells the story of the fairy – the Duke’s supposed ancestor. According to legend, Melusine founded the Lusignan dynasty and built the fortress. Wife of Raymond of Lusignan, she promised her husband wealth and happiness as long as he never set eyes on her on a Saturdays, when she would take the shape of a dragon. One day, Raymond broke the pact by walking in on Melusine in the bath. The fairy then fled, keeping her dragon form.


September is represented by the harvest. In the foreground, five figures pick grapes while a woman (apparently pregnant) and a man rest. The bunches of grapes are put into baskets, which are then decanted into large containers carried by mules. After this, the containers are emptied into vats on carts pulled by oxen.


The background is entirely taken up by the Château de Saumur, located in the wine-producing (both then and now) Anjou region. The towers are topped with weather vanes in the shape of fleurs de lys. In the middle of the image, a palisade with trellis wall is depicted. Tournaments would have been held here. 


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