Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lecture, Chant, and Scholarly Exploration: Illuminating!

Folio 221r Folio 15r 73v detail

Above: Details of illuminations from Folio 221r, Folio 15r, and Folio 73v from the Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry, 1405???1408/9. Herman, Paul, and Jean de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France by 1399???1416). French; Made in Paris. Ink, tempera, and gold leaf on vellum; 9 3/8 x 6 5/8 in. (23.8 x 16.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1).

Last week saw a wonderful gathering of scholarly thought and performance around the Belles Heures, and I want to share a few highlights of two very different events presented here at the Museum.

The Sunday at the Met series offers free programs in the Museum’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. It includes lectures, films, panel discussions, literary presentations, and musical performances based on a special exhibition or cultural theme. Last week’s program???in conjunction with the two current medieval exhibitions, The Art of Illumination and The Mourners???included two speakers and a special musical performance. (Videos of each part of the program are available on the Museum’s YouTube channel.)

First, Christopher de Hamel of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, one of the world???s greatest experts on medieval manuscripts, presented “The Belles Heures after the Duke of Berry,” which addressed a great mystery: What happened to the manuscript during the five hundred years between 1417 (when it was bought by Yolande of Aragon, one year after the duke’s death) and its rediscovery in the nineteenth century? Using scraps of evidence in the manuscript itself, a close reading of the duke’s inventories, an encyclopedic knowledge of history and the market for manuscripts, and an inside story on recent scholarship, Christopher has pieced together a convincing theory that the manuscript was in the safekeeping of the cathedral of Le Mans for centuries, where it would have been kept in a shrine, perfectly preserved. He extracted specific valuations for the Belles Heures and other manuscripts from the 1416 and 1936 inventories, demonstrating the fluctuation of value associated with the quality of the art within, compared with the jeweled bindings in which some were encased in the Middle Ages. During the course of his talk, he also suggested the possibility that one of the duke’s portraits in the manuscript (Folio 91r) was actually repainted at one point to depict the duke’s nephew, and that the portrait assumed to be the duchess (Folio 91v) is instead Yolande of Aragon, queen of Sicily. (Watch the video of Christopher de Hamel’s lecture.)

91r illumination detail 91v illumination detail

Details from Folio 91r and Folio 91v

For the third event of the day, Richard Porterfield, a scholar, performer of medieval music and liturgy, and founding member of the vocal ensemble Lionheart, put together a truly illuminating presentation based on part of text from the Office of the Dead. (The second presentation???an excellent lecture by Sherry Lindquist, visiting assistant professor at Knox College, about The Mourners???was called “Innovations in Sculpture and the Status of Artists at the Court of Burgundy.” I encourage everyone to watch the video.) As I mentioned in last week’s post, the Office of the Dead has only one miniature in the Belles Heures, but Richard’s presentation included the following text pages (including Folio 101r) as well, which he brought to life by chanting them with his students from the Scuola Cantorum of Mannes College and by simultaneously projecting their images (and running translations) in real time.

101r detail

Detail of text from Folio 101r

Through Richard’s performance, we in the audience were able to realize as never before the liturgical sound of this office???the beautiful chant, and the way an antiphon differs musically from the recital of a psalm. As this office is the one place in a book of hours where the text is the same as that used by the clergy, we could imagine that Jean de Berry would have been familiar with the sound of it being chanted, and that someone reading the text in the book of hours might recall in his or her own mind the way it sounded in church. The presentation made me understand the way the manuscript is full of silent music???that all its prayers might recall their presence in a fully liturgical context in which they were sung a capella, not spoken.

The second event of the week was a “Scholars’ Day” on Monday, while the Museum was closed to the public. Thirty scholars were invited to enjoy the exhibition in private and to discuss it afterward as a group. This special privilege furthers the Museum’s mission of education and research; shared exchange among scholars in the presence of the art is the seedbed of profound understanding and new discovery. Our discussion’s moderators included three eminent thinkers: Thomas Kren, Curator of Manuscripts at the Getty Museum; James Marrow, Professor Emeritus of Art History, Princeton University; and Roger Wieck, Curator of Medieval Manuscripts at the Morgan Library. Along with Tim Husband, curator of the exhibition, they opened the day by posing some questions to consider. An unstructured hour of looking followed, with all participants closely examining the illuminations. After lunch, the group reconvened in the galleries and a lively roundtable discussion ensued.

17v detail 74v illumination

Details from Folio 17v and Folio 74v

One of the big themes was the exceptionally close relationship between the Limbourg brothers and their patron, Jean de Berry, and the way it likely affected not only what was painted but also how it was painted. The inclusion in the manuscript of exciting stories, violent themes, and even comic relief draws upon interests of the patron that the teenage artists were well equipped to deliver. The representation of nude or semi-nude bodies (Folio 17v and Folio 74v, for example) speaks to a sensualist taste as well as to forward-looking artistic achievement. This last observation caused the scholars to discuss a controversial 2001 article by Michael Camille.

136r illumination

Illumination from Folio 136r

At times, specific details were clarified. The identification of one figure in the Hours of the Passion (in Folio 136r) was changed. The layout of the text in two columns (in the traditional sections) was explained as a possible imitation of the style of clerical books. The way the Belles Heures does not appear to have been well planned in advance was noted; it was even called a hodgepodge! The Belles Heures was characterized as the fulcrum in the development of the Limbourgs between the Bible Moralis??e discussed in “The Penitential Psalms” post (Paris, Biblioth??que nationale de France, Ms Fr166; see image) and the Tr??s Riches Heures. Italianate influences were mentioned, but whether they were the result of drawings circulating in France or of direct travel to Italy was not determined. The tendency of members of the royal French family to own multiple books of hours was documented. The extraordinary technical accomplishment of the Limbourgs in the handling of pigments and gold was extolled. The wonderful term “microscopic realism” was coined.

Another big theme we discussed was the identification of separate hands in the Belles Heures: Can we identify the three individual brothers here, as Millard Meiss did forty years ago? Everyone recognizes differences among the illuminations, whether in quality and monumentality, style of figural representation, depiction of space or other matters (compare Folio 63r and Folio 138v, for example):

63r illumination 138v illumination

Illuminations from Folio 63r and Folio 138v

These differences could be attributed to the narrative needs of the particular illumination, the development of the artists over the course of creating the book, different hands, or even an off day. We don???t even know if all three brothers were artists, or whether each had a different task associated with the making of the manuscript. Margaret Lawson, the principal conservator of the Belles Heures, brought a book of infrared photographs of the manuscript, which had led her to discern different hands.

Infrared photograph of Folio 141v Infrared photograph of Folio 205v

Infrared photographs of Folio 141v and Folio 205v

You can read more about this in Margaret’s writings in the appendix to The Art of Illumination catalogue, as well as in an article for an earlier exhibition on the Limbourg brothers held in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Ultimately there was no concurrence as to the identification of hands???some present indicated that if we had no documentary evidence of three brothers, we might not assume multiple hands at all. There was agreement, however, that for art historians the question is vital, useful to be posed, and important to consider. For us to hold ourselves to looking closely and identifying similarities and differences is a prerequisite to the in-depth examination of art that is fundamental to its appreciation and understanding.

???Wendy A. Stein


Camille, Michael. “‘For our devotion and pleasure’: The Sexual Objects of Jean Duc de Berry.” In Other Objects of Desire: Collectors and Collecting Queerly, edited by Michael Camille and Adrian Rifkin. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Lawson, Margaret. “The Belles Heures of Jean, Duc de Berry: The Materials and Techniques of the Limbourg Brothers.” In The Limbourg Brothers: Reflections on the Origins and the Legacy of Three Illuminators from Nijmegen. Edited by Rob D??ckers and Pieter Roelofs. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005.

Lawson, Margaret. “Technical Observations: Materials, Techniques, and Conservation of the Belles Heures Manuscript.” In The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and The Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry by Timothy Husband. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008.

Meiss, Millard. French Painting in the Time of Jean de Berry???The Limbourgs and their Contemporaries. New York: Braziller, 1974.

Meiss, Millard and Elizabeth Beatson. The Belles Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry. New York: Braziller, 1974.

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Comments (5)

  1. Michael Bellacosa Says:


    First, congratulations on a superb exhibit. It is truly a special coincidence [or was it?] that we can see this BoH and the Morgan exhibit at the same time.

    I’m working on a paper on medieval BoH’s for a History of the Book course in my MLS program and I have a technical question about the disbinding. Was the book disbound primarily in order to perform some conservation activities? If so, what were they? If so, is this done at any recommended interval [lengthy, I'd imagine]? Or was the book disbound mainly so this exhibit could be mounted? I guess I’m asking: is this exhibit the fortunate by-product of necessary conservation practices or the other way around?



  2. Michael Bellacosa Says:


    I had another question more of personal interest. I have a special interest in St. Bruno since I was born on October 6; my uncle, a priest, half-seriously advocated naming me Bruno. I looked at the various calendar pages with the magnifying glass but I did not see Bruno on the October page. Is it there but the script prevented me from seeing and reading it? Or is it not noted on that page? Perhaps October 6 was not yet St. Bruno’s feast day in the early 15th century?



  3. Wendy A. Stein Says:

    Dear Michael,

    Thank you so much for your comments and for your appreciation of the exhibition. It is indeed a coincidence that both the Belles Heures and the Hours of Catherine of Cleves are being exhibited at the same time, but such a happy one for us all!

    The Belles Heures were disbound so that the leaves could be properly photographed for a high quality facsimile. When it was disbound, the Museum’s conservators noted that in some areas, paint needed to be consolidated due to flaking problems. As a consequence, the conservation process was undertaken prior to the photography. So, the answer to your question is that the exhibition was only contemplated after the decision was taken to disbind and conserve the leaves.

    As to your question about St. Bruno, he is not in the calendar of the Belles Heures.


  4. Amy Says:


    Having been to the exhibit recently (having spent 6 hours in just that exhibit), I have a question about the policy of the exhibit not being photographed by patrons. I understand that the museum cannot allow photography in the case of exhibits that are on loan from other institutions, as the Met does not own rights to those pieces. I am baffled, however, by the no photography rule for this exhibit, as the museum owns the book. When the book is rebound, it is my understanding that, it will then be placed back on exhibit showing two pages at a time and patrons will again be allowed to photograph the pages, as patrons are allowed to photograph other objects owned by the museum on display. Why may we not photograph the pages while they are all on display rather than waiting years for (literally) the pages to turn?

    I very much enjoyed the exhibit and I am pleased to have been able to see so much detail in the work. I will be returning before the exhibit is over to view it again as this is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.

    Thank you,

  5. wendy stein Says:

    Dear Amy,
    Thank you so much for your serious interest in the exhibition, and for your dedication in spending so much time there. For me as well, having time to look has continued to reveal details in this wonderful material.

    You ask about photography. It is Museum policy not to allow photography in temporary exhibitions, and this is one. The loan objects included in the exhibition are loaned on the condition that photography is not allowed. Even beyond the regulations, there are practical issues, such as the low light levels – and if you or another patron were to use flash, that truly would be detrimental to the art. I hope you enjoy your access to the good photography of the pages available on this website and in the recently published book.

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