Above: Details of illuminations from Folio 132r, Folio 138v, and Folio 145r 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).
As much as a book of hours is about devotion to the Virgin, the heart of the Christian story is still the drama and suffering of the Passion of Christ, a narrative expressively explored in detail in the Belles Heures.
The Hours of the Passion is a longer version of the Hours of the Cross, and the Belles Heures has both, with a full cycle of illuminations in the (less common) Hours of the Passion. There are three miniatures for Matins, and two each for all the other hours, providing the Limbourgs with a more expansive canvas for narrative than any of the other traditional sections of the book of hours. Seventeen full-page illuminations, including three scenes of the crucifixion, permit a detailed depiction of the physical and emotional trials suffered by Jesus between the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Folio 123r) and the Soldiers at the Tomb (Folio 152v).
This traditional suite of illuminations was probably completed by the Limbourg brothers before they began any of the added picture cycles, and we can see that they are not yet mature as artists. Some of the scenes reveal weakness in the depiction of space. In the Mocking of Christ (Folio 131v), for example, the right and left edge of the miniature is defined by a slender colonnette. Follow that colonnette to the bottom and it clearly appears in the front plane of the space, but follow it to the top and its capital may be behind the miter of the priest. That capital also supports a series of arches that seem to be behind the action of the figures.
Illumination from Folio 131v
Or look at the large figure in pink at the right in the scene of Pilate washing his hands (Folio 138r). His elbow is cut off; does it go behind Pilate? But the bottom of his robe clearly indicates that he is in a plane in front of Pilate’s throne.
Illumination from Folio 138r
But if there are deficiencies here in the depiction of space, there is strength in story-telling. Despite being a traditional section, in which the text largely consists of prayers and psalms, the scenes do reflect the narrative interests of the patron and the expressive skills of the artists. The various moments of the story, dependent as they are upon earlier artistic precedents, yet address novel anecdotes and include unusual details.
Illumination from Folio 123v
I was startled the other day to notice that Judas has a halo in the complicated scene on Folio 123v, which can be called either The Betrayal or The Arrest of Christ, as both moments are depicted. In fact, this one page is full of separate episodes, described variously in the different Gospel accounts: Judas reveals the identity of Christ and betrays him by kissing him; Peter, the hothead, cuts off Malchus’ ear; Christ heals the ear and tells Peter to put up his sword; Peter sheaths his sword; the Roman soldiers grab Christ and arrest him as others hold up lanterns. Each of these separate moments is here, similar to the versions of this scene in other books of hours owned by Jean de Berry, such as the Petites Heures (Paris, BNF, ms. Lat. 18014, fol. 76), but only in the Belles Heures is Judas shown with a nimbus. This is a rare but not unknown iconography. For example, Judas has a halo in a French Life of Christ from the twelfth century (Morgan Library, M. 44, fol. 7v; see image), and fourteenth-century examples exist, too. A generation after the Belles Heures, all the iconographical details of the scene, including the haloed Judas, recur in a book of hours from Poitiers, around 1450 (Morgan Library, M. 190, fol. 42r; see image). Perhaps the most dramatic version of the scene is in a fresco by Fra Angelico in San Marco in Florence, which presents Judas in a black halo (see image). This all fascinates me, because it raises a crucial question: Who decided to put that halo on Judas in the Belles Heures? Who decided to add a detail of iconography that has theological implications—the artists, the patron, or some other spiritual advisor to the duke that we don’t know about?
Illumination and detail from Folio 141v
The scene of Christ being nailed to the cross (Folio 141v) gives us another opportunity to see an underdrawing that was never executed, the crown of thorns sketched under the green ground, visible just under and to the left of Christ’s chest. It is a bit surprising to me that more is not made of the crown of thorns, as Jean de Berry owned a large reliquary of one of the thorns, one of the very few of his jeweled treasures to survive (see image). There is no scene of the crowning, and Jesus does not wear the crown in any of the passion scenes.
Illumination and detail from Folio 142r
Each of the three Crucifixion scenes adds action and detail to the story. In the first, Folio 142r, Jesus is offered the vinegar-soaked sponge. This is the first appearance in the manuscript of a shield decorated with an expressive face, a detail the Limbourgs repeated on multiple occasions (Folio 152v, Folio 156r, and Folio 198).
Illumination from Folio 145r
In the second crucifixion scene (Folio 145r), he is pierced with the lance by the Roman soldier Longinus. This episode shows a detail derived from The Golden Legend that is rarely depicted in art: The blind Longinus’ arms are directed by another figure, but the blood and water running from Christ’s wounds heals his blindness. Meanwhile, other figures at the foot of the toss dice for Christ’s robe.
Illumination from Folio 145v
The final crucifixion scene, Folio 145v, is the most surprising of all: Here in the midst of this manuscript full of intense saturated color, we see a dark and ominous image, almost in grisaille. Our eye needs to adjust to see the subtle colors to read the scene, and then we realize how faithful it is to the Gospel account: At the hour of Jesus’ death, the sky grew dark, the earth opened up, rocks broke, and the dead climbed out of their graves.
Illumination from Folio 149r
The Deposition on Folio 149r is interesting to compare with that marking the Hours of the Cross (Folio 80r), for while that one is more devotional, almost presenting the figure of Christ like an icon, this one is more narrative, giving a real sense of the weight of the body being lowered, even if the figure of Nicodemus (shown in the saffron-colored robe) is not entirely clear.
Both the Lamentation (Folio 149v) and the Entombment (Folio 152r) feature mourning women grasping their hair, an expressive detail that seems to be borrowed from an Italian source. Some scholars have speculated that the Limbourg brothers visited Italy, but they could also have become aware of Italian art monuments through drawings and pattern books that circulated in this period. Northern influence can also be seen in the bloodied and angular figure of Christ in the Lamentation, so similar to a painting by the Limbourgs’ uncle Maelwel, also written Malouel, now in the collection of the Louvre (see image).
—Wendy A. Stein