Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Suffrages II: Is the Belles Heures a violent book?

Folio 162v Folio 165v Folio 179r

Above: Details of illuminations from Folio 162v, Folio 165v, and Folio 179r 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 I introduced the section of the manuscript with the Suffrages of the Saints???short prayers or memorials to individuals found in many books of hours. As this section can be personalized for the patron in many ways???most simply, in the number and choice of saints included, as well as in the number accorded decoration???it is one place we can look to sense the personality of the patron and artists involved. This week I want to pick out a few more of the individual saints in the Belles Heures, and raise a question that has concerned me for some time: Is this an unusually violent manuscript? ??Let???s begin by looking at the most violent among the Suffrages.

Folio 161r

Illumination from Folio 161r

The most gruesome martyrdom is that of Saint Bartholomew (Folio 161r), whose flesh was ripped from his body. The nude figure is tied down to a table while three men work intently at their horrifying task. Especially graphic is the figure in pink at the left, whose supporting foot on the table leg emphasizes his strength and effort in pulling off the saint???s skin. Blood streams from the saint’s multiple wounds, and pools on the table.

Folio 162r

Illumination from Folio 162r

Saint Stephen (Folio 162r), the first martyr in the Early Christian period, was stoned to death. He falls to his knees before the onslaught of stones that his tormentors hold in their folded garments. The story is made vivid with remarkable action, the musculature of the figures, as well as the convincing foreshortening of the figure in the foreground picking up another rock. The violence here is more in the display of physical force rather than in the blood issuing from the saint???s wounds.

Folio 166v

Illumination from Folio 166v

After Saint Denis (and his companions) were beheaded (Folio 166v), he picked up his head and walked to the site of his burial in Montmartre. The type of saint who carries his own head is so common in medieval art generally that it has a name: cephalophore. What makes this representation notable is the depiction of blood spurting from the neck of the saint and his companion.

Folio 171r

Illumination from Folio 171r

Similarly, depictions of Saint Francis receiving the stigmata (Folio 171r) are not rare, but the copious blood flowing from Christ’s wounds and echoed in those of the saint is notable. What I really appreciate about this page is not the violence, but the way the parchment itself seems to break open to the vision of the crucifix, interrupting the patterned background of the scene.

Folio 177r Folio 178v

Illuminations from Folio 177r and Folio 178v

Saint Margaret (Folio 177r) emerges unscathed from the belly of a dragon, but the beast does not fare so well, and the Limbourgs take this, too, as an opportunity to include streams of blood. Finally, the martyrdom of Ursula and her eleven thousand virgin friends (Folio 178v) is shown with particular relish in the blood streaming down the gangplank and the disembodied head on the quay.

When I first began to study the Belles Heures it struck me as violent, but I knew I needed to put it in the context of its time and to have a sense of how it compares with other contemporaneous manuscripts and objects.

The suffrages invoke individual saints, including martyrs, whose violent deaths were known to the medieval viewer.?? In some books of hours, these saints are honored only with standing portraits, but in others, as here, they are depicted in narrative scenes that can’t help but include violence. To the modern eye, struck with the beauty of the Limbourgs’ elegant style and luscious color, the violence may be jarring, but it would not have been so to the medieval viewer. Nevertheless, it does seem that when blood appears, it’s never just a drop. Even compared to other luxury books of hours with elaborate cycles of suffrages, there is more blood and more narrative intensity here than in most. The same sensibility is evident throughout most sections of the manuscript.

Folio 59v

Illumination from Folio 59v

In most books of hours, the Hours of the Virgin includes the Flight into Egypt as a traditional scene to mark Vespers. The Belles Heures, though, bypasses this scene and instead features the most violent possible moment in the narrative: the Massacre of the Innocents (Folio 59v). Although this is not unique among books of hours, it is not the most common choice either, and its presence here is an indication of a sensationalist sensibility. Moreover, among medieval representations of this scene, this one is particularly graphic in that it focuses not on the grieving mothers but rather on the hacked and dismembered bodies of the babies.

Folio 123v

Illumination from Folio 123v

Of course the Passion cycle has many essential scenes of violence. The incident of Malchus’s ear in the Betrayal scene (Folio 123v) is typically included in representations of the period, yet this one involves more blood than most.

Folio 145r

Illumination from Folio 145r

Of the three crucifixion scenes, that with the lance (Folio 145r) is the bloodiest, which is to be expected, but here blood streams not only whence the lance pierced Christ’s side, but also flows from his feet and hands, running down his arms. This treatment suggests an emphasis on Christ’s blood that was a developing theology of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century???a veneration of Christ’s wounds and a blood piety. One of its most graphic representations is on the Man of Sorrows page in the Hours of Catherine of Cleves (see image). In the bottom border, Christ is represented in a wine press, his blood pouring out directly into a communion chalice. In this theological preoccupation with blood, the blood is always living, liquid, and red. (For more on this subject, see Carolyn Walker Bynum, Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond.)

Folio 19r

Illumination from Folio 19r

In the Catherine story near the beginning of the Belles Heures (see “The Story of Saint Catherine“), and in the masses toward the end, there are other bloody scenes. The execution of Porphyrius and his companions (Folio 19r) features at least three gory beheadings.

Folio 212r Folio 215v

Illuminations from Folio 212r and Folio 215v

When John the Baptist is beheaded (Folio 212r), his lifeless trunk spurts a fountain of blood that trails down to the ground. When Peter and Paul are martyred (Folio 215v), Paul???s severed head lies adjacent to his body, both elements bloodied. As elsewhere, the story motivates the depiction, but the depiction appears to emphasize the violent and particularly bloody aspect.

Folio 73v Folio 74r Folio 95r

Above: Details of illuminations from Folio 73v, Folio 74r, and Folio 95r

There are other scenes that focus on death or corpses, notably in the Litany (Folio 73r through 74v) and Bruno (Folio 94r through 97v) cycles. Some books of hours put a different emphasis on death from that in the Belles Heures. For example, for the Hours of the Dead section, the hours of Catherine of Cleves, among other manuscripts, has deathbed scenes. Death is seen in the home, as part of life. I consider this domesticated death, very unlike the action scenes of horrible deaths and tortures featured in the Belles Heures.

However, looking at the Belles Heures in the context of its time cautions against calling it a violent book, because all these examples are justified by the story to be told. Several aspects of medieval piety, including the cult of the saints and the late medieval emphasis on an extravagantly emotional empathy and pathos, promoted a visualization of violence in a religious context. Both death and disability were extremely visible in medieval society, and more available to art. What sets the Belles Heures apart is the skill of the Limbourgs as narrative artists???their ability to tell stories with graphic vitality and conviction. The Duke of Berry met that skill with his own increasing interest in narrative detail in his books of hours, and encouraged the Limbourgs’ development as narrative artists.?? We have here a perfect symbiosis of artist and patron, with a patron as interested in action, violence, nudity, and beautiful luxury as any aficionado of blockbuster media today. It is not so much that it is a violent book; rather, it is a book of vivid story-telling; action pictures packed into a prayer book cover.

???Wendy A. Stein


Huizinga, Johann. The Waning of the Middle Ages. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1954. First published 1924.

Walker Bynum, Carolyn. Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.