Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Story of Saint Jerome

Folio 186r Folio 187r Folio 189r

Above: Details of illuminations from Folio 186r, Folio 187r, and Folio 189r 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).

Now we turn to another great added picture cycle in the Belles Heures, the story of Saint Jerome (ca. 347–420 A.D.). This section of the manuscript traces the saint’s long life from his early interest in classical rhetoric, through his translation of the Bible, to his death and funeral. It includes twelve full-page illuminations replete with unique iconography, extraordinarily subtle modeling, narrative skill, and compositional strength and variety. It also offers a good opportunity for me to discuss the Limbourgs’ spatial construction.

Folio 183r

Illumination from Folio 183r

The story opens with the sainted monk seated on the floor as he listens to a lecture on classical, pagan philosophy (Folio 183r). While he professes himself to be a Christian, the text below tells us he is instead accused of being a Ciceronian, and the picture shows the saint’s discomfiture with his realization of the conflict between his study of Plato and his professed faith. The scene takes place within a wonderfully elaborated ecclesiastical space, where color helps us read the depth and complexity of the structure.

Folio 183v

Illumination from Folio 183v

In the next scene (Folio 183v), angels flog the saint as the judging God looks on, all of it meant to represent a dream vision of the sleeping monk below—but the text tells us that Jerome woke from the dream with terrible scars on his shoulders. These stories are told in The Golden Legend, but had never been represented in art before, demonstrating once again the narrative inventiveness of the Limbourgs.

Folio 184r

Illumination from Folio 184r

The next scene is remarkable for its graphic impact. Folio 184r shows Jerome, seen from the back in his monk’s habit, being offered the hat of a cardinal by the pope. A bold symmetrical form composed of choir stalls structures the scene, with flanking figures echoing the symmetry but varying it in the placement of colors of their habits. We see here one of the most rigorously composed scenes in the entire manuscript.

Folio 184v

Illumination from Folio 184v

We then come to one of the strangest pages in the manuscript, Folio 184v. A practical joke is played upon the pious Jerome: In the dark of night, another monk steals into the saint’s cell and replaces his habit with a woman’s dress. The saint, waking in the pre-dawn hour of Matins, puts on the dress and goes into the church, where the seated monks whisper at the scandal of seeing Jerome, beard and all, in the blue dress of a lady. In this remarkable scene, we again sense the intimate symbiosis of artists and patron, with their shared passion for unusual and racy stories, including humor.

Folio 186v

Illumination from Folio 186v

Skipping forward a few pages, we come to the lovely and tender scene where Jerome removes a thorn from a lion’s paw (Folio 186v). As the four lines of red and blue script explain, the lion came limping into the monastery. Although other monks fled, Jerome welcomed the lion as a guest, liberating him from the pain in his paw, after which the lion lived among them. The astonished monks surrounding Jerome in this picture are a miniature symphony of brown, with subtle, tiny brushstrokes articulating their drapery. The tame lion recurs three times on the next page (Folio 187r) in a scene of continuous narration, and then, most traditionally, in the saint’s study (Folio 187v) as Jerome translates the Bible, a task, we are told in the caption, that took fifty-five years and six months.

Folio 189v

Illumination from Folio 189v

The final scene in the Jerome cycle (Folio 189v) depicts his funeral, and illustrates the caption’s reference to miracles by including three maimed petitioners around the saint’s bier. Twenty-six figures are included in this busy scene, although some of them can only be inferred from a pink skirt or hat. The clerics pouring out of a portal at the right give a great sense of movement and song, while the bells over their heads toll mightily.

Spatial Construction

The depiction of space is one of the great themes in the history of art, and the early fifteenth century, when the Belles Heures was being created, marks one of the pivotal ages of transition in this regard. The Jerome cycle is an ideal section in which to witness both the achievements and the contradictions in spatial constructions that were taking place at the time.

In the discussion of the Hours of the Passion, I pointed out scenes where the still-maturing artists seemed to get confused in their representation of space. An arcade that appeared to be at the back of a scene was connected to a column whose bottom was at the front of the same scene (see Folio 131v), for example. No such confusions occur here, as the Limbourg brothers have developed as artists during the course of painting the manuscript.

Folio 187v

Illumination from Folio 187v

Looking at the illumination where Jerome is translating the Bible (Folio 187v), we see the saint in a rich ecclesiastical structure. The columns nearest the picture plane form the exterior corners of the structure, while just inside are two arched openings, one framing the saint and the other framing the lion. By establishing a foreground plane, these arches make the interior space inhabited by the saint more convincing. Beyond them, we read the blue vaults above the saint and the stained-glass windows forming the back plane. A coherent interior space is constructed, but make no mistake: We are not viewing precise mathematical perspective with true orthogonals here. The receding lines of the floor tile do not work together with the angles of the pews or with the saint’s throne-like cathedra. The idea that lines converge toward the horizon is here, but it is not precisely understood. Within a generation after the Belles Heures, Masaccio (1401–ca. 1428) in Florence was using Brunelleschian mathematical perspective, as in the Holy Trinity fresco in Santa Maria Novella, but that is not what we see here.

Folio 185r

Illumination from Folio 185r

Mathematical perspective applies a formula to the diminution in size of objects in space; the other broad device for depicting the illusion of space is atmospheric perspective. This technique, applicable for landscape painting, shows the progressive loss of local color in distant objects and the way the sky modulates from dark to light at the horizon. The Limbourgs show themselves to be masters of this on many pages of the Belles Heures, including on Folio 185r, where the distant city fades to blue and the sky is paler at the horizon line than at the top of the illumination. Yet on the next page (Folio 185v) and on many others in the manuscript, the background is filled with an ornamental design.

Folio 185v

Illumination from Folio 185v

These patterns (called diapered or tessellated, after the word tessera, which is a single mosaic piece) were typical of the backgrounds in earlier Gothic manuscripts. The Limbourgs seem to feel no contradiction or hierarchy in this; whether a page receives a tessellated background or a naturalistic sky does not correlate with the most accomplished representations in other regards.

Moreover, the narrative needs of a given image supersede the importance of the unity of space. Alongside a scene showing a single moment may appear a scene of continuous narration, in which four episodes from a story are depicted within one landscape. This is the case with Folio 186v and Folio 187r. Another example is in the scene where Jerome is tempted by dancing girls (Folio 186r), in which the young ladies are as tall as the city gate; individual objects and figures are rendered convincingly, but there is no coherence of overall scale, and no apparent concern for the contradictions.

The first decade of the fifteenth century, the time of the Belles Heures, was a moment of great transition in art, and the Limbourgs were evolving and leading the way in some aspects of great innovation of the time. But the progressive movement was not always consistent, and in the pages of the Jerome cycle and elsewhere, we see different conceptions of space, different degrees of monumentality in figural presentation, and different compositional values, all within the compendium of this wonderful manuscript.

—Wendy A. Stein

Gallery Talk

For those of you who would like to join me for a tour of the exhibition, I will be giving one last gallery talk on Wednesday, June 9, at 2:00 p.m. While I especially appreciate comments and questions posted here, I also welcome the opportunity to respond to your questions in person.

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