Above: Details of illuminations from Folio 191v, Folio 193r, and Folio 194r 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).
A self-contained quire of two bifolia, eight pages, presents the story of two hermit saints, Paul and Anthony. This is the last of the full-scale added picture cycles in the manuscript, but it is unlikely to have been the last one to be completed. Compositions in this section are conceived for narrative impact, and their layouts support that purpose rather than spatial coherence. Great and crazy stories are here—scenes you never imagined.
Illumination from Folio 191r
The first life of Paul the Hermit was written by Saint Jerome (see last week’s post for more about Jerome), which seems to be one source of the captions in the Belles Heures. The story begins with a shocking scene from the time of the Roman emperor Decius, when Christians were persecuted. One form of torture imposed on young Christian men was to be tempted by an “impure woman.” Folio 191r shows Paul witnessing such a scene: The seductress seated on the Christian’s lap runs her hand up his thigh. Tormented by temptation, his hands bound, the Christian bites off the tip of his tongue and spits it at the evil woman.
Detail of illumination from Folio 191r
Viewing this episode convinced Paul to leave the city and flee into the desert, becoming the first of the hermit saints. The younger man shown behind Paul at far right in the illumination is not explained by the caption or by the full story as recounted in The Golden Legend. He looks like Anthony, who appears in the other scenes in this cycle, but if so, it is an iconographic error, as the two hermits did not meet until many years later.
When Jean de Berry turned that page of his book, he came next to two facing pictures showing the journey undertaken by Anthony to find Paul at his hermitage in Egypt (Folio 191v and Folio 192r). The dominant swath of vermilion on each page is the perfectly Red Sea. Although it is meant to be a desert landscape, trees and springs abound, but the peril of the journey is suggested by the dragons and snakes seen on the verso. In both of these pages, we can see that here is little interest in a convincing representation of space: on the verso, the land extends up to the top of the picture, with no horizon at all, and the smallest trees are at the saint’s feet, where we would expect a foreground; on the recto, the contours of the landscape are scarcely more convincing.
A startling image on Folio 192r is the composite beast giving directions to Anthony, a combination of the two creatures, centaur and satyr, mentioned in the caption. Strange as it is to see this scene with this mythical beast, it is the second time it was painted by the Limbourgs in a book of hours for Jean de Berry. Its presence in the bas de page of the Très Belles Heures de Notre-Dame (see image) (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, nouv. Acq. Lat. 3093, p. 240) is another testament to the delight in strange stories shared by the Limbourgs and the duke.
In the next opening, on Folio 192v, we see an innovative device invented by the Limbourgs to encourage narrative reading from the verso to the recto. Each illumination has a distant portal on the left and right edges of the scene, as if to invite walking through the gate from one page to the next. The scenes represent charming anecdotes from the two saints’ lives. On Folio 192v is the avian delivery of food to the ascetic fathers. Saint Paul, who had already lived in the desert for years, was fed by a daily delivery of bread by a raven. When Anthony showed up, the bird brought a double portion, a point noted in the caption, with the word dupplicatã in red, beginning the second line.
Detail of text from Folio 192v
Paul, accustomed to the miraculous feeding, calmly goes on reading his book, but the newcomer, Anthony, is astounded and raises his arm in wonder at the appearance of the bird. Instead of the raven or crow (corvus) specified in the caption, the bird appears as the dove of the Holy Spirit, and the bread is depicted as the host rather than a loaf. On Folio 193r, Paul dies, and Anthony witnesses his soul being transported to heaven by angels, while Paul’s body remains in his cell at the right, continuing in a posture of prayer.
Illumination from Folio 193v
When Anthony attempts to bury Paul, he has no tools to dig in the ground, and lions come to help him (Folio 193v). Look closely here at Anthony’s sorrowing face, and the way Paul’s body is limp and pale in death. Paul’s garment is mentioned in the caption as having been made from palms, and, in fact, it appears with a braided basket weave in the illumination. Again a portal at upper right connects it to the facing page, where we see the Temptation of Saint Anthony (Folio 194r).
Illumination from Folio 194r
Three beasts and a devil attack Anthony, who lies in the coffin that was seen empty in the background in two earlier pages (Folio 192r and Folio 192v). The devil is especially energetic in attacking with a stick, and the saint throws out both hands in submission and defeat. The scene prefigures representations of the same event by Schöngauer (see image), Bosch, and Grünewald, among others, including the young Michelangelo Buonarroti (see Michelangelo’s First Painting).
Illumination from Folio 194v
The final scene, Folio 194v, is a beautiful painting, the only interior in the cycle, and quietly expressive in its rendering. The body of Saint Anthony is laid out on a trestle table as four monks read from large books. The saturated hues in the illumination rotate around the central black and brown of the figures’ robes, with the vivid pink and yellow floor tiles, colorful tomes, and bright blue vaults punctuating the scene. The Limbourgs’ interest in the realistic and detailed depiction of familiar tools and objects is represented here by the foreground ecclesiastical instruments: a yellow round brazier burns incense and stands beside two implements for holy water, a bucket (situla) and tool for sprinkling it (aspergillum). Equally articulated are the oil lamps mounted on iron brackets high on the walls.
—Wendy A. Stein
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.
Tags: aspergillum, Bosch, centaur, corvus, Decius, dove, Grünewald, hermit, Holy Spirit, host, Jerome, Michelangelo, Saint Anthony, Saint Paul, satyr, Schöngauer, situla, temptation, Très Belles Heures