Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Final Reflections

In the Galleries

So here we are at the end, with all the sections of the manuscript now posted, and this last chance to reflect. What simple questions may not yet have been asked or answered? What open questions remain for future scholars to ponder, or further studies to publish? Who has come to the exhibition, and who has come to the blog, and what do we all take away?

Remember: It’s a Book

Recently I was in the exhibition to look again at pages of the section of the week, and a visitor approached me to ask a question: Where was the book? I explained that almost everything in front of her, all the little pages, all the little paintings in frames all around, were from one book, a manuscript called the Belles Heures that had been temporarily unbound. I was glad to answer her question, but saddened to realize how easy it is to miss this fundamental point.

Unanswered Questions

Folio 211r Folio 99r Folio 91r

Details of illuminations from Folio 211r, Folio 99r, and Folio 91r

The Belles Heures has been extensively studied and extensively published, and although much about it is understood, many questions remain. Some may never be answered, but others may yield to further scholarship in the future. Because I am always interested in the stories, the iconographic mysteries jump to my mind: Who are the two figures flanking John the Baptist on Folio 211r? Who are all the figures in the scene in a cemetery introducing the Office of the Dead (Folio 99r), and what should have been written on that placard? Who is the extra figure behind the Duke on Folio 91r, or the one beside Paul in the scene where he sees a Christian tempted (Folio 191r)?

Folio 123v

Illumination from Folio 123v

I found precedents for a nimbed Judas, but what further could be learned of the theology behind that choice (Folio 123v)?

All of these questions taken together raise the more fundamental one: Who, if anyone, might have had a role in setting the iconographic program of the manuscript, in instructing the Limbourgs in what to paint or the duke in what special sections to include? Did the Duke’s chaplains advise on such matters? There is also another question for all the novel scenes, scenes apparently never before depicted in art yet narrated in The Golden Legend and other sources: Did the Limbourgs themselves figure out how to paint the needed scene, or were others involved, whether artists or scholars or the duke himself?

One could also ask functional, doctrinal, or liturgical questions. In the Masses section, I cited some authors who have written about Jean de Berry’s use of his books of hours, but I still want to know more about how he used the Belles Heures, to get closer to understanding the balance in him between the connoisseur who commissioned different artists to decorate books and the Christian who employed and praised his chaplains. Did he pray eight times a day?

Then there are the technical questions. The recent conservation and study of the manuscript have answered many of these, and many answers have been published by Margaret Lawson (see Sources), formerly of the Museum’s Paper Conservation Department. New technology permitted the identification of some specific pigments using Raman spectroscopy and other methods, but current instruments cannot identify the binding media used without destructive methods???and nobody intends to flake off pigment from the Belles Heures just to test it. As for other questions of materials and techniques, can we learn more about brushes and magnification?

Big, wonderful, open question: Where is the missing illumination with a portrait of John the Evangelist that once preceded the excerpt from his Gospel, near the beginning of the manuscript? We know from other books of hours that such an image would have been normal, but even more conclusively, we know from internal evidence that such a page once existed. The end (but not beginning) of a Gospel text excerpt from John survives in the Belles Heures on Folio 22r, and an offset of a missing illuminated page can be faintly seen on an existing blank page, Folio 21v. The offset was more visible when the manuscript was rebound in 1972, when John Plummer examined it and described the missing picture as depicting Saint John on Patmos. The page with that miniature appears to have been cut out of the manuscript long ago; perhaps it is sitting in some collector’s cabinet and will resurface one day.

Folio 21v Folio 22r

Details of the blank page on Folio 21v and from the illumination on Folio 22r

There is also the question of the manuscript’s history. We know where it was in the fifteenth century and in the nineteenth century, but have no proof of its whereabouts in the intervening years. During our special daylong exploration of the topic on April 11, Christopher De Hamel presented a compelling theory (see video below); is he correct? Can anything further be found to confirm or reject it?

Finally, there is the elephant in the room: We say the artists are the three Limbourg brothers???Herman, Paul, and Jean???but who did what? We will never be able to prove any answer here, but we can expand the question. We have been assuming that each brother worked as an artist on the illuminations, but there are other options. Perhaps one did the ivy rinceaux borders. Perhaps one acted as the executive, coordinating work among his brothers, the scribe of the text, and the duke. Can further insights be made to help us see separate hands at work within this manuscript? Can those hands be identified again in the other works of the Limbourgs, the Tr??s Riches Heures and the Bible Moralis??e?

Blogging and Touring and Looking

View of the Pages in the Galleries

It has been a wonderful experience for me to write about the Belles Heures and to give tours in the exhibition, but what has made it most rewarding is that these responsibilities have spurred me to go again and again to the galleries to look at the pages of the manuscript.

I learned from others’ experiences of seeing the exhibition, while giving both public and private tours to a wide range of visitors. One group was devout and religiously observant, utterly familiar with Bible texts, but normally averse to painted representations and with no knowledge of Medieval art. It was a delight to share their joy in the experience of discovery, linking verses they knew to what they could see. A very different group included a cultured and educated friend who offered my favorite single comment. He was marveling at the detail in the miniatures, at the ability to render form at such a tiny tiny scale, and said, “It is as though they pulled out one eyelash, and then painted with that.”

I have also learned much from blogging. This task has given me new insight into the way media shape discourse, a little window into the ways the world is changing through such vehicles. Writing in this forum has pushed me to use first person, has tempted me to stress one point or another, has made me aware of other blogs and sites. In the first week of the project, I was stunned to learn of the number of visitors to the blog and the variety of countries from which they originate. As of two weeks ago, this blog counted 53,491 visitors from 136 countries. By the same date, 108,695 visitors had come to the exhibition in the galleries. A small survey undertaken within the Museum indicated that at least some of the gallery visitors had also come from overseas, mainly Europe. I rejoice that people visited the exhibition while it was available, and rejoice that people will be able to continue to visit the images and discussions here to see all the illuminated pages of the Belles Heures, long after the exhibition closes on June 13. The Manuscript Pages section is the real gold mine here: I trust all readers know it contains every single illuminated page in the manuscript. Making these images available to the public is the best gift to future scholarship the Museum has already provided.

Looking Closely in the Galleries

Finally, of course, I have learned most from looking. Going back to the pages week after week, I have never stopped seeing new things, or appreciating anew the skill and inventiveness before me. Like everyone else, I will continue to benefit from seeing the illuminations reproduced here and in the monograph and other published works, but I will dearly miss the actual folios spread out before me in the Lehman Wing.

???Wendy A. Stein


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.

John Plummer, “A Blank Page in the Belles Heures.” In Gatherings in Honor of Dorothy E. Miner. Edited by Ursula E. McCracken, Lilian M. C. Randall, and Richard H. Randall Jr., pp. 193???202. Baltimore: The Walters Art Gallery, 1974.

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Comments (2)

  1. Lisa Hermanson Says:

    I went to see the Limbourg several weeks ago, and was sorry I could not make it back for a second look. I went to the museum website for any scrap of additional information, and was so happy to find your extensive blog and numerous images from manuscript. The sheer scope of the exhibition is daunting and some subjects unfamiliar; it was most helpful to have the work explained, section by section.

    When I heard of the Belles Heures show, I assumed that the manuscript would be bound, and we would only glimpse a few pages. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the manuscript and the expert staging of the exhibit – it is one of the most memorable shows I have seen at the museum, a once in a lifetime experience.
    Thank you for your expert scholarship -


    Lisa Hermanson

  2. Wendy A. Stein Says:

    Dear Lisa,
    Thank you for your appreciation of the manuscript, the exhibition, and the web feature. It has been a pleasure to help spread the word of this beautiful book of hours.

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