Introduction: A Book of Hours

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The Belles Heures of Jean de Berry is a book of hours—a prayer book made for private use in the intimate devotion to the Virgin Mary that grew popular toward the end of the Middle Ages. Although thousands of books of hours have survived—it was the most popular book form of its time—very few are as richly decorated as the Belles Heures. All books of hours include certain elements, such as the Hours of the Virgin, but each one was customized according to local artistic practices and to the personal wishes of its patron.

In addition to the standard contents, the Belles Heures of Jean de Berry also includes seven “picture book” cycles that tell stories through a succession of full-page illuminations, with text limited to a few lines in alternating red and blue ink. These sections, which were added by the Limbourg brothers in the later stages of the manuscript’s production, show the artists’ increasingly developed power. The brief texts included on the pages are not devotional, like the texts in a typical book of hours, but rather relate stories from the lives of the saints.

Designed to be held in the hands of a royal patron, this book of hours was not intended to be seen as a collection of individual pages, much less as a series of framed paintings. In fact, it is only because the book was unbound for photography and conservation that the current presentation offers visitors the opportunity to view each of the illuminated pages of this sumptuous medieval treasure.