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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).
Saint Catherine Cycle
Saint Catherine Confounds the Learned, Folio 16r
Several episodes in the story are depicted in this complex and iconographically unique scene. Sages look up to the enthroned Catherine, whose eloquence in defense of Christianity converts them. Emperor Maxentius condemns the converted scholars to flames, and their martyrdom is acknowledged by God, breaking through the background.
Listen to a sample from the exhibition Audio Guide:
Audio Guide Transcript
Tom Campbell: Curator Timothy Husband.
Timothy Husband: In this illumination, Catherine is, curiously enough, seated on the throne, whereas the Roman emperor, Maxentius, to her left, wearing a crown and holding a sword, is forced to stand. This raises her to a higher moral status, as it were.
Tom Campbell: The emperor has brought great thinkers—logicians, philosophers—to argue with Catherine about her faith.
Timothy Husband: She, of course, refuses to be converted from Christianity to paganism and no lines of logic can convince her to the contrary.
Tom Campbell: The emperor, seeing that the finest minds in his land can’t persuade her to become a pagan, has his philosophers thrown into the orange flames at the left. But God, above, miraculously prevents the philosophers from being consumed by the fire.
Timothy Husband: The Limbourg brothers were masters in the application of paint. Mostly they used thick, opaque paints. But here, in the rendering of the flame and the smoke, they’re very thin, watery pigments. And they apply it with a wonderful, sort of free motion that actually suggests the flickering of the flame.