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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).
Office of the Dead
A Cemetery, Folio 99r
This unprecedented and enigmatic scene is the only illumination in the Office of the Dead, a text that fills more than forty pages in the Belles Heures. The image is full of iconographic mysteries: Why are there two figures in the grave, and why are they already decomposing? Who is the figure behind the central column, and what should be written on the white panel? Why is the typical scene for the Office, a funeral in a church, avoided here?
Listen to a sample from the exhibition Audio Guide:
Audio Guide Transcript
Tom Campbell: This is the only illumination in the Belles Heures for the Office of the Dead. The text is a standard part of any Book of Hours, but instead of depicting, say, the Torments of Hell, Purgatory, or the Raising of Lazarus, as was most often the case, there’s a scene in a cemetery. It’s a completely unprecedented image for the Office of the Dead. What the Limbourg brothers meant by it, we simply don’t know. The background is filled with tomb slabs. As we can see by the monk at the left, they also function as benches. In the center, there’s a tablet, but there’s nothing on it.
Timothy Husband: We don’t know who the curious fellow in the center standing behind the cross, raising his right hand in a rhetorical gesture and pointing to the blank tablet attached to the cross—it’s also unclear why there are two wasted corpses in the open grave, as opposed to a single coffin. It remains one of the most enigmatic and mysterious of images in the manuscript.