The Artists: Herman, Paul, and Jean de Limbourg
The brothers Herman, Paul, and Jean de Limbourg (active in France by 1399, died by 1416) were born in the city of Nijmegen (in current-day Netherlands). Herman and Jean were apprenticed as boys to a goldsmith in Paris, and in 1402 Paul and Jean were hired by Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy and the brother of Jean de Berry, to make a “very beautiful and notable Bible.” (Philip died in 1404, before the work could be completed.)
After his brother’s death, Jean de Berry engaged all three of the still teenage Limbourg brothers and retained their services for the rest of their lives. The duke and the artists exchanged rich gifts appropriate to the strength of their relationship, but the most unusual gift best attests to the wit in their friendship: in 1411 the brothers gave Jean de Berry a counterfeit book: it was merely a piece of wood with painted decoration, a cover of white velvet, and gilded silver clasps. The duke appreciated the joke enough to have the item listed in his official inventory of goods.
The Belles Heures is the only manuscript to be illuminated in its entirety by the Limbourg brothers. When they began work on the book (see one of the earliest illustrations) they were only in their later teens, and their art evolved over the course of completing the manuscript, finding its fullest expression in the special added cycles, such as the Saint Jerome story. Their art achieved new strength in the construction of pictorial space, deeper expression of emotional narration, and increasingly beautiful light and technical finesse.
After completing the Belles Heures, the brothers began work on another book of hours for Jean de Berry, the Très Riches Heures. They died before it could be finished, and the manuscript (completed by other artists later in the fifteenth century) is today housed in the Musée Condé in Chantilly, France. (See images from the Très Riches Heures.)
While the Limbourg brothers painted all the illuminations (and one border, that for the Annunciation on Folio 30r) in the Belles Heures themselves, other artists were also involved in its overall creation. The sumptuous borders of every page were executed by anonymous artists; still other craftsmen were employed in making the parchment, writing the text, ruling the lines, and binding the book. (See the Pen and Parchment exhibition blog to learn more about the creation of medieval manuscripts.)