Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

Fabulous 15th-Century Book of Hours

Segment of the Calendar page for May of Les Très Riches Heures
Segment of the Calendar page for May of Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Public Domain

Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (literally: ”the very rich hours of the duke of Berry”) is the most renowned book of hours ever produced. It is often referred to as le roi des manuscrits enluminés ("the king of illuminated manuscripts"), and it is one of the most important pieces of artwork in history.

Book size:

Number of pages: 206; bound in red Moroccan leather in the 18th century

Dimensions: 11.4 x 8.3 inches (29 x 21 cm).

It is very likely that the original size of the pages was larger, as evidenced by several panels in which the binder cut into the miniatures.

Materials used:

Surface: Vellum (calfskin); very well prepared and ruled in red

Ink: Iron gall ink

Paint: Prepared by the artists in their workshops by grinding the minerals or plants on a slab of marble and moistening them with water. This was then thickened with arabic or tragacanth gum to ensure it would stick to the vellum. Colors included black, white, pink, violet, three shades of red and two shades each of blue, green, and yellow.

Colors:

  • Blues: made from Lapis Lazuli and cobalt
  • Greens: made from malachite and wild irises
  • Pink: extracted from the decoction of red dyewood
  • Reds: one shade a red oxide of lead; another (vermillion) produced from cinnabar or mercuric sulfide; the third made from red ocher
  • Violet: a vegetable color, extracted from the sunflower
  • Yellows: one shade from a monoxide of lead, the other from arsenic trisulfide
  • White: made with white lead ore
  • Black: made from either soot or ground charcoal

Also used were gold leaf and gold ormolu powder.

Contents of the Très Riches Heures:

Like most books of hours, the Très Riches Heures depicts numerous biblical scenes and saints, and the initial capital letters and line endings are lavishly decorated.

But unlike most books of hours, this work includes landscapes (most well-known are the twelve miniatures for the months of the year), as well as unusual subject matter like the "anatomical man," the garden of Eden, the fall of the rebel angels, and even a plan of Rome. To what extent the artists had a say in the subject matter, and how much was determined by the patrons, is unclear.

The sponsor of the Très Riches Heures:

The Très Riches Heures was commissioned by Jean, Duc de Berry. The third son of King Jean II of France, the duke held considerable power, controlling at least a third of all French territory during the middle years of the Hundred Years’ War. He was also an enthusiastic patron of the arts, and the Très Riches Heures was not the first book of hours he ordered made for him. The Duc de Berry collected everything from outlandish jewels and exotic animals to world maps and astronomical treatises, as well as a huge selection of religious books.

The painters of the Très Riches Heures:

The bulk of the Très Riches Heures was painted by the three Limbourg brothers: Paul, Herman and Jean. Born in Nimwegen in the Duchy of Guelders (in present-day Flanders) and referred to as "alemant" (German), the Limbourgs were raised in an artistic family and began working in the arts at a young age.

Paul was in the duke's employ by 1408, and his brothers no later than 1410; they all enjoyed a friendly relationship with their patron. After completing the Belles Heures in 1412, they were chosen by the duke to paint the Très Riches Heures in 1413.

The Limbourgs labored on the masterwork for two years, then died sometime in 1416, probably of the plague.

The duke also died in 1416, and the Très Riches Heures went unfinished for decades. Then, sometime around 1485, the Duc Charles I de Savoie and his wife, Blanche de Montferrat, commissioned Jean Colombe, an established and well-regarded illuminator from Bourges, to complete the work.

The identity of the scribe is unknown, although at the time the manuscript was begun, the duke did have in his employ an escripvain de forme by the name of Yvonnet Leduc.

The Fate of the Très Riches Heures:

The second patron of the work, Charles I, Duc de Savoie, left the manuscript to his cousin, the Duc Philibert le Beau, whose widow, Margaret of Austria, inherited the book when he died. Margaret, the daughter of the Emperor Maximilian, had the Très Riches Heures and some other manuscripts transferred to the Netherlands; upon her death it went to Jean Ruffaut, an executor of her will and chief treasurer and paymaster of Charles V of Germany.

Nothing is known of the book after this until the 18th century, when it was bound in red leather and decorated with the Spinola arms. How the famous Genoese Spinola family got the book is unknown, although considering their military endeavors it's not unreasonable to assume it was acquired through plunder. The next known holders are the Serra family, whose heraldic device was placed over the Spinola arms. It then passed into the hands of the Baron Felix de Margherita of Torino, Italy.

In 1855, having learned of the book's availability, the Duc d'Aumale viewed it in Genoa, and recognized it as a work made for the Duc de Berry by the Duke's portrait in the panel for the month of January. But it wasn't until 1881 that it was determined exactly which of the duke's numerous manuscripts the particular book could be. The Duc d'Aumale brought it home to France and donated it, with all his other collections, to the Institute de France, where it has remained since 1897. Today, Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry is one of the most precious treasures of the Musée Condé.

See portions of Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry in our Très Riches Heures Image Gallery