- The Diocese
- Beliefs and Practices
- Christian Life
- News and Publications
- For Clergy
- For Parishes
To read more about this exhibition and view online image of the pages, go here.
If Mrs. Limbourg had been asked back in 1405 the now-famous question, “It’s ten o’clock p.m. – do you know where your children are?,” without missing a beat she would have answered, “Sure, they’re at Jean’s house working on his book of hours.”
Not just any children, these three, but Pol (Paul), Jean, and Herman de Limbourg; Jean, at whose house (all right, it was actually his castle) they worked, was the eminent Jean de France, Duc de Berry, patron of the Limbourg Brothers; and not just any book of hours, but the Belles Heures (Beautiful Hours), one of the most splendidly illustrated manuscripts in this country, if not the world, now the subject of an elegantly organized exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum Art until June 13.
Visitors to the exhibition will have what can only be called a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get really close (armed, if they choose, with a sturdy magnifying glass,
provided courtesy of the Met) to the 224 unbound folios (448 pages) and to marvel at the “clarity of light, atmospheric luminosity, fresh palette, and breathtaking technique,” as described by Timothy B. Husband, the exhibition’s organizer and curator of the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters.
A medieval “must-have,” a book of hours, or prayer book, was used as an aid to personal devotion. Prized for its portability, it could also be customized to suit the needs and tastes of its owner. Which was exactly what made the Duc de Berry such a big fan of them. A voracious but discriminating collector, with a special fondness for gems, miniature sculptures of gold and enamel, the duke was the consummate material guy; he had already owned fourteen books of hours by the time the Limbourgs began work on the Belles Heures in 1405.
Born in Nijmegen (now part of the modern-day Netherlands) and apprenticed in Paris to a goldsmith prior to their commission by Jean de Berry, the Limbourgs were in their early teens (yes, teenagers!) when they set to work on their most extraordinary opus.
The standard sections such as Hours of the Virgin, the Seven Penitential Psalms, and the Hours of the Dead are contained in the Belles Heures; but they are heightened by the inclusion of “picture book” insertions of both sacred and secular subjects, which provided a famework for the Limbourgs to refine their already exceptional figurative and painterly skills.
And what skills they were. Brilliant, gemlike tones bear glorious witness to the Limbourgs’ goldsmith training; French figural refinement is conjoined with northern meticulous observation, imbuing even brutal scenes (Beheading of John the Baptist; Crucifixion of Christ) with beauty. We want to linger in this tempera on vellum domain of heavenly work produced by human hands.
The circular and serene Robert Lehman wing endows the Belles Heures with near-perfect conditions for viewing them: ample wall space for single-sided pages and double-sided stands (with arm ledges for those needing to lean) for displaying pages back to back free visitors to fully engage every face, every golden leaf. A continuous video explains the production of illuminated manuscripts.
You don’t have to know the Bible, the Golden Legend or Latin to appreciate the Belles Heures. All that’s needed is the desire to be moved and enchanted…and a good magnifying glass.