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519PX-~1—  Les Très Riches Heures de Jean de France, Duc de Berry: January

Jean de France and the Limbourg brothers

Jean Ier de France, Duc de Berry (Jean de Berry; 30 November 1340 – 15 March 1416) was an avid collector of psalters, breviaries (brief books of liturgical rites), missals, Books of Hours, books honouring saints (hagiography), Bibles, and other objets d’art.

However, if the Duc de Berry’s name still lingers in our memory, it is because he commissioned Books of Hours from the Limbourg brothers or Gebroeders van Limburg: Herman, Pol and Johan (fl. 1385 – 1416), the most famous of which is Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. The Limbourg brothers also contributed miniatures to a



Les Très Riches Heures (1412 – 1416)

We will concentrate on the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, commissioned by Jean Ier de France in 1410 and currently housed at the Musée Condé, in Chantilly, France. All three Limbourg brothers, Herman, Pol (Paul) and Johan (Jean), born in Nijmegen, now in Gelderland, in the Netherlands, worked on Jean de France’s famous Très Riches Heures, but all three died in 1416, aged 28 to 31, probably of the plague, which, in all likelihood, also took the life of their patron, the Duc de Berry.

Photo credit: Wikipedia (all images)
(Please click on each picture to enlarge it.)


Completing the Manuscript

The Limbourg brothers had nearly completed their assignment before their death, but not quite. Later in the fifteenth century, an anonymous artist worked on the manuscript. It would appear this anonymous artist was Barthélemy d’Eyck, or van Eyck (FR) (c. 1420 – after 1470), called the Master of the Shadows. If indeed Barthélemy d’Eyck, or van Eyck (FR), worked on the Très Riches Heures, he did so after 1444.[i] His extremely generous patron was René d’Anjou (16 January 1409 – 10 July 1480).

However, completion of the manuscript is attributed to Jean Colombe (b. Bourges c. 1430; d. c. 1493) who was commissioned to complete Jean de France’s book by Charles Ier, Duc de Savoie. He worked between 1485 and 1489. The Très Riches Heures was imitated by Flemish artists in the 16th century and then disappeared for three centuries until it was found by Spinola of Genoa and later bought, in 1856, by the Condé Museum in Chantilly, France, where it is held.[ii]


The Très Riches Heures: a Calendar

However, Jean de France, duc de Berry’s Très Riches Heures differs from other Books of Hours because of the prominence of its calendar, a lay calendar. Each month of the year is depicted on a full page and these depictions constitute a remarkable record of the monthly labour of men and women, from shearing lamb to cutting wood and the brothers depicted them in minute details and astonishing accuracy. In the background, of each monthly, page we can see one of Jean de France’s many castles and hôtels. For instance, the image inserted at the top of this post shows the Château de Vincennes. In the front, dogs are eating a boar. The Limburg brothers

were among the first illuminators to render specific landscape scenes (such as the environs and appearance of their patron’s castles) with great accuracy and sensitivity.[iii]


The Limbourg Brothers: Biographical notes

The Limbourg brothers were born to artistic parents. Their grandfather had lived in Limburg, hence their name. But he had moved to Nigmegen. His son Arnold (1355-1360 – 1395-1399) was a wood-carver. Their mother, Mchtel Maelwael (Malouel) belonged to a family of heraldic painters. However, the most prominent artist in the brothers’ family was their uncle Jean Malouel, or Jan Maelwael in Dutch, who was court painter for Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. It should be noted that between 1032 and 1477, Burgundy was an enlarged Duchy of Burgundy, also called the Franco-Flemish lands.

As for the brothers themselves, Herman and Johan were sent to Paris to learn the craft of goldsmithing and upon the death of Philip the Bold, in 1604, they were hired by his brother, Jean de France. They worked in a style called International Gothic. As Jean de France, Duc de Berry’s artists, the Limbourg brothers were first assigned a long project, a Book of Hours entitled Belles Heures du Duc de Berry, containing 158 miniatures, currently housed in the Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York.

Jean de France was obviously very pleased with his Belles Heures du Duc de Berry. He showered the Limbourg brothers with gifts, the most substantial being a very large house for Paul in Bourges, France, where the three brothers resided. Johan seems to have combined a career as goldsmith and painter, at least temporarily, but he was definitely one of the three miniaturists who worked on the miniatures comprised in Jean de France’s Très Riches Heures, commissioned in 1410 or 1411. There have been attempts to attribute certain pages to a particular brother, but uncertainty lingers. I should think that Wikipedia’s list is probably mostly accurate.[iv]

A Wider Symbolism

You will notice that Les Très Riches Heures contains paintings above which there is a semicircle, the folio for each month shows the twelve Zodiac signs, the ecclesiastical lunar calendar as well as heraldic emblems and other relevant elements. Many Books of Hours are also characterized by the mille-fleurs motif borrowed from Oriental rugs brought to Europe by returning Crusaders. In Books of Hours, artists drew from elements preceding Christianity as well as Christian ones, not to mention personal elements. “Their range includes coats of arms, initials, monograms, mottoes, and personal emblems, which are used singly or in all combinations possible.”[v]

Artistic Elements

Painted in gouache on parchment (vellum), the Tr[è]s Riches Heures includes
416 pages, 131 of which have large miniatures, while many more are decorated
with border illustrations or large historiated initials, as well as 300 ornamented capital letters [also called “historiated” letters].”[vi]

As for the colors, fine pigments were used and blended by the brothers themselves into a form of gouache and, at times, they crushed lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone into a “liant,” a binding agent. They also used gold leaf. It was a delicate process done step by step on a relatively small piece of vellum (vélin), the skin of a calf (veau).


The Limburg brothers and Jean de France died before the age of thirty. Yet, their legacy is an exceptional depiction of their life and times. I am certain Jean de France marvelled at the consummate artistry of the Limburg brothers. They worked at a moment in history when perspective had not yet entered their world, except simple linear perspective.[vii] Yet their folios show the degree of dimensionality that could be achieved in the Burgundian 15th century. Therefore, their art has its own finality and it is love for what it is.

I especially like the serenity of the folios constituting the twelve months of the Calendar. The Labours of the Months do not seem an imposition but the natural activity of simple human beings reaping food and comfort from a rich land and hoping in an age were an epidemic could be devastating. Their faces and gestures do not show fear. On the contrary, they show faith. They are working so that months will grow into seasons and seasons into years that will return until they enter peacefully into the timelessness of life eternal.


  • To view the pages corresponding to each month of the year, click on Très Riches Heures.
  • N.B. Several illuminations painted for Berry’s Book of Hours inspired some of the backdrops to sets used by Laurence Olivier in his film of Shakespeare’s play Henry V which he made in 1944 on the eve of the Normandy invasion.
  • Also very informative is the WebMuseum, Paris or the Web Gallery of Art



[i] See the Barthélemy van Eyck entry in Wikipedia.  EN
[ii] See the “Très Riches Heures” entry in Wikipedia.
Très Riches Heures” entry  in Wikipedia. 
[iii] “Limbourg brothers”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 13 Dec. 2012 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1475265/Limbourg-brothers>.
[iv] See the “Très Riches Heures” entry in Wikipedia & Les Très Riches Heures
[v]  “Book of Hours”. http://www.medievalbooksofhours.com/advancedtutorial/tutorial_advanced_boh.html
[vi] “Très Riches Heures”.
[vii] High Point of Courtly International Gothic”. 
© Micheline Walker
21 December 2012
Replaces post published on 17 November 2011.
The second video features the Ensemble Planeta.