What I love about this fantastic miniature is – apart from the extraordinary skill and aesthetic sensitivity – the fact that the scene it depicts, a Christmas mass is essentially the same, 700 years later, as is happening right now, all over the planet. Technically it’s a different form, in the 14th century it would have been the pre-Tridentine Roman rite, but it’s basically the same, in all honesty.
This part of Les Tres Riches Heures is regarded as definitely being by the Limbourg Brothers. The delicate tracery and expressions on the faces fit with that – there’s a bit of chat and consternation in the congregation. Followed by a great version of In The Bleak Midwinter (genuinely)
When you’ve built the tallest medieval fortified structure in Europe, for its time, you would expect it to tower over the landscape and the trees. The Chateau de Vincennes does exactly that in the last of the twelve month cycle. It’s still there today, though without the many smaller towers you see in the painting (and in the model below).
The chateau took a battering over the centuries, and housed a community of English nuns and the imprisoned Marquis de Sade, though not at the same time. It was further damaged by a rentamob once the French Revolution was well underway. The Duc de Berry’s interest in it is that he was born in the chateau, 676 years ago last week.
Vincennes was a heavily forested area near Paris – now part of the Parisian urban sprawl – and as you might expect, there was a lot of hunting, in this case a wild boar hunt, with dogs, a potentially risky business. Oddly enough, still no snow, that seemed to wait till after Christmas in medieval France, judging by the Tres Riches Heures. By this point in the series – about 1440 – the duke was dead, the Limbourg brothers were dead, and the probable artist was the Master of Shadows, which is a cool name, in real life Barthélemy d’Eyck, which is still not bad.
So many pigs. I think there’s at least 18, and unusually for Les Tres Riches Heures, the only building is a small nondescript generic castle. The peasant in the foreground is dislodging acorns by throwing his stick at them – a technique still employed by conker hunters to this day. Apparently a pig can scoff 10kg of acorns a day. Over to a fascinating jamon iberico website:
Many centuries ago, the rulers of western Spain decreed that each town and village should maintain pastures studded with oak trees, called the dehesa, for the long term stability of the region. This forest/pasture continues to serve many purposes. The holm and cork oaks provided firewood for the people, shade for the plants and livestock, cork products, and acorns (bellota) during fall and winter. During the spring and summer cattle and sheep graze the fields. During the fall and winter, when the acorns are falling from the trees, the pigs are released to fatten up. This ancient human-maintained ecosystem survives intact to this day.
It’s generally held that the painter of this one is Jean Colombe, not the Limbourg Brothers, and it’s certainly less exquisitely crafted, though still terrific. The landscape seen through the trees is an early example of the classic ‘blue landscape‘ later reaching its apogee with the enigmatic and wonderful Joachim Patinir.
October’s a busy month: ploughing (weighed down with a rock), sowing the next crop, archery, bird scaring, various people messing around by the river. They’re ploughing and sowing round here too, at the moment, in my corner of Nordeuropa.
The obvious unseasonal element in the picture though, is a huge badass castle, only this one wasn’t owned by Jean de Berry. It’s the original Louvre Palace in Paris, which did indeed stand where the current building stands, and it’s a remarkably accurate representation. Visitors to the lowest floor of the current Louvre might recognise the enormous rounded bases of the towers, which have been well preserved. The palace was built by Charles V, who happened to be Jean de Berry’s big brother, so it’s still a family affair. Amusingly, he was known as Charles the Wise, whose enemy in life was Charles the Bad, and who was succeeded as king by his son, Charles the Mad. We should bring back these handy adjectives for our own royals (Charles the Twit?).
Often there is a parallel between what the Limbourgs are depicting in their monthly cycle and what goes on in the countryside of my part of northern Europe. Not this month, due to our dearth of viniculture (actually there is a tiny bit). As always with Jean de Berry, he’s happy to show the rhythm of the seasons but what he really seems to like is showing off his real estate. In this case the Château de Saumur, which is satisyingly still with us.
Saumur is a big wine growing area on the Loire. The chateau sits more above the town the in the painting, but it depends a bit on the angle from which you’re viewing it. The building is remarkably unchanged, really
This is one painting in the series where the historians are pretty sure that given the stylistic differences, the upper two thirds was a Limbourg job, while the bottom third was completed much later by Colombe. It fits, to my untrained eye. Art historian François Cali described this scene as “These extravagant towers are a dream landscape with constellations of canopies, pinnacles, gables and arrows, with their crockets fluttering against the light”, but as you can see from the above picture, the painting is hardly exaggerated, the architects for Henry II of England and Philip II of France who owned the building in the decades preceding the painting weren’t hanging back. It was actually begun more than 400 years earlier – built to last.
The painting has two nice further details: bottom left is an exhausted looking pregnant lady, and in the middle foreground is possibly the first depiction of that well known artistic motif, the ‘builder’s bum’.
If Jean de Berry was lounging around the Hôtel de Nesle in Paris, and fancied a spot of falconry, then it would have been an 11 hour walk, according to Google Maps, or probably a 5-6 hour trip on a horse or in a carriage, to get to his Chateau d’Etampes, featured in August in the Tres Riches Heures. This was quite a building for its day, TE Lawrence was a visitor who (on this excellent website) is quoted as calling it “perhaps the most astonishing production of the late twelfth century”. It had all sorts of defensive innovations and was well built, so its central keep is still standing, if a bit worn. It got hammered in the Hundred Years War, as did much of northern France.
I’m not aware that falconry is really a seasonal pursuit. These days in the UK it’s claimed to be a winter sport for reasons that aren’t clear to me, but there’s the Duc de Berry at it in high summer, and its ancestral home is mainly in the decidedly non-seasonal Middle East. More conventionally, there’s a hot sweaty harvest going on in the background, which brings to mind a drowsily persuasive masterpiece by Bruegel in his own series of seasonal paintings, The Corn Harvest
In a way, the Limbourg’s painting gets August right: no-one wants to work too hard, just the essentials, lots of lazing around (see the swimmers), and a general air of self indulgence before the weather begins to turn.
In some ways Jean, Duc de Berry was the Donald Trump of his day. Wealth (much of it inherited), a degree of egotism, political influence and houses – plenty of palatial homes that he couldn’t possibly get much use from. Previous posts (eg 1, 2, 3) have outlined some pretty impressive domiciles, some of which are still standing, sort of. Hot running water 700 years ago is the equivalent of a helipad on the roof. Possibly.
July is no different, except the Chateau du Clain at Poitiers hasn’t survived at all. The image of it in the July panel is the best we’ve got. The triangular plan with round corner towers was an established ‘defensive’ style, with in this case what might be a lake serving as a moat. Poitiers is not far from Paris, but travel was a bit trickier then. Jean de Berry moving from enormous chateau to enormous chateau on horseback, with his court retinue, around north west France is roughly equivalent to Trump zooming around the Eastern Seaboard in his private jet. The distances weren’t great but the journeys must have been arduous.
The yellow markers in this image (borrowed from an excellent post on Les Tres Riches Heures) correspond to the Limbourgs’ depictions of Jean de Berry’s estates.
The main interest otherwise is the usual agricultural stuff – in this case sheep shearing and harvesting hay, laboriously with sickles, not scythes (try it some time).
In a week when Paris is under a modest threat of major flooding given the water level in the Seine, it’s interesting to note that in 1689 – so slightly before climate change/extreme weather/global warming etc – the Île de la Cité was flooded by the effects of heavy rain, sweeping through the Palais de la Cité, and destroying the lowest levels of stained glass in the still amazing Sainte Chapelle. That was 327 years ago, and 273 years before that, the Limbourgs produced their detailed depiction of the buildings in the month of June. It’s a wonderful thing that the Saint Chapelle is still there, and really very little changed. You may note that if those figures are correct, this year is about the septcentennial of the Tres Riches Heures.
This is the great Viollet-le-Duc‘s recreation of the Palais de la Cité
and here is the Limbourg’s view. What’s interesting to speculate is that it was painted from the Duc de Berry’s residence on the river, the Hôtel de Nesle, featured in May.
…and if you look at the Sainte Chapelle now, it’s pretty much the same. Its real glory though is the stained glass interior. Look it up on Google if you’re interested, but the photos don’t quite convey the extraordinary effect of just being inside it. Shame it’s not used as a church any more.
The rest of the June miniature is basic haymaking. It takes place in spring and early summer, in that window of opportunity when the leaves of the grasses are at their most developed. If you leave it too late, after the seeds and flower heads are evident then you lose a lot of the nutritional value. All this is well documented ‘scientifically’ now, but it’s the kind of country lore that was gained over centuries of experience. This miniature is actually one of many representations of medieval farming that shows this kind of “rhythm of the seasons“. The Tres Riches Heures are a companion of sorts to Virgil’s wonderful Georgics.
Well, Paris has changed a bit. Jean de Berry’s main Parisian residence was the famous but poorly archived Hôtel de Nesle, which sat on the left bank of the Seine in the Saint Germain area, opposite the Louvre. It fairly rapidly fell apart after the Duke died in 1416, with a contribution from the time honoured practice of stealing lead from the roof, although the distinctive tower on the river survived for quite a few centuries. I think that’s the bit on the left side of the building complex in the Limbourg’s painting. The Limbourg’s tower is square, and the actual tower was round, but a lot of these things are a bit unreliable in medieval art. The buildings have also been identified as the Conciergerie (which had a square tower) and associated buildings, but I’m not convinced. Jean de Berry clearly liked to have his own stuff in the paintings.
It’s another beauty which conveys the impression that the Duc de Berry spent most of his time hanging out with his friends in seasonal recreations, which is probably true. The mindblowing room of tapestries called the Hunts of Maximilian in the Louvre, from about two hundred years after the Limbourgs, demonstrates much the same sort of thing. The Hôtel de Nesle is fascinating, in part because so little is known for such an extraordinary building (it even had piped water). The following pictures convey a little of what happened to it.
The site is now where the Institut de France stands, and the small river you see in the pictures above must have been culverted centuries ago. See this view from Géoportail, France’s own terrific equivalent of Google Earth (for France)