About | Project Members | Research Assistants | Contact | Posting FAQ | Credits

Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc du Berry

Research Report by Donna Beth Ellard
(created 3/31/06; version 1.0)

Related Categories: History of reading

Original Object for Study description

Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc du Berry (“The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry”) is one of the most sumptuous and costly books of hours. The calendars in Les Tres Riches Heures were painted by Paul, Hermann and Jean Limoges, three brothers from Flanders. Later additions were carried out by the late 14th- century artist Jean Colombe. The original manuscript is at the Condé Museum in Chantilly, France.

Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc du Berry is a livre d’heures, a “Book of Hours.” The Book of Hours developed out of the Psalter and the Breviary and was a small prayer book (2 ½ in. x 3 ½ in.) for private devotion by the laity, with a Latin text. Unlike the Breviary, it was much more personal in character since it could include extra-liturgical prayers. These prayers and meditations were meant to be recited at those moments of the liturgical day traditionally called ‘hours.’ In correspondence with the eight prayer hours of the day, each book of hours was divided into eight sections.

The contents of these books varied according to the owner’s tastes, wealth, and needs. However, the fundamental element of all books of hours was a series of prayers to the Virgin called the ‘Hours of the Virgin,’ which sought the intercession and assistance of the Virgin. Additional elements of a book of hours were a calendar, penitential psalms, and short lessons from the Gospels.

Illustrations in books of hours generally begin with calendar miniatures. These are followed by scenes of the Virgin, the Passion, and patron saints of the book’s owner. The illuminations in these manuscripts became increasingly detailed and luxurious, and by the fifteenth century, books of hours were the most popular type of manuscript produced in Europe.

Jean de Berry was one of the most powerful nobles in 15th-century France and a great patron of the visual arts. He commissioned the Limoges brothers to illustrate Les Tres Riches Heures in 1413, but they left it unfinished at their (and the Duc’s) death in 1416. The Duc Charles I de Savoie commissioned Jean Colombe to complete the painting of the manuscript between 1485-1489. The completed manuscript has 416 pages, 131 miniatures decorated with gold and silver, and 216 pages that contain 300 gold initials. This was the most elaborately illuminated book of hours ever created.

These illuminations played with the traditions associated with the painting cycles in books of hours. For example, traditionally, the August calendar depicts the reaping of grain. However, the August calendar of Les Tres Riches Heures plays with this tradition.

While the background of this scene shows peasants reaping grain, the main focus of the painting is actually a hunting scene with two lords and three ladies carrying falcons. Moreover, this scene portrays peasants in a new way: peasant harvesters are shown not only harvesting grain but also swimming.

August (left) and January (right), from Les Tres Riches Heures.

Likewise, the Limoges brothers included portraits of Duc de Berry in the calendar scenes of the illuminations of Les Tres Riches Heures. Traditionally, it was not unusual for an owner’s portrait to be featured in illuminations. However, the Duc de Berry’s portrait, personality, and surroundings are woven into the landscape of traditional calendar scenes. For example, the Calendar opens with the month of January, which is traditionally associated with feasting. The Limoges brothers paint a scene of the Duc de Berry at a feast with his court. This is unusual on several accounts: the revelers that are traditionally associated with January are imagined, yet all the figures and surroundings in this scene seem to be based on members of the Duc de Berry’s court.

There are several reasons why books of hours were both widespread and popular: the laity’s desire to emulate the clergy, class-consciousness, and rising literacy.

“Weick discusses the belief that the laity was envious of the clergy in many respects, most notably in their intimate and direct relationship to God. The clergy’s rituals were complex and time-consuming. As such, the book of hours was adopted and adapted to suit this need (Weick, Time Sanctified, 27). By reading the book of hours, the laity obtained some of the spiritual privileges of the clergy. (Virginia Reinburg, Prayer and the Books of Hours, in Weick, Time Sanctified, 41). Illuminated or not, the book of hours was a desired tool for one’s religious development.” (Patrick Haynes, “Historical Overview and Development of Historical Books of Hours”)

Likewise, books of hours became a symbol of class status. In a period where printed texts were becoming more available, books of hours remained expensive because of their ornamentation, expensive materials (often gold and silver were used in painting and rubrication), and craftsmanship. They were frequently a part of wills and were often the only book that an individual owned. In other words, books of hours were commodities; to carry or display one’s book of hours–especially its illuminations–was to show off one’s wealth. Members of the nobility and merchant classes would probably have desired to own one of these texts even if they were illiterate.

Finally, during the late Middle Ages, literacy began to rise along with popular piety. Women were often the patrons of books of hours because they functioned as aides to private prayer.

Research Context:
Les Tres Riches Heures and its manuscript genre, the book of hour, can be discussed in relation to the History of the Book and Media Studies.

Les Tres Riches Heures is important in the History of the Book for a number of reasons. It is a book for lay devotion whose form draws from numerous liturgical texts and visual traditions. Consequently, the book of hours is a hybrid genre. Likewise, this genre was popularized during the late-fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, at a time when the printing press is revolutionizing the availability, standardization, and distribution of the written word.

This object also can be contextualized within the theoretical framework of Media Studies. Les Tres Riches Heures is important in relation to its impact on late-medieval social history in terms of its economic, aesthetic, cultural, social and legal implications. Moreover, the book’s purported use as a devotional text and sumptuous and often secular illuminations reveals a tension between word and image in relation to reading practices.

Technical Analysis:
The production of the book and its binding follows standard medieval bookmaking procedures. However, the painting of the scenes and lettering of the book required special materials. The Limoges brothers used a variety expensive of minerals and plants for the paint pigments. The details in the illustrations required fine brushes and magnifying lenses.

Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic:
Les Tres Riches Heures was created as an art piece; its function as a prayer book was certainly a secondary one. As a work of art, it contributed to the reshaping of late-medieval understandings of the function of the book. The book of hours became a commodity, a display of wealth, a visual text, an accessory. Its function as a text to be read was secondary as its function as a text to be viewed. What we read–both in private and in public–is a way that we define who we are, and Transliteracies might explore the book as an object of cultural and economic capital rather than a functional text. Likewise, Transliteracies might examine the social history of Les Tres Riches Heures in relation to contemporary connections between reading, literacy, and class.

Transliteracies can examine Les Tres Riches Heures as a visual text that spans the divide between the reading culture of books and the viewing culture of visual art. Because of its polyvalent function as a text to be read, to be looked at, and to be bought and sold, it can further discussions on the relationship between reading, art, and commerce. From this perspective, it can be compared to modern visual texts such as comic books, advertisements, and new media artworks.

Transliteracies might pursue these more historical and theoretical academic strands in relation to visual text softwares such as TextArc, which create visual representations of a text.

Resources for Further Study:

  tl, 03.31.06

Comments are closed.