09.06.12, Husband, The Art of Illumination

Main Article Content

Camille Serchuk

The Medieval Review baj9928.0906.012


Husband, Timothy B.. The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the "Belles Heures" of Jean de France, Duc de Berry. New Haven, Connecticut: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2008. Pp. xii, 376. ISBN: 978-0-300-13671-5.

Reviewed by:
Camille Serchuk
Southern Connecticut State University

The manuscript known as the Belles Heures may well be the most sumptuous of all the illuminated manuscripts today in the United States. Made in the early years of the fifteenth century for the most prodigious patron of the day, Jean de France, Duc de Berry, it is the only manuscript produced in its entirety by the artists known as the Limbourg Brothers. In 1954 The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased the manuscript, along with another exceptional book of hours, the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux, from a dealer working on behalf of Maurice de Rothschild. It remains unclear how these treasures of the Rothschild collection, which remained in Paris during the war, managed to escape detection by the Nazis, who confiscated many other manuscripts owned by Rothschild. The Met paid $300,000 for the two volumes, both of which had been offered first to the Morgan Library and the Houghton Library as well as to a private collector. In his introduction, Timothy Husband describes this as "one of the most fortuitous acquisitions of medieval art on record." This may actually be an understatement.

The Belles Heures is not a work that has suffered from scholarly neglect. First published on its entry into the public eye by Jean Porcher in 1953, the fame of the manuscript grew considerably in the mid-1970s after the publication of a partial facsimile by Millard Meiss and Elizabeth H. Beatson, and, in the same year, of Meiss's magisterial volume French Painting in the time of Jean de Berry. The Limbourg Brothers and their Contemporaries. After a relatively fallow period, in recent years scholarly interest to luxury manuscripts has increased, and the Limbourg Brothers, in particular, have been afforded particular attention. Among the more recent projects are a lavish facsimile of the Belles Heures with commentary by Eberhard K önig, published in 2003 by Facsimile Verlag Luzern, and a separate, more modest volume by the same author, [1] and the 2005 catalogue of an ambitious exhibition entitled The Limbourg Brothers: Nijmegen Masters at the French Court, 1400-1416. [2] The catalogue features the contributions of an impressive group of scholars including the author and contributor whose work is presently under review.

The field of manuscript studies has, like many other areas of the scholarly inquiry, been transformed by the digital revolution. The widespread availability of digital images on the Internet, through databases like Digital Scriptorium, Liber floridus and Mandragore, along with Google Images and Wikimedia, has democratized the study of manuscripts, taking rare and arcane works of art out of the realm of the library and making them available for all to see. But the flip side of these increasingly fine digital images is that they have made it possible for librarians and conservators to withdraw the originals from view, citing their fragility and great value. Even before the electronic media made access to manuscripts relatively easy, however, the Mus ée Cond é, in Chantilly outside of Paris made headlines in 1987, by announcing that its greatest treasure, the Tr ès Riches Heures, which also features the work of the Limbourg Brothers, would no longer be available to the public or to scholars, but that "some visiting head of state might be shown it if he (sic) asked." [3] Although this policy appears to have been relaxed--Husband was able to consult the manuscript of the Tr ès Riches Heures in the preparation of this study--it is still largely off-limits to most scholars. And even though the quality of digital images has certainly improved dramatically even over the last five years, the best quality images are not always made available to scholars. The news that the Biblioth èque nationale de France now requires all of the readers in its manuscript room to consult microfilm before placing a request for the original manuscript is rendered no less distressing than the information that the BN is replacing their microfilms with easier-to-use digital versions of all of their manuscripts--versions will be made from the microfilms. In an essay in 1990, Michael Camille, in a postmodern mode evoking both Cassandra and Benjamin, offered a prescient assessment of the ramifications of such decisions and how the increasingly mediated experience of mechanical reproductions prevented direct engagement and knowledge of a work of art. [4] And that was nearly 20 years ago, before we found ourselves lecturing from Powerpoint presentations made up of digital images downloaded from the Internet that in turn had been scanned from a photograph in a book. Direct engagement with original works of art may well be a practice precariously close to extinction.

And it is in the context of the increasingly mediated experience of working with art objects that this extraordinarily beautiful and useful catalogue of the Belles Heures can be fully appreciated. Timothy Husband is Curator in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and has been working closely with the manuscript, with his own eyes and his own hands, for 35 years. And it shows. He has both an intimate and comprehensive understanding of this magnificent and exceptional prayer book and its relationship to the broader oeuvre of its painters, to the genre of books of hours more generally, to the other works commissioned by Jean de France, duc de Berry, and to the artistic context of the period. The book strives for--and achieves--an encyclopedic examination of the work, including chapters that deal with the artists, the patron, the sequence of production and the composition of the pages and their decoration. All of these subjects are sprawling and complex, and yet Husband proceeds in a consistent and balanced tone, offering concise assessments of the more controversial problems of identification and chronology. Three more discursive chapters detail the exceptional narrative cycles of the book that distinguish it from other books of hours, the sources and influences on the artists in both Italy and the North, and their artistic achievements. Several valuable charts map the structure and contents of the manuscript, the collation of the quires, and the calendar (in the original French and English); all are clear and easy to use. Additional graphics at the back of the volume (contributed by Wendy A. Stein) include a genealogy of the family of Jean de France, duc de Berry, and a timeline correlates the known documents pertaining to the Limbourg Brothers, the manuscripts illuminated by them and historical events is an ingenious and visually economical way to weave together some of the important threads considered elsewhere in the text.

In the longest and richest section of the text, Husband offers a beautifully written description and analysis of each miniature in the manuscript, along with its accompanying prayers, which are rendered both Latin and in an English translation. These meticulous micro-studies enhance viewing and understanding the images and in no way interfere with those processes; they focus narrowly on the images with only an occasional tangent to explain an unusual object or a way in which the Belles Heures differs from other devotional books. He clearly decided to sidestep the question of the individual styles of the brothers, a strategy that has (at least) two benefits: first, it puts the focus of the book on the miniatures and the manuscript, rather than on the artistic personalities. Meiss's efforts to untangle the hands of the various brothers were the most controversial and fanciful dimension of his otherwise admirable study of their work. But the second advantage of this approach is that it is also more consistent with the technical analysis of the manuscript, which discerned that although the bulk of the illuminations appear to be the work of three separate hands, there are a large number of miniatures that evince more than one hand or additional unrelated ones. Husband doesn't completely dispense with the artists--as his insightful discussion of the documents pertinent to them demonstrates--but he deals with their collective style rather than trying to sort out the work of the individuals. There's only one argument--and a minor one--with which I take issue, and it pertains to the Bible Moralis ée in Paris that precedes the Belles Heures in the Limbourgs' oeuvre. Because the patron imposed an old-fashioned format on the work, Husband suggests that the artists were "creatively hobbled." This belief comes, no doubt, from intimate knowledge of the work of the brothers, and a sense, after many years of study, that this would not have been how they would have gone about it had they had free reign. It still seems overly speculative to this reader.

This volume is magnificently illustratedwith over 350 photographs of full folios and details of the miniatures. The photographs, which are for the most part superb, enable the reader to gain an understanding of the manuscript at multiple levels--the individual miniature, the cycles, and the whole work. Only a very small number of the reproductions draw attention to themselves for their mediocre quality, and this is largely a function of the fact that they are juxtaposed in the layout of the book with images of exceptional clarity and color: almost anything ordinary would look worse by comparison.

Some of the most fascinating photographs in the volume are in the section on technical observations written by Margaret Lawson. Through photomicrography, digital infrared photographs, ultraviolet fluorescence and other technologies, details of the images are revealed that cannot be detected by the human eye. Particularly impressive are the magnified images captured in photomicrographs that show brushstrokes, cross-hatches used for modeling, and the difference in texture and paint adherence on the skin and hair sides of the parchment. The wealth of detail visible under magnification leads Husband to speculate--plausibly--elsewhere in the volume that the miniaturists themselves may have been aided by magnifying lenses.

Lawson also discusses the materials and techniques of the artists, and the conservation of the volume (flaking of the pigment was considerable), the examination of underdrawing, gilding, and decoration, as well as a chart indicating the pigments identified by means of Raman Spectroscopy. The images and their rich captions translate the technical language with impressive lucidity into layman's terms.

And as befits a catalogue for a museum exhibition (the volume was produced in conjunction with exhibitions at the Getty this winter and at the Met in September of 2009), throughout the volume Husband's approach to his rarified subject is accessible and attentive to the competing and distinct needs of both an educated public and a specialist scholarly audience. By relegating some of the more arcane and contested elements of his subject to footnotes, and by means of elegant and unpretentious writing, Husband synthesizes all of the major source materials and context into an eminently readable and comprehensive digest. Rare is the book that does this so well. Its evocation of the Middle Ages is vivid and engaging, and the brightness of the book design will go a long way to disabuse any benighted souls of the notion that the medieval period was a dark age. Its appeal to a specialist audience is broad. Not only will art historians find much satisfaction here, but also scholars of medieval history, economics, politics, of devotional practice, codicology, paleography, and countless other fields. Even readers who don't yet know that pricking and ruling are not medieval practices of torture will take delight in this book.

While I worry that the monumental achievement of this catalogue will make direct consultation of this manuscript entirely superfluous, I do understand that sensible curatorial decisions make it impossible for all of us to consult a manuscript of the caliber of the Belles Heures. The great passion Husband has for his subject and his evocative descriptions of it--his discerning analysis of the Limbourgs' conception of pictorial space, his sensitivity to the emotional and psychological character of their work, his commanding grasp of the scope and influence of their oeuvre--and Lawson's obvious pleasure from the "velvety smooth texture" of the parchment rally our interest in seeing the manuscript in person, and at the same time offer a substitute for that experience. But there can be no real substitute for the strained eyes, the aching back, the aggravations and revelations of manuscript work, the musty, musky smell of old bindings and of skin, nor for the sheer exhilaration of turning the pages on one's own. Certainly this will be more difficult to do so in the future, particularly because a fine facsimile now exists. But before I curse the facsimile, let me praise it. It was, after all, the preparation of the volume for photography for the facsimile that occasioned the removal of the binding and made possible the exhibition (in addition to the American venues noted above, Paris in 2004 and Nijmegen in 2005) of some of the unbound leaves from the manuscript. I worry, too, that these exhibitions are a farewell tour for the Belles Heures. Will it ever leave the vault again? Whether it does or not, Timothy Husband's magisterial study is and will remain indispensible.


[1] Die Belles Heures des Duc de Berry, Stuttgart: Theiss, 2004.

[2] Exhibition, Museum Het Valkhof, Nijmegen, the Netherlands, catalogue edited by Rob Dückers and Peter Roelofs. Ghent: Ludion, 2005.

[3] These were the words of Frédéric Vergne, the then-curator, as quoted by Paul Lewis, "Preservation takes Rare Manuscripts from the Public" The New York Times, Sunday 25 January 1987, Arts and Leisure Section, page 1.

[4] The "Très Riches Heures": An Illuminated Manuscript in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" Critical Inquiry, 17/1 (1990): 72-107.

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Author Biography

Camille Serchuk

Southern Connecticut State University