The Limbourg Brothers

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The Limbourg brothers

The Limbourg brothers (active ca. 1399-1416) were Netherlandish illuminators in the service of the French Duke of Berry. They are the most famous of all medieval miniature painters and among the foremost exponents of the International Gothic style.

Though commonly referred to as the Limbourg brothers, the correct surname of this trio of Netherlandish artists is Maelwael (probably a nickname meaning "paint well"), and their given names are Pol, Herman, and Jehanequin. Pol is assumed to be the oldest and the leading master of the group, though their painting styles are inseparable. They began their career, prior to 1399, as apprentices to a goldsmith in Paris, which may account for the delicacy and ornateness of their precise manner of painting. In 1402 the younger brothers entered the service of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Philip died 2 years later, and nothing is known of the three brothers until 1410, when they were established at the court of Jean de France, Duke of Berry. There they enjoyed such favor that they could play a practical joke on him: in 1411 they gave him a New Year's present of a counterfeit illuminated manuscript made of a painted piece of wood.

The Limbourgs were well acquainted with the major currents in contemporary art, which they synthesized without losing their originality. They shared with their predecessor at the Duke of Berry's court, Jacquemart de Hesdin, an enthusiasm for Italian art, and their works reveal many borrowings from Florentine, Sienese, and northern Italian painting.

Probably the earliest work attributable to the Limbourgs is the Moralized Bible, commissioned by Philip the Bold; only the first 24 folios were illustrated by the brothers. These illuminations, which were completed sometime before 1410, are sketchy and not fully painted, with delicate washes of color applied to figures viewed through framing arches. The famous frontispiece depicting St. Jerome in his study is a detailed pen-and-ink drawing of great beauty, particularly in the enframing Gothic architecture with its myriad of simulated sculptures. A boxlike room with the front wall removed, an Italianate device, reveals the consuming interest in perspective—still poorly achieved— that was a leading feature of the painting of the International Gothic style about 1400.

Books of Hours

The atelier of Jacquemart de Hesdin had produced four sumptuous manuscripts, all Books of Hours, for the Duke of Berry, and the Limbourg brothers produced two more, the Belles Heures du duc de Berry (also known as the Heures d'Ailly) and the Très riches Heures du duc de Berry. The Book of Hours was the most important religious book in the hands of the laity. In it normally was to be found a church calendar, prayers from the offices, or hours, of the Virgin (from matins to complines), psalms, and other prayers. The book could be plain and unillustrated or a luxury object, ostentatiously and very expensively illustrated, as are these commissions of the Duke of Berry.

The Belles Heures (9 by 6 inches in size), completed about 1410, has a full complement of superb miniatures on vellum whose fresh and brilliant colors have not changed with time. The full-page "Annunciation" (the picture for matins) is especially splendid. It is marked by many Italian borrowings, including rich acanthus rinceaux for the borders instead of northern ivy leaf tendrils.

Très riches Heures

The Très riches Heures, by far the most famous illuminated manuscript ever made, was begun in 1413, left unfinished in 1416 at the death of the Duke of Berry and of the Limbourg brothers, and completed about 1485 for a subsequent owner. The justly famous calendar received for the first time elaborate, full-page illustrations: the 12 large scenes are all landscapes, except for the January picture, which shows the duke banqueting in a tapestried hall (instead of the customary medieval representation of King Janus at table). The remaining occupations of each month make a sharp distinction between the nobles and the poor, with the farmers doing all the work and the elegantly attired courtiers doing the hunting and lovemaking.

In February, for example, the peasants perform their chores in a snowy landscape, the first snow landscape in all painting. In March a farmer plows his field before the duke's castle of Lusignan; this is one of the calendar's nine remarkable "architectural portraits," mostly of the duke's many châteaux. In this picture the figures cast pronounced shadows, the first such touch of realism in art since Hellenistic times. The activity in April is that of courtiers joyfully partaking of the pleasures of a spring landscape. The picture for June shows haymaking outside the wall of Paris, with the Seine and the Ste-Chapelle; and the months continue, each concept a novel one. Many other large illustrations, for example, a "Zodiac Man" as frontispiece, "The Fall of Man in Paradise," and "Hell," are included in this oversize Book of Hours, and there are many pages of beautiful floral decoration.

Three stylistic elements are blended in this chief monument of the International Gothic style. First is Italian idealization, plus individual motifs which reveal the brothers' knowledge of specific Italian works of art. Second is the tendency toward a mannered elegance of form, with an emphasis on calligraphic lines and excessive refinement of proportions and dress of the figures. And third is the new element of naturalistic observation.

The work of the Limbourg brothers ended the period of Italian influence and dependence in painting north of the Alps. Not for almost a century did Italian ideas again have the strength to dominate the northern spirit.

Further Reading

The Limbourg brothers are discussed in Millard Meiss, French Paintingin the Time of Jean de Berry: The Limbourg Brothers (in press), and in the facsimile edition of The Très Riches Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry (1969), with a preface by Millard Meiss. D. Diringer, The Illuminated Book: Its History and Production (1958; rev. ed. 1967), is recommended for general background. □