Limbourg Brothers

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Limbourg Brothers




Noble Service. Renowned for their skill as manuscript illuminators, the Limbourg brothers—Paul, Jean, and Hermann—are most famous for their illuminations in the Très Riches Heures, a lavish Book of Hours or prayer book produced for their patron, Burgundian duke and collector Jean de Berry. As young men the Limbourg brothers followed their father, a wood sculptor of some note, and uncle, a painter attached to the French and Burgundian courts, into the artistic trades. It was probably their uncle who influenced the brothers to enter the service of the duke of Burgundy in the early fifteenth century. Between 1405 and 1415 the Limbourgs advanced in the duke's service and eventually were given honorary positions as valets de chambre in de Berry's household. Their respected position in the household is clear from the various gifts (jewelry, money, and possibly even a house in Bourges) that they received from the duke. While in the duke's service, the Limbourgs engaged in several artistic projects, including the Très Riches Heures. Stylistic evidence suggests that Paul and Jean illustrated a beautiful, illuminated Bible in the duke's pos-session, and they may have painted panels and frescoes at one of de Berry's castles outside of Paris. They probably also produced many illuminated manuscripts for the duke, whose extraordinary collection of books included fourteen Bibles, sixteen psalters, and fifteen Books of Hours. Unfortunately, few of these works, with the exception of the Très Riches Heures, seem to have survived.

Art of Devotion. Books of Hours were an essential feature of the devotional lives of lay men and women in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance. Noblewomen, in particular, played a key role in the patronage of Books of Hours, which allowed them to replicate in part the spiritual experience of the cloister or convent without embracing its constraints. By the thirteenth century, Books of Hours were generally composed around a sequence of prayers to the Virgin Mary that were to be recited throughout the course of the entire day in imitation of the daily round of prayers, or Divine Office, recited by priests, monks, and nuns. Calendars, prayers, psalms, and masses for various holy days were also included. These prayers allowed laymen as well as laywomen to access divine power without the mediation of the clergy, protected them from potential physical and spiritual dangers, and sanctified their daily activities. Private and public prayers were an integral feature of courtly life and ritual and encouraged an extensive traffic in the production of Books of Hours. Between 1250 and 1550 more Books of Hours were produced, both by hand and by the printing press, than any other type of book, including the Bible. The popularity of Books of Hours meant that often they were the only kind of art the middle classes owned.

Personalized Books. Until the late fifteenth century, when the printing press made it possible to produce inexpensive imitations (in some cases in the vernacular rather than Latin) for the wealthy urban elite, Books of Hours were almost exclusively commissioned and collected by noblemen and women, who prized these illuminated manuscripts for their aesthetic as well as religious value and function. Aristocratic patrons proudly demarcated their ownership of Books of Hours in various ways. Coats of arms, initials, monograms, and personal emblems were engraved in the bindings and incorporated into illuminations. By the fourteenth century recognizable portraits of the donor became an important element in the genre. De Berry had his personal image and sumptuous residences incorporated in various places in his prayer books. In this way Books of Hours became profoundly personal emblems of aristocratic power and prestige.

Stylistic Choices. Chaplains, confessors, and priests helped plan the text and illustrations for Books of Hours, but artists and patrons had considerable freedom to tailor prayer books to reflect their own program of religious devotion and interests. The peripatetic de Berry, for example, had the Limbourgs incorporate a special prayer for a safe journey into three of his prayer books. The Belles Heures, also attributed to the Limbourgs, contained several pictorial cycles drawn from the golden legend and the story of St. Bruno, the founder of the Carthusian monastic order, which reflected the duke's own interest in monastic devotion. Many of the stylistic and thematic choices that the Limbourgs made in the execution of the Très Riches Heures also demonstrate that they were familiar with the work of Italian artists such as Simone Martini, Taddeo Gaddi, and the Lorenzetti brothers at a time when most northern artists were still primarily working from medieval models. Some figures in the Très Riches Heures reveal the artists’ interest in classical antiquity, which may have been stimulated by the duke's growing collection of medieval and contemporary copies of Roman coins and medals. The Limbourg brothers, however, are primarily known for their mastery of psychological expression and naturalistic detail, clearly revealed in their illuminations for the calendar, in which peas-ants and nobles carry out the daily and festive activities associated with rhythms of the agricultural year. Considered keen exemplars of the courtly International Style, the Limbourgs’ careers were brought short by the plague, which in 1415 killed all three siblings before they were thirty years old.


Jane Turner, ed., The Dictionary of Art (New York: Grove, 1996).

Roger S. Wieck, Painted Prayers: The Books of Hours in Medieval and Renaissance Art (New York: Braziller, 1997).

Wieck, ed., Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life (New York: Braziller, 1988).