Book review: “Tres Riches Heures: Behind the Gothic Masterpiece” by Lillian Schacherl, translated by Fiona Elliott

schacherl --- tres richesIt would be difficult to think of a collection of artworks that could challenge the Tres Riches Heures in terms of sumptuous color and elegance. And all within a single binding!

Tres Riches Heures is a book of hours — a lavishly illustrated prayer book — created for John, the Duke of Berry, by the three Limbourg brothers –Paul, Herman and Jean. It was begun in 1412 but was left uncompleted in 1416, the year when the three brothers and the Duke all died. (This was an era when the plague routinely wiped out families, households and towns in the blink of an eye.)

The paintings in Tres Riches, sometimes accompanied by text and sometimes not, are called miniatures. They are small but not tiny. Each of the 206 leaves in the work measures about 8.5 inches by 12 inches — or about the same size as a piece of printer paper.

Some additional work was done on the book in the middle of the 15th century, and it was completed by 1489 by the painter Jean Colombe.

All of the leaves, no matter which artist did the main work on them, display an extraordinarily high degree of artistry and beauty — and to have them all together in a single volume is astonishing.

The subtlety of brushwork

Regarding one of the twelve months that serve as the core of the book, Lillian Schacherl writes in Tres Riches Heures: Behind the Gothic Masterpiece:

The particularly intensive green used in both of these miniatures was made in the ducal workshop from Hungarian malachite, while the blue was made from lapis lazuli from the Orient; the strong vermilion of the head-dresses and of the court jester’s coat in April was made form quicksilver and sulphur. But what would any of these colours have been without the subtlety of the brushwork — such as that on the green trees, and on the glittering lake in April?

She also notes in another place in that 1997 work “the eternally blue sky of the Tres Riches Heures,” putting her finger on one of the book’s glorious delights.

Opulent colors

I started this review with a mention of the book’s opulent colors because, while reading Schacherl’s book, I was stopped short by an image with almost no color — Christ in Gethsemane.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

Noting that this has been described as “the most beautiful night scene ever painted by a miniaturist,” Schacherl writes:

The carefully composed confusion of the figures on the ground is fitfully lit by a lantern that has fallen to the ground, two torches, and Christ’s halo, in form anticipating the three crosses of Golgotha and echoed in the three shooting stars in the sparking starry sky above — a high point in the visual poetry of these miniatures.

“Visual poetry”

Throughout her book, Schacherl displays a talent for an apt phrase or description (and maybe a bit of the credit goes as well to her translator Fiona Elliott). Characterizing the work of the Limbourgs and those who came after as “visual poetry” hits the nail on the head. This is art that is exquisite on many levels.

Similarly, Schacherl ends the book with a description of The Mass of St. Michael, a miniature in which the archangel slays a dragon in the skies over one of the Duke’s many chateaux. Her final sentence is:

The tip of the abbey spire almost touches the wings of Saint Michael just as Heaven almost touches the Earth in this book.

What an eloquent way of capturing the artistic treasures of Tres Riches Heures — “Heaven almost touches the Earth in this book.” I agree.

Facsimile and enlargements

The 206 leaves in Tres Riches are all worth studying closely, and, as complements to Schacherl, I used two works that I have long owned and enjoyed:
The Tres Riches Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry — a full-size facsimile of the work, produced in 1969 by Musee Conde in Chantilly, where Tres Riches is now held.
Les Tres Riches Heures Du Duck De Berry: Illuminated Manuscript — a 1979 work with text by Edmond Pognon as well as scores of enlargements of the leaves and details of the images.

tres riches-  musee code---combo


Still, Tres Riches is such a lavish book that one can drown in its beauties. While reading Schacherl, I found an antidote — reveling in the details.

For example, the Limbourgs infuse their angels and devils with personality.

Look at the angel leading Adam and Eve out of Paradise in The Garden of Eden. Many of the Limbourg angels sport wings and robes as luscious habiliments. In this case, though, the spirit is a rigorous yellowish red in color — a hue seemingly more befitting a devil. Yet, here, the color appears as a sort of uniform for a celestial military policeman, gently leading the sinners away.


Or consider the angels playing trumpets, harps and other instruments in the Annunciation [of the birth of Jesus] to the Shepherds. Most need to look at a heavenly scroll of music to know what notes to play! How quaint.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

And then there’s the devil in Hell who seems to be enjoying his ride on the back of a trussed-up cleric.

les-trecc80s-riches-heures-du-duc-de-berry1 --- detail

No mere backdrop

Schacherl makes clear throughout her book that Tres Riches wasn’t only the product of the artistic vision of the Limbourgs and the artists who followed them. In many ways — such as the constant depiction in the book of chateaux belonging to or having ties to the Duke — it’s clear that the patron imposed his own requirements on their work.

She writes:

These chateaux are, however, by no stretch of the imagination merely a backdrop to the activities of the peasants. Their omnipresence in the representations of the months under an eternally blue sky and the phases of the heavenly bodies lends each moment a kind of permanence, showing the year of the lord of the chateau, the Duc de Berry, as part of the eternal order of the world — this is the conclusion drawn in a study of the Tres Riches Heures which also suggests that it was not the artists who determined the view of the land they were depicting but rather that it was their client who laid this down for them.

These chateaux are imposing presences in the images for each of the twelve months. They share the scene with peasants doing their labors and aristocrats going about their leisure. They are what tie the lives of those two classes together, and, in this, they are a stand-in for the Duke.

There is something to be said for the balance and quiet rhythm of the year as displayed on these pages, and the Duke, in some way, must have been responsible for that. Of course, these images aren’t likely to show unrest and rebellious feelings. Yet, the Limbourgs are depicting a world in which they lived. They were such great artists that I can’t imagine they falsified it in significant ways.

A “charming little dragon”

Still, the Duke was their patron, and certainly they designed their book to curry his favor. And perhaps went too far at times.

Such as in The Temptation of Christ when Jesus is tempted three times by Satan. The final temptation is an offer of “all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them.”

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

And what do the Limbourgs use to show all that glory? The image of one of the Duke’s chateaux near Bourges. And it’s an image that is so dominant that Jesus and the devil are pushed up into the tippy-top of the frame. Schacherl writes:

It is almost blasphemous the way the portrait of the chateau takes possession of the picture space, while the real subject matter of the scene — unusual as it is — withdraws into the skies above and the devil transforms into a rather charming little dragon.

Yes, that “charming little dragon.” Tres Riches is a book of prayers to God — prayers in words and in images. Yet, of course, it’s also a celebration of the wealth, style and taste of the Duke.

We might suspect that the Duke wasn’t very attentive to the warnings and admonitions of the prayers in his book, or very fearful, apparently, about the devil. But great beauty is a kind of a prayer.

And this book of prayers is a book of great beauty.

Patrick T. Reardon

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