A Little Fine Art for Today?

Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry is one of the finest and most valuable illustrated manuscripts on the planet. By virtue of the World Wide Web, we have immediate access to almost one-third of its contents. This extraordinary state of affairs comes about because of an exhibit at the Christus Rex site.

The "Tres Riches Heures" is basically an extravagant prayer book, containing more than 400 vellum "pages" of Gospel stories, psalms, other prayers. Three German brothers conceived and executed most of it in the years 1413 to 1416 for their patron, the Duc de Berry.

The book begins with its most famous component, the highly illustrated Church calendar. On the left of the open book is a list of the feastdays for a given month, and on the right an elaborate illustration of human activities appropriate to that month. The table of feastdays for January, for example, comes opposite a picture of the Duc de Berry's traditional New Year's feast. Similarly, the illustration for March shows peasants trimming vines and plowing fields, while July's page focuses on sheep-shearing and reaping the harvest.

In the almost 400 sides which follow the calendar, three different kinds of pages may be distinguished. Even the first type, simple "text" pages, can have elaborate margin decorations, as shown by a page of prayers for All Saints Day, November 1st.

The still more elaborate second type combines text, decorated capital letters and miniature paintings, as in this portion of Psalm 126. Finally, the third type is comprised of additional full-page illustrations, such as the particularly fine Raising of Lazarus.

This site is reasonably well, if imperfectly, organized. At the outset are three fairly detailed background essays, one each on the Duc de Berry, the three Limbourg brothers and their work, and the completion of the manuscript by Jean Colombe an artist hired some seventy years after the Limbourgs' deaths to finish the work they had left incomplete.

January 17, 2001