The Belles Heures of the Limbourg brothers: exquisite masterpiece at the Met

August 7, 2010 at 2:16 am (Art, History)

Time spent in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is magical. I got to experience that magic once again during my June visit to New York City.

The Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry was being displayed in a small lower level gallery. This magnificent work, which dates from 1405 to around 1408, is normally housed in the Cloisters, a separate branch of the museum devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. Individual pages had been detached from the binding for purposes of conservation and study; the inspired decision was taken to make them accessible to museum patrons in this dismantled form before the manuscript was reassembled.

This was a one time opportunity to get a close-up view of this masterpiece by the Limbourg Brothers. The weekend that I saw it marked the close of the exhibition.

Museum patrons were provided with magnifying glasses with which to view the amazingly intricate paintings and the elegant, delicate lettering. Each page was enclosed in plexiglass and mounted on a pedestal.

Since childhood, I’ve loved the story, as told by C.W. Ceram, of Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of King Tut. As he peered into the dimness of that ancient space, Carter was asked if he could see anything. When he was able to speak, he replied: “Yes, wonderful things.”

I felt a similar sensation as a took my spyglass and gazed into the perfection of these tiny, miraculous works of art:

To see more of the art, and to learn more about the exhibit, view the video:

Timothy B. Husband, whom you see touring the exhibit with Thomas P. Campbell, is Curator of the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. He is also the author of the book that accompanies the exhibition:

This is some magnificent tome, I can tell you. (It is beside me on the desk, at this moment.)

In the Introduction, we learn the history of the Belles Heures, and how it has come down to us. Commissioned by the wealthy connoisseur Jean de France, Duc de Berry, work on the Belles Heures was begun by the three Limbourg brothers – Herman, Paul, and Johan – around 1405 and completed some three or four years later. Jean de France died in 1416. The following year, the manuscript was purchased Yolande of Aragon, Duchess of Anjou. There exists persuasive evidence that the manuscript remained in the environs of Anjou for the next several decades. And after that:

No history of it is known from that point until May 1879 when its rediscovery, in the possession of Pierre-Gabriel Bourlier, baron d’Ailly, was announced to the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres by Leopold Delisle, then director of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

Well, gosh, that is one long dormancy period – approximately four hundred years, by my estimate. But once the Belles Heures came to light again, things moved swiftly. In 1880, the manuscript was acquired by Edmond James de Rothschild. Upon Baron de Rothschild’s death in 1934, the Belles Heures became the property of his son, Maurice. Maurice was living in Paris at the time. Shortly after the Nazis began their occupation of the city, he fled to Montreal. Before leaving, Maurice de Rothschild had hidden his priceless manuscripts in a bank vault.  In 1941, the Nazis raided the bank and seized the boxes containing the manuscripts. Ultimately these priceless objets d’art ended up in the storied Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, where much of the art looted by the Nazis was stored.

Neuschwanstein

In April 1945, the treasures were recovered by the American Seventh Army. This detachment included Second Lieutenant James J.Rorimer, a member of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives teams of the Civil Affairs Division, the curator of The Cloisters, and later Director of The Metropolitan Museum.

Here’s where matters become murky. There was a book of hours by the Limbourg brothers found in this hoard of manuscripts, but it was the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux – not the Belles Heures. There was some confusion in the identification of the various works. (Lt. Rorimer enlarges on this topic in his book, written in 1950:  Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War.)

Careful review of the material found at Neuschwanstein yielded no trace of the Belles Heures, which in all probability was never conveyed to Germany.

Meanwhile, at war’s end, Maurice de Rothschild elected not to return to Paris but to take up residence on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, in a chateau which had been owned by his great-uncle. He decided to offer some of the manuscripts for sale. First, they had to be catalogued.  Sure enough, in its  final form, this catalog contained an entry for the Belles Heures. It was back among Maurice de Rothschild’s possessions, if only briefly.

The Belles Heures and the Hours of Jean d’Evreux were first offered to the J. Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. The Morgan specialized in medieval art (and still does), but its funds were committed elsewhere, and it declined to make the purchase. The manuscripts were then offered to Harvard’s Houghton Library; they were once again declined. A private collector was then offered them, but he also responded in the negative. At last, they were offered to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they finally found a permanent home. Both the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux and the Belles Heures, purchased together in 1954 for the sum of $300,000,  are now housed at the Cloisters.

Timothy Husband concludes the introduction by observing that this is “…certainly one of the most fortuitous acquisitions of medieval art on record.”

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The Limbourg brothers were from Nijmegen, a proud and ancient city in what is now the Netherlands. A medieval festival (which looks like great fun) is held there and is named for this trio of famous citizens. There is a nicely made video on the festival’s site; it is (mostly) in English.

Alas, for these precocious geniuses: all three died in 1416, before reaching the age of thirty. The cause is presumed to be the Plague.

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Here are some pages from another great masterpeice by the Limbourg brothers, Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. The music is the Mass for St. Anthony of Padua by Guillaume Dufay.

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