Although the creation of the Brussels Hours remains somewhat elusive, there are clear indications to remind us that the book must have been made on behalf of the Duke of Berry, as the ducal arms, his emblem the bear and the initials VE from his motto, all appear in the ornamental borders of this beautifully illuminated manuscript.
Furthermore the litany, i.e. that part of the book which contains the intercessory prayers, names many saints specially venerated in Poitou and Berry, the duke's own country. Besides the litany, the Brussels Hours contain an Office of the Virgin Mary, the Penitential Psalms, Hours of the Cross and an Office for the Dead.
The reader will also be interested in some clues, possibly indicating memories of a wonderful romance. It must have been an English lady who inflamed the duke's heart, as all works the duke had made after the Brussels Hours include the blessed swan which his grand nephew René d'Anjou interpreted as a symbol of loving but painful memories.
The Mystery of its Origin
One of the highlights in the Brussels Hours is without any doubt a double page executed in demi-grisaille technique. The grisaille technique was used in book illumination since the 14th century. It became very en vogue in the Parisian manuscripts of the 14th century whereby the painters modelled their figures in different shades of grey.
The uniform grey reminds one of the material of a statue and allows to play on volume and light. While the grisaille technique was used in panel painting to refine this play on volume and light, book illumination generally applied this technique as an original artistic means of expressing new aestheticism and sensitivity, much like the demi-grisaille technique of the Brussels Hours where strong colours were added.
There is still disagreement among art historians as to the masters who executed the Brussels Hours. Before our commentary was published, the scientific debate had mentioned a number of various names. One of them is André Beauneveu, a sculptor and painter from Hennegau.
His great reputation was mainly based on works done for the French court. Beauneveu proved his artistic qualities with a series of impressing sepulchral statues executed on commission of King Charles V for St. Denis Abbey.
The same Beauneveu was responsible for the opening miniatures in the famous Psalter of the Duke of Berry. So the question as to who executed these grisaille illustrations which were obviously made before the manuscript itself, Beauneveu or another painter hitherto unknown, has not yet been fully cleared.
A Landmark in the Development of French Book Illumination
The Brussels Hours mark a turning point in the history of this book genre. What was considered in the Petites Heures as the height of aestheticism, is now completely remodelled in the Brussels Hours which are widely recognised as a true model of a Gothic book.
It includes for the first time a truly modern approach to illumination: a large miniature in a simple rectangle, without any tracery and quite independent in style. It seems as if the painter cut a window out of the vellum to cast a look outside. Painting now leaves its decorative function behind.
The Brussels Hours may be considered one of the most decisive works in this respect. It is assumed that layout and sketches were executed by the miniaturist Jacquemart from the little town of Hesdin in the North of France. The life of this painter is a matter of conjecture.
Only a few works have been ascribed to him with certainty, among which a depiction of Christ carrying the cross, which had been removed from the Grandes Heures and is now kept at the Louvre in Paris. Paradoxically, it was a painter from the North who first conveyed the new Italian style.
He had been in the services of the duke since 1384 and had also participated in the completion of the Petites Heures made for Berry. Jacquemart symbolises a turning point in Northern European painting. He transformed the miniature into a full-page, independent picture, after the Italian model.