The book of hours of the wife of Charles the IV originates from the 14th century and was the first major French work to display delicate miniatures in the so-called demi-grisaille technique. The detailed precision of the miniatures is all the more impressive when considering that this codex is one of the smallest books of hours in existence, measuring a mere 9 x 6 cm.
A Milestone in the History of Art
This most charming Book of Hours, prepared for Jeanne d'Evreux, consort of the French king Charles IV, is one of the epochal works of 14th century French art. It was made between 1325 and 1328.
The book is a most choice example of a very early Book of Hours. It is embellished with 25 miniatures which delicacy reminds us of contemporary ivory carvings and which intellectual openness is directed toward the future.
All miniatures are in demi-grisaille, a painting technique using mainly shades of grey and colouring for the figures' face and hands.
These marvellous refined illustrations are the work of Jean Pucelle. His works are the most graceful and the most innovative of their time and are clearly influenced by Italian painting.
Shortly before starting this masterpiece, Pucelle may have been on a journey to Italy. The fresh impressions of great Italian art combined with his own perfect technique in the French tradition enabled him to create this enchanting, masterly work of art.
A Manuscript of Superlatives
To describe the particularity of this manuscript we have to use a number of superlatives: One of the smallest Book of Hours in the world, with a format of only 9.0 x 6.0 cm, the miniatures of the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux required real artistic creativity in illumination.
Another important feature is the fact that all of the illumination of the book is from the master's own hand, down to the finest details. Illustrations, initials, even the finest lines and other "small traits", all executed with enormous variety and imagination, are the work of a master.
Still not enough of the superlative: The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux is the first great work of French book illumination executed in demi-grisaille.
However, all this seems of little importance beside the sensational new ideas that Pucelle integrated into his illustrations. His pictures represent the first attempt ever made North of the Alps to introduce three-dimensionality in painting, the first impression of three-dimensional space.
Innovating Book Illumination: Jean Pucelle
In spite of his trying to introduce the latest artistic developments of innovative Italy, Pucelle surprisingly remained faithful to his own artistic roots, to his clear expression and elegant design. He knew how to combine these two currents and make them culminate into something completely new thus providing a fresh impulse to the French art of the 14th century.
This illuminator enjoyed great reputation even beyond his own lifetime as Queen Jeanne mentions him in her testament of 1371, more than 40 years after his death, although countless other book illuminators entertained flourishing workshops. This is strong proof of the quality of his art.
The Drolleries – Innumerable Fantastic Creatures
Another characteristic feature of this manuscript are the countless drolleries which are to be found on almost every page. One finds the most incredible creatures, such as lion-reptiles and snake-like goats or dragons with monks heads, but also diverse human beings from different social groups, such as peasants, shepherds, knights or acrobats.
The margins surrounding the text are densely populated with groups of figures playing burlesque scenes or harlequinades.
Life in all its fantastic variations appears in the Book of Hours. Wherever there is not enough text to complete a line, the blank spaces are immediately filled with fantastic creatures who bring the black lines to the very end.
This masterpiece of the 14th century belongs to those medieval works of art in which the sacred and the profane, the serious and the comical are allowed to stand side by side.