The five miniatures in the Louvre provide an exceptional and unique link between the time of the Duc de Berry and the era of the van Eyck brothers. In fact, we only know of one single codex in which such obvious contrasts can be found side by side, presenting two great moments in the history of late Gothic art: the monumental project of the Très Belles Heures of the duke of Berry which gave new impulsions not only to book illumination but also to modern painting in general. The four leaves which the Louvre possesses is what remains of the third part of this extraordinary manuscript.
A Plot Right Out of a Novel
This third part of the Duc de Berry's monumental project has an equally interesting history. In 1720 the House of Savoy passed it on to the Library of Turin. At that time, the four leaves, today preserved in the Louvre, had already been removed from the manuscript, presumably because of their precious artful decoration.
Next to nothing is known about when they were stolen. From our contemporary point of view, this theft turned out to be a blessing, as the rest of the magnificent codex was destroyed by a fire in the Turin library; only four leaves which had been kept at the Louvre since the 19th century, survived.
Another lucky coincidence is the fact that two years before the fire, Paul Durrieu had edited the illustrated pages in black and white so that we still have an idea of the luxury and artistic quality of the miniatures today. In 1725, another leaf had been removed from the lost manuscript, but it never appeared again.
The Lost Prayer Book – A Milestone in the History of Art
The lost prayer book contained 93 leaves among which were 40 expensively decorated illustration pages. It encompassed a stunning range of unusual prayers. Some of the miniatures were simply outstanding because of the selection of topics, as they did not correspond to the lives of saints presented in usual Books of Hours.
The painters were asked to refer to contemporary events, at a time when art and reality were still completely separate domains. The miniatures display a stunning progression: within a very short time, art had undergone radical changes. And it should take another 100 years before Simon Bening brought similar expression into book illumination.
The illustrations edited by Paul Durrieu in black and white two years before the fire, have been reproduced in a brochure and added to the facsimile edition. Through these pictures, we can realise the luxury and opulence of the burned miniatures.
The Four Leaves of the Louvre
The four single leaves that are kept in the Louvre Museum under the classification number RF 2022-2025 belong to the most beautiful pages of the burnt codex, most likely the reason why they were stolen.The four leaves show five miniatures which can be considered a resume of the entire work.
Leaf RF 2022 shows a combination of two styles; the main miniature, a depiction of God the Father, was made by the Master of the Parement de Narbonne while the initial on the same page is ascribed to the van Eyck school.
Leaf 2023 encompasses two miniatures; on recto martyrs, on verso confessors, both executed by the Master of John the Baptist. Initials and ornamental borders are again attributed to the school of Jan van Eyck. Leaf RF 2024 showing Mary and John is ascribed to the Master of the Parement de Narbonne.
And finally leaf RF 2025, with depictions of God the Father, Christ of the Sorrows and the Virgin Mary, is attributed entirely to the van Eyck school. Thus these four leaves represent the development of book illumination through half a century.