The illuminated manuscript of Très Belles Heures is a true landmark of medieval book art and was created at the beginning of the 15th century by the most gifted artists of the time. 25 miniature pages display the unsurpassed splendour of book illumination which has made this manuscript so famous. It is no wonder that the Duke of Berry's inventory mentions it as "a most beautiful Book of Hours of Our Lady in artful letters".
Both text and picture fascinate through a most surprising, expensive decoration. Exuberant gold and colours of enormous luminosity were chosen to embellish the narrative scenes while most stunning pictures recount both religious and profane life of the Middle Ages.
Each of the miniature pages is composed of three elements. There is always one large miniature in the style of panel painting accompanied by a lavishly historiated initial and a figurative scene in the bottom margin.
This conception conveys the overall impression that the manuscript obeys the laws of a most sophisticated artistic design.
A Colossal Work with an Adventurous History
Originally, the Très Belles Heures de Notre-Dame presented one of the most exquisite compositions ever seen in the history of manuscripts. For its beauty and expensive decoration, the work has always been highly appreciated as an artefact and collector's item since the Middle Ages.
In the course of its eventful history the manuscript was split up into three parts. In 1412 the Duke of Berry donated this colossal illuminated manuscript to his treasurer Robinet d'Estampes.
He kept the Book of Hours for himself but the two other sections of the work, namely prayers dedicated to certain saints and a Missal, went to the House of Bavaria-Holland. The Missal later found its way to Milan, the Prayers ended up in Turin.
Unfortunately, the Turin Prayers have been lost forever: they burnt in 1904 when the whole library was destroyed by fire, with the exception of four leaves which are kept today in the Louvre in Paris (see page 76 of this catalogue). The Missal, today called The Turin-Milan Hours and preserved in Turin.
The original Book of Hours which Robinet had kept for himself remained as a family possession up to the 18th century. In the 19th century Alphonse, baron de Rothschild, acquired the manuscript, his heirs donated it to the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris in 1956.
A Unique Position in the History of Art
Following long years of scientific studies the author of the commentary volume made one surprising finding hitherto unknown. Obviously all painters who participated in the decoration of the manuscript were panel painters.
Each individual miniature of the manuscript is a work of art in its own right, a facet of the overwhelming richness of book illumination which not only comprised painters of the capital, Paris, but also painters from Flanders.
The co-operation between such different illuminators as the Master of the Parement de Narbonne with his monumental art, the Master of the Holy Spirit with his most vivid illustrations and finally the Master of John the Baptist with his soft tones, all add to the charm of this sumptuous manuscript.
Furthermore, two miniatures pages are ascribed to the Limbourg brothers, outstanding painters of their time. Free from the predefined composition principles of medieval book workshops, the artists were mainly fired by their own ideas and conceptions.
The unique design of borders and architecture in this for art historians important work is presumably the result of the first and the last attempt made by artists in this direction. After 1412 the famous Limbourg brothers made their own additions to this perfect manuscript by contributing the last two illustrations in their well-known unsurpassed style.