Les Très Riches Heures

Book of Hours tiles

Know your medieval castles! From left: The Louvre, Chauteau de Saumur, The Palace and Saint-Chapelle, Chaeau de Poitiers, Chateau de Dourdan, Chateau de Lusignan


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Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry

History of the Book of Hours

Created in 1412 by the three Limbourg Brothers for the Duc de Berry, the Très Riches Heures is the most famous of the Duc's six important Books of Hours. The Limbourg Brothers having died before its completion, final work was done by Jean Colombe between 1485 and 1489, and possibly by an unknown intermediate painter in the interim years. The Book was then lost for more than 350 years and rediscovered by Henri d'Orlean and an Italian library, both living in England, who located the Très Riches Heures in a girls' boarding school in Genoa and purchased it. The Très Riches Heures consists of idyllic pastoral and daily life scenes for each month of the year, at a time when daily life, even for the rich and well-to-do was anything but idyllic. Against a historic backdrop that includes the Hundred Year War and the Black Plague, Books of Hours were popular on many counts.

The Duc de Berry was its patron, thus this Book of Hours bears the Duc's name as part of the title. A patron in the late middle ages was more than a funding source. This Book of Hours was personalized: His likeness appears throughout the book (much like a medieval Where's Waldo?), as do his coat of arms and the symbolic animals (the wounded swan and the bear). The chateaux are either his, or those of close friends and relatives, and the people would have been known to him. There's some thought that the Limbourg Brothers appear in the January calendar page. (See discussion of the months.) Shown: the Duc's coat of arms, with his symbolic animals, a wounded swan and a bear.

Although every Book of Hours is unique, certain sections are common. At the core is the breviary, a set of prayers that are recited or chanted during the eight monastic hours. A calendar prefaces each Book of Hours, listing the important feast days. Books of Hours were popular for more than 300 years and were often given as dowry gifts to wealthy women who recorded births and marriages and passed them down, much as a family Bible in more recent times. There are usually specially prayers to the Virgin Mary, penitential psalms, a litany to saints and an Office for the Dead.

About the Players

Duc de Berry: One of the more well-known patrons of the arts of the period, the Duc de Berry was the third son of the King of France. He owned vast properties and had no fewer than 17 chateaux and at least two Paris residences, homes among which he traveled with a full entourage, including resident artists for his amusement and self-glorification.

Shown: Are we not judged by the company we keep? Here the Duc de Berry is depicted with John the Baptist and the Apostle Andrew.

Like many of his peers, the Duc loved and collected books, beautifully illuminated books with gilt edges. But his riches couldn't shield him from the culture in which he lived and his life definitely had its low points. He and 40 other members of French nobility were held hostage by the English, as an assurance that the financial agreements that had secured the King's freedom would be kept. He was without his freedom for 6 years. Fifty thousand people, half of the population of Paris, had died in the first two years that the plague arrived in France from Central Asia via North America. And it kept coming back. At the time he commissioned the Très Riches Heures in 1410, six years before his death at age 76, the Duc had lost two wives, and had recently lost his remaining children and grandchildren to the Black Death. Perhaps we can forgive him for wanting this Book of Hours to show the world the way he wished it were.

Limbourg Brothers: The brothers came from Nimwegen in Flanders. Born in the late 1370s or 1380s into an artistic family, by 1408 they had entered the service of a wealthy patrons of the arts, Jean, Duc de Berry. The Limbourg Brothers preferred to live in Paris when they were not working in the service of a patron.

Before working for the Duc, the brothers worked for his brother, Philip the Bold, until his death in 1404. Paul was probably the master in charge in the workshop, and was clearly the Duc's favorite. So much so that the Duc abducted the nine-year-old daughter of a local burgher to be Paul's wife, and a year later made him the gift of a fine home in Bourges. The brothers probably divided their work by specialty, one working on the heavens, then passing it off to another for the scene, and then to another for the illuminations.

But they may have as likely traded off by section. The 12 months comprise one section of the Tres Riches Heures manuscript. Painted between between 1412 and 1416 by the Limbourg brothers, it was completed after their death by Jean Colombe and the mysterious "Intermediate Illustrator." Several other works are attributed to them, but appear to have been lost. The three Limbourg brothers died of a sudden illness before the age of thirty in February 1416. Their brilliant colors were obtained from minerals, plants or chemicals and mixed with either arabic or tragacinth gum to bind them; vert de flambé, a green made from crushed flowers mixed with massicot, and azur d'outrême, an ultramarine blue made from crushed lapis-lazuli.

Jean Colombe: In 1485, Jean Colombe began to finish the Limbourg Brothers work, completing it more than years later. The lower half of the month of November and the images of Hell later in the Très Riches Heures show his style.

The Mysterious Intermediate Illustrator: There may or may not have been an unknown intermediate illustrator who worked on the Très Riches Heures between the time of the Limbourg Brothers' deaths and Jean de Colombe. The months of March, June, July, September, October and December show a style of dress some 25 years later than the Limbourg Brothers, and a different level of skill than that of either Colombe or the Limbourg Brothers.

Some Notes on the Months

The Months of the Year really comprise only the calendar section of the Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry. Many scholarly books have been written about the Très Riches Heures but I'll mention some things that I notice.

Interesting things to notice in the winter months:

The brothers included themselves as shown in this detail for the month of January

That's the Duc with the halo rising behind him in January. Also the Limbourg Brothers and if so, one of their wives eating a fish with her hands. Forks didn't make their appearance for another hundred years so this was expected, even at a New Year's Party. The New Year's party has gifts, much like the Feast of the Epiphany in Romance countries to this day. Also, dogs were not usually allowed at formal parties, but the Duc's dog was somewhat spoiled and seemed to share in the bounty.

Risque medieval winter with magpies.

In February, you'll see shadows (perspective was cutting edge at the time), and a destitute person over at the right, one of the few sad looking figures in the book of hours. Also in February, the farmer's family warming themselves and their genitalia by the fire. I can't help wondering about that, although I don't know when underwear first appeared in Europe. Are we meant to snicker at the peasants? The nobility don't seem to have corresponding wardrobe issues.

Detail from the month of March showing a dragon flying near a turret.

March features of one the Duc's many chateaux, more shadows, a dragon, and yes, another dog. The dragon is part of local legend: Mélusine was the daughter of a sea-fairy and turned into a fishwife every Saturday. As long as her husband kept his promise to avoid her on Saturdays, she brought honor and power to him and their sons. When he became jealous and broke his promise, misfortune befell them all and Melusine fled in the shape of a dragon.

Interesting things to notice in the spring months:

Detail from the month of April, showing a betrothal

As you might expect, there's love in the air in Spring, a betrothal in April and a pre-nuptual part in May. In April, the bride-to-be receives her proposal in the presence of her parents, a very formal looking affair. There's an S-curve of female bodies throughout these pictures, but the father looks so sad, and the mother so full of memories, and what with that S-curve, I wonder if this is a formalized shotgun wedding. The bride is a bit rounder in girth that the sad lady wearing pink. Spring green (vert gai) was the color to wear for May events such as this one. Green stood for new love and no one's wearing much of it. The groom seems to looking intently at someone, but the bride-to-be's eyes are demurely closed. Could he have eyes for the sad Miss Pinky?

You also see a lot of blue, the color of eternal fidelity. Again, dogs are invited. That pastoral view in June, is the view from the Duc's own hotel in Paris, with the Seine on the left and Notre Dame in the background. The Palais de la Cité, also shown, was the residence of the King of France.

Interesting things to notice in the summer months:

Swans and swimmers in this detail for the month of August. Swans are the Duc de Berry's totem animal

We've moved out of Paris and into the country and blue sky. Here are swans, one of the Duc's totem animals, and swimmers. You will also see that the shearers in the foreground are dressed differently, and not very appropriately for the weather: it's believed that they were added later. In August, we see courtiers and peasants in the same picture, but they are far away from each other, as were their worlds. August also shows us medieval skinny dipping, hunting falcons (no hoods) in the hand, and yes, dogs. It's near end of summer and the people seem a little antsy.

September detail showing vineyards next to the tournament track and harvest in progress. Underwear was not necessary in the late summer heat.

September's empty tournament track, right next to the vinyards where the harvest is occurring, reminds us that the plague, the Hundred Years War, and the political climate had distracted the knight class. We find more missing underwear, and bit of snacking in situ during the harvest. September has generated a lot of discussion about which parts were painted by the Limbourg Brothers, if any, and which by Jean Columbe and the "intermediate illustrator" (see Players section below). There is ample opportunity for shadows here, but I don't see many. And that figure off the right seems badly out of scale beside his beasts of burden and the entire wagon seems superimposed on the scene. All of this can be forgiven because the castle is just so magical. I don't know what to make of the columns near the tournament track either. So many things seems not the right size here or badly placed as if staging a summer nativity scene.

Interesting things to notice in the autumn months:

The month of October presents magpies eating the seed that a peasant is scattering as washerwomen beat laundry by the Seine in the background. The beautiful shadows are back, even for the archer in the midground, the boats on the Seine where the shadows are cast from the reflection on the white walls, and the nobility on the promenade near the chateau walls. The sky is darker as the days begin to grow shorter, and this makes the chateau seem even more other-worldly compared to the futile life of the peasants. And there is a dog being walked, near the chateau wall. It has more the shape of a sighthound and it is walking slightly ahead of a nobly dressed man.

In November, the peasant appears to be scattering seeds and several swine or boar are standing before him rooting about. Truffles? Is he singing? Perhaps it was late to be scattering seeds. This would not have been lost on the Duc: Matthew 7:6 in Jesus's Sermon on the Mount says: "Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces." The Duc's clerics had made their point in Latin.

Although the years begins with January (we're on the Julian calendar in 1412), November and December are preparatory months for the Duc's January table. One can't help but smile at November, which hints at a woman hiding in the tree while a huntsman swears eternal love to smiling swine. Another working dog looks on. November's style is definitely Jean Colombe. December is given over to the dogs, who have downed a boar. The dogs attack the so viciously, it's difficult to believe we're going to see this boar in January on the Duc's table.

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The Anatomical Man

Despite repeated imperial bans, there was a resurgence of interest in astrology in the late middle ages, and this is reflected throughout the Très Riches Heures.

A singularly unique aspect of the Très Riches Heures is the Anatomical Man at the end of the calendar section. It may not have been included intentionally, as the codex was bound several hundred years after its completion. The Anatomical Man was painted especially for the Duc, then more than 70, and carries his coat of arms.

Pricing for Anatomical Man

8 x 11 tile: $105 (white background only)

The Anatomical Man is not availably singly, but can be combined with other tiles to meet minimum order requirements

Labors of the Months Tiles

Tres Riches Heures backsplash tiles

Tres Riches Heures undercabinet tiles, January and February. Two months per tile.

The Très Riches Heures tiles are available in three formats:

  • Limited Edition Murals, suitable for a large backsplash, wall installation, or framed murals

  • Undercabinet Backsplash or Border tiles, six tiles, 10 inches wide by 8 inches tall. 12 x 8 inch tiles are sometimes available.

  • Single month tiles, 8 inches wide by 10 inches tall. Cobalt only.

Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry, Labors of the Months tiles

Undercabinet Backsplash or Border Tiles

The Undercabinet backsplash is comprised of a series of 10 x 8 inch tiles with two months per tile. Background colors can be changed.

Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry, Labors of the Months undercabinet backsplash border, single tile

Pricing for border/backsplash tiles

Each tile (2 months per tile): $188 per panel (light background), $200 per panel (dark background)

See an example undercabinet backsplash.


Individual Months

Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry, Labors of the Months, July on cobalt background

Labors for the individual month are available on 8 x 10 inch tiles on cobalt background only.

Pricing for single months

Each tile: $135 (first tile), $110 (additional tiles)


Limited Edition Book of Hours Murals

World Food Prize Foundation, Book of Hours installation

The Books of Hours murals were done at the request of Ambassador Quinn for the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photos from the installation graciously provided by Jan Douglas of the World Food Prize Foundation).

The limited edition Book of Hour murals are 12.75 inches wide and 21.25 high on fifteen (15) 4.25 inch tiles. The background color is deep cobalt and cannot be changed.

Pricing: $1140 per mural

*The World Food Prize celebrates 25 years as the foremost international award recognizing -- without regard to race, religion, nationality, or political beliefs -- the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world. The World Food Prize has built its programming over the years and has become known internationally as "the premier conference in the world on global agriculture."


Description of the Months

The winter months of the Très Riches Heures

January: The Duc de Berry at Table

Pol de Limbourg has drawn the prince's portrait. A chamberlain, who may be recognized by his staff and chain, is telling a hesitant man to advance. An object of the goldsmith's art, placed on the right, is in the form of a ship: It is the Salt-Cellar of the Pavilion, which was an item in the Duc de Berry's collection and was listed on the inventory of his estate after his passing. At the left stands a sideboard bears with more pieces in gold. Two puppies are walking along the table among the viands, and in the background, a tapestry, its colors still bright, represents a battle among the scenes which have explanatory inscriptions.

February: The Village Under the Snow

Here are scenes of rural life, with a farm and its implements as setting. In the background is a village with its steeple, and it is worth noting that the laws of perspective are closely observed, and this at a period when painters were not always successful at doing so.

The brutal truth of rustic life in wintertime is evoked by the peasant leading a donkey along the road to the village, another felling a tree, and a third who seems to be shivering as he returns to the farm where the farmer and two servants are warming themelves by a fire. We see winter life in the rows of beehives, the faggots on the ground, the upended casts and the birds looking for grain in the farmyard.

March: The Chateau de Lusignan

Peasants are trimming the vines and tilling the soil. The details of the chateau's construction are accurate, each tower and portal may be identified. Over the Poitou tower is a winged dragon, the fairy Mélusine, who is "coming back through the air to her husband, Ramondin." This chateau was the birthplace of the Plantagenets and La Rouchefoucaulds, and it was one of the Duc de Berry's favorite residences.

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The spring months of the Très Riches Heures

April: The Chateau de Dourdan

A fair portion of the Duc de Berry's estate was kept in this chateau. On the lake, two fishing boats are trailing a net, and in the garden, the fruit trees, trimmed and bound, are beginning to bloom.

April, the honor of the woods
And of the months
The sweet expectation....

Girls gather spring flowers in the meadow, and lovers are exchanging the ring which plights their troth.

May: The Town of Riom

Riom was the capital at the old Duchy of Auvergne and one of the fiefs of the Duc de Berry. The First of May was a great festival day for the Court of France. With musicians at their hand, the young people have formed a cavalcade and are rambling over the countryside. They are crowned with clusters of leaves. Three of the horsewomen are clas in the "livery of May" made of that vert gai cloth which Charles VI liked to give his intimates at Springtide. Leading the procession is an elegrant horseman, possibly a prince of the blood, wearing the colors of the King of France at this period, half red and half black and white.

June: The Palace and Saint-Chapelle

These two Parisian landmarks are represented as the Duc de Berry saw them from the windows of his Hotel de Nesles, situation on the Left Bank of the Seine. The towers of the Conciergerie, the Clock Tower, and the two gables of the great hall at the Palace are easily recognized. Between the building and the wall of the crenelated enclosure, clusters of flower and foliage are to be seen. At the left, a curious postern opens onto the Seine, and in the foreground, the hay is being cut.

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The summer months of the Très Riches Heures

July: The Chaeau de Poitiers

Built at the end of the twelfth century and reconstructed by the Duc de Berry, this chateau is enclosed in a triangle between the waterways, the Clain and the Boivre. The elegant gables on the inner courtyard may be seen, and the layout of the wooden drawbridge provides curious information on the way the military engineers handled this instrument of defense. The harvesters, armed with sickles, are reaping the wheat, while the sheperds are engage in shearing the sheep.

August: The Chateau D'Etamps

In the Duc de Berry's time, as today, this chateau's keep rose in a four-leafed shape over the surrounding countryside. Some peasants are harvesting, others are bathing. Gentlemen and ladies are setting out for the hawking. The falconer, who is on foot, has a decoy hanging from his belt and carries two birds in his hand.

September: The Chateau de Saumur

The present-day Chateau de Saumer shows that the complete edifice is represented here with scrupulous accuracy, and gives us confidence in the Limbourgs' paintings of other monuments which have disappeared since their time. Towers are surmounted by fleurs de lys, which are to be seen in the embrasures (small openings) of the battlement and beneath the weathervanes bearing the Duc's Coat of Arms. At the left, an enormous pyramidal chimney indicates the position of the kitchens.

Vintagers are gathering the grapes from which the celebrated wine of Saumar is made. September was composed and drafted by the Limbourgs, but the coloring of the foreground is by Jean Colombe.

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The autumn months of the Très Riches Heures

October: The Louvre

No other pictoral representation gives such an accurate and complete idea of this place constructed by Charles V. Between the outer walls and the Seine, strollers promenade along the embankment. Steps lead down to the river banks where the boats are moored. In the foreground, men are sowing the fields. Wire on which bits of cloth flutter are strung on poles to frighten off the birds, and a scarecrow simulates an archer drawing his boy.

November: Gathering the Acorns

In this picture, the shepherd is about to throw a stick into the branches of an oak to bring down the acorns. The miniature, with the exception of the small triangular tympanum, is the work of Jean Colombe.

The coloration in this picture is not as bright as those of the Limbourgs and the drawing is perhaps less pure, but true to the season and is full of life. All the figures are in action, even the dog who is attentively watching the swine as they gorge themselves on the fallen acorns.

December: The Cheau de Vincennes

It was in this chateau, with the square towers of its keep, that the Duc de Berry was born. This scene of the killing of the who has been tracked down by the hounds takes place in a clearing bordered by bare trees and clumps of dead leaves still clinging to the branches. A whipper-in is pulling back one of the dogs by its ears, and the presence of a master of the hunt is sufficient to identify the breed of the pack.

Source: Verve, the French Review of Art, No 7, Vol 2, April-July 1940. Text by Henri Malo. Small bits of quoted French were translated by me.


- Lillian Schaehert, Très Riches Heures, Behind the Gothic Masterpieces
- Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages

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