Making Reality: the Calendar of the Trés riches heures

When we watch TV and see the world presented in the news or in reality shows, it is easy for us to assume that the images we are seeing are a reflection of reality. The TV screen does not give us a transparent and neutral view of the world. This is one of the major lessons of Art History. While western art has developed the techniques to illusionistically record visual experience, what is presented in works of art are constructions of reality based on the artist's conception of the world. In studying art history we come to understand the different ways humans have understood the world and their relationship to it. This can be well illustrated by considering one of the most famous works of art from the beginning of the fifteenth century: the Trés riches heures.

The Trés riches heures is a Book of Hours that was made for Jean Duc de Berry by his artists, the Limbourg Brothers. What does all of that mean? A Book of Hours was a popular type of prayer book in the later Middle Ages. Mirroring the devotions that monks would celebrate at different hours of the day, Books of Hours were made for members of the laity in their private devotions. These books which were richly decorated and were symbols of piety and status for patrons of the period. The following is a miniature in a Book of Hours made for Mary of Burgundy. The illustration shows Mary at her prayers with her Book of Hours. Notice how the Book of Hours is treated like one of the precious objects that surround her.

A late fourteenth century poem by Eustache Deschamps captures how Books of Hours were symbols of status:

An Hours of the Virgin must be mine
As it should belong to a woman
Coming from noble peerage
Which are of subtle work
Of gold and of blue, rich and elegant
Well ordered and well appointed,
Well covered with fine, gold cloth;
And when it will be open,
Two clasps of gold which will close it
That anyone who will see it
Can say and assess by it all
That one could not carry one more beautiful.

(Eustache Deschamps, Oeuvres, IX, pp. 44-46 (quoted in De Winter, Philippe le hardi, p. 328):

Heures me fault de Nostre Dame
Si comme il appartient a fame
Venue de noble paraige
Qui soient de soutil ouvraige
D'or et d'azur, riches et cointes,
Bien ordonnées et bien pointes,
De fin drap d'or tresbien couvertes;
Et quant elle seront ouvertes,
Deux fermaulx d'or qui fermeront
Qu'adonques ceuls qui les verront
Puissent par tout dire et compter
Qu'on ne puet plus belle porter)

Jean de Berry (1340-1416) was the son, brother, and uncle of three successive kings of France (Jean the Good, Charles V, and Charles VI). He held the titles of the Duke of Berry and Auvergne and the Count of Poitiers and Montpensier. He was therefore one of the most powerful people in France at the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries. He was also one of the most important patrons of art. He was regularly called John the Magnificent to refer to the splendid display of his court. It was understood that the power of a member of the nobility and his court was signified by the wealth of display. This included clothing, tableware, tapestries, jewelry, etc.

Jean de Berry was particularly interested in gathering a rich collection of manuscripts. These books are particularly noteworthy due to the costliness of their decorations. Jean de Berry commissioned the most important artists of the period to decorate his manuscripts. The most famous of these was a group of brothers known as the Limbourg Brothers. Born in the Netherlands, the Limbourg Brothers came from a family of artists. They were attracted to France to take advantage of the patronage prospects available there. While many of the manuscript illuminators or painters worked within a book industry as craftsmen, the Limbourg Brothers became members of aristocratic households, first the Duke of Burgundy and then the Duke of Berry. As court artists, the Limbourgs received an annual salary and lived a life within an aristocratic household. Two of the most famous books the Limbourgs worked on were Books of Hours made for the Duke of Berry: the Belles heures that is now in The Cloisters collection in New York City and the Trés riches heures that is now in a museum in Chantilly, France.

The Trés riches heures opens like most Books of Hours with a calendar. This is a liturgical calendar, listing the Christian feast days. It was regular to accompany the entry for each month with the corresponding symbol of the zodiac and the labor of the months. The January page from the Belles Heures shows at the top the Roman God Janus feasting as the labor of the month while the zodiac symbol Aquarius bearing the water jar appears in the bottom margin.

These small vignettes were typical of calendar illustrations. The Trés riches heures is remarkable in the way each month is introduced by a full page miniature representing the labor of the month. Here is the opening for January:

The Limbourgs paint here a New Years Day feast with Jean de Berry prominently sitting in front of a gold firescreen on the right. Next to him stands a chamberlain holding a mace with the words "aproche, aproche" over his head. The New Years feast, or étrennes, was a day of renewing political relationships between the aristocrat and members of his court. Gift exchange played a central role in the feast with the gifts serving as tokens or signs of the relationship between the lord and members of his court. The table on the left hand side of the miniature is full of the elaborate metalwork which would be a regular type of gift. This miniature is a beautiful illustration of a display culture. The expense and quality of the gift were signs of the importance of the relationship. The wealth of this image stands in stark contrast to the February page which shows the world of the peasant.

One of the striking aspects of the Limbourg Brothers' paintings is their attention to natural detail. This is one of the first representations of a snowscape in western art. As Oneonta residents, we certainly can identify with the snow-laden sky. In the lower right the Limbourgs present a cut-away view of a peasant hut. The comparison of this miniature to the January image brings out the stark contrast between the world of the aristocrat and the world of the peasant.

When we look at the comparison of these two images, it is hard for us not to read into it our own political ideology that is firmly grounded in equality: "all men [sic] are created equal." This would be a mis-reading of the comparison. Where we might want to emphasize the oppressed nature of the peasant, for a fifteenth century observer the differences between the aristocrat and peasant evident in the two miniatures was a statement of their different natures. Aristocrats and peasants are not equal in nature. Jean de Berry would understand society as being divided into three categories: those who fight (the aristocrats); those who pray (the clergy); and those who work (the peasants). This three-part division of society, which goes back to the feudal world of the earlier Middle Ages, was being radically challenged by the fifteenth century with the rise of the merchant and artisan classes. The formula of power being reflected in the amount of land one controlled was being challenged by the rise of a money economy. It is interesting to observe in the calendar of the Trés riches heures, the Limbourgs do not show merchants and artisans. This is beautifully demonstrated by the October and June miniatures which show views of Paris from the spot of Jean de Berry's city house. The October page presents us with the view looking across the Seine to the palace of the Louvre while June we look east along the Seine to the Île de la cité. The QTVR shows the view from the same spot today.


The urban world of late Medieval Paris has been transformed into a rural setting with peasants laboring in the foreground and the royal palaces of the Île-de-la-cité and the Louvre in the background. This discrepancy reminds us that we should not look at the calendar miniatures of the Trés riches heures, despite all of their natural detail, as accurate representations of the way things appeared, but rather as representations presenting how Jean de Berry wanted to see the world. We should not look at representations in art as reflections of reality but rather as constructions of reality.

Where the January and February pages bring out the class divisions between the aristocrat and the peasant, other miniatures bring out the gender divisions. It is interesting to observe the absence of women in the New Years Day feast of January while men and women share the space of the hut in the foreground of the February page. The gender divisions and social practices are especially apparent in a comparison of the April and May pages:

The April miniature shows a betrothal or engagement scene while the May page illustrates a May Day celebration with the aristocrats setting out for a day in the country. We should understand the May page in the context of Romantic or courtly love. Again we need to distinguish our attitudes and beliefs from those of fifteenth century France. We understand that romantic love leads to marriage, but for the aristocrat of the fifteenth century, romantic love and marriage were independent experiences. Marriage was an arranged contract between households. The bride was an object of exchange between her father and the groom. Romantic or courtly love was an experience separate from marriage. The woman becomes an object of idolization by the male. Valentine's Day celebrations were especially popular at the French court of the period. Remember that in the story of Tristram and Iseult, Iseult had no choice in her marriage to King Mark, and the romantic of love between Tristram and Iseult was doomed to not to be fulfilled and threatened the social and political worlds.

In studying the calendar of the Trés riches heures, we are introduced into the way Jean de Berry and the Limbourgs looked at the world. We should not see them as transparent views of the fifteenth century world, but as images that present how the world was understood from the perspectives and mentalities of the period.

(the spots with yellow markers are especially related to the Limbourgs and the Très riches heures.

Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1943.

We will be celebrating Thanksgiving soon. Thanksgiving is a feast for American culture much like the New Years Day feast represented in the January page of the Trés riches heures was a feast in French culture of the fifteenth century. When Norman Rockwell painted his famous painting entitled Freedom from Want, he was creating it for an audience who be able to read the image through the social practices and conventions of American culture much like the Limbourgs did for the world of Jean de Berry. Consider how we read meaning into all of the "realistic" details included in the Rockwell painting. Even today the Rockwell painting is a symbol for the meaning of the Thanksgiving Day feast in American culture. Think about the role feasts play in our social, political, and religious lives.



The May illustration from the Trés riches heures represents the courtiers setting out for the May Day celebration. May Day is still a popular celebration in European cultures. We would not consider it a feast but a popular celebration like Halloween or Mardi Gras are in our culture. They can be called carnivals. Consider the differences between carnivals and feasts. Notice how Halloween and Mardi Gras are celebrated on the day before important feast days, All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and Ash Wednesday respectively. The New Years Day feast of étrennes was paired with the popular celebration of what is known as the Feast of Fools. Consider the role these "carnivals" play in society. Understanding this helps to explain the contrast the Limbourgs are playing with between the April and May pages.


Other pages:

Trés riches heures seminar

The Limbourg Brothers