Discover the Medieval Illuminated Manuscript Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, “the World’s Most Beautiful Calendar” (1416)

We don’t hear the phrase “very rich hours” as much as we used to, back when it was occa­sion­al­ly employed in the head­lines of mag­a­zine arti­cles or the titles of nov­els. Today, it’s much to be doubt­ed whether even one in a hun­dred thou­sand of us could begin to iden­ti­fy its ref­er­ent — or at least it was much to be doubt­ed until an elab­o­rate New York Times online fea­ture appeared just last week. Writ­ten by art crit­ic Jason Fara­go, “Search­ing for Lost Time in the World’s Most Beau­ti­ful Cal­en­dar” takes a close look at the Très Rich­es Heures du Duc de Berry, a late-medieval illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script cre­at­ed (between 1412 and 1416) for the bib­lio­philic John, Duke of Berry by a trio of Flem­ish artists known as the Lim­bourg broth­ers.

The word “hours” in the title refers not to units of time, exact­ly, but to the prayers that believ­ers must speak at cer­tain hours: this is a book of hours, a huge­ly pop­u­lar form of man­u­script in the Mid­dle Ages. But com­pared to most sur­viv­ing books of hours, Très Rich­es Heures du Duc de Berry is, well, very rich indeed.

Fara­go calls it “the finest sur­viv­ing man­u­script of the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry, a mon­u­ment of Inter­na­tion­al Goth­ic book arts. Real­ly, the thing is just stu­pe­fy­ing. Its pic­tures com­bine astound­ing detail with exu­ber­ant, some­times irra­tional spa­tial orga­ni­za­tion.” But “like every book of hours, it opens with a cal­en­dar. And here, on its first 12 spreads — with one full-page illus­tra­tion per month — the Lim­bourgs did their most painstak­ing work.”

Here we have just five of the images from the cal­en­dar at the head of the Très Rich­es Heures. You can see the rest at the site of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, which offers its “inti­mate North­ern vision of nature with Ital­ianate modes of fig­ur­al artic­u­la­tion” in down­load­able dig­i­tal form. These detailed images con­sti­tute a win­dow into not just medieval life (or at least an ide­al­ized ver­sion there­of), but also the medieval rela­tion­ship to time. “Time appears to be a cycle,” writes Fara­go. “It repeats year after year.” And “months rather than years were the meat of these cycles. Sea­sons. Har­vests. Feasts. Con­stel­la­tions.” All this “could be per­ceived with the sens­es. In snow­fall, in star signs. In the bright col­ors you wore in May, in the furs you wore in Decem­ber.”

On top of this pal­pa­bly cycli­cal expe­ri­ence of time, monothe­is­tic reli­gions intro­duced the notion that “time pro­gressed onward,” and indeed “offered a one-way tick­et to the end of days.” Coex­ist­ing in the medieval mind, these two con­trast­ing modes of per­cep­tion gave rise to the sort of cal­en­dars cre­at­ed and used in that era. No fin­er exam­ple exists than the Très Rich­es Heures, cre­at­ed as it was not long — at least in his­tor­i­cal time — before the approach of moder­ni­ty, with its ever more fine­ly divid­ed and rig­or­ous­ly cal­i­brat­ed chrono­met­ric regimes. Our hours are much more clear­ly demar­cat­ed than the Duke of Berry’s; whether they’re rich­er is anoth­er ques­tion entire­ly.

Vis­it the New York Times’ fea­ture on the beau­ti­ful medieval man­u­script here. If you’re inter­est­ed in delv­ing deep­er, also see the free book (cour­tesy of the Met Muse­um) The Art of Illu­mi­na­tion: The Lim­bourg Broth­ers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry.

Relat­ed con­tent:

800 Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Are Now Online: Browse & Down­load Them Cour­tesy of the British Library and Bib­lio­thèque Nationale de France

The Medieval Mas­ter­piece the Book of Kells Has Been Dig­i­tized and Put Online

Dis­cov­er the Sara­je­vo Hag­gadah, the Medieval Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­script That Sur­vived the Inqui­si­tion, Holo­caust & Yugoslav Wars

How Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beau­ti­ful, Cen­turies-Old Craft

Behold the Codex Gigas (aka “Devil’s Bible”), the Largest Medieval Man­u­script in the World

Why Butt Trum­pets & Oth­er Bizarre Images Appeared in Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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