Before I had even stepped into the room, I heard the noises of its inhabitants. I heard pages of parchment, stretched from the skins of lambs, being turned. I heard the creaking of wheels, the straining of wooden ships. I heard oceans – the waves crackling with electricity. I heard dragons choking on their blood, and horses bruising the ground with their violent hooves. What I heard was a menagerie of medieval fact, fable, religion and myth.
What I saw in the room were the dissected pages from The Belles Heures of the Duke of Berry. Taken apart so that generations of profane grime could be carefully scraped away, they had been on display at the Getty Center for several months. I nearly fainted from delight when I had heard that the 'Beautiful Hours' were coming to the decidedly unclassical West Coast.
This is an illuminated manuscript – its margins filled with a black lace of vines that sprouted golden leaves and scarlet angels. Every page was illustrated with scenes smaller than the palm of your hand. Within the grasp of your fingers were stories of birth and death, scandal and betrayal, boastful riches and quiet poverty.
In the center of each page – like a pool, depthless and dark – were remarkable adventures. They were populated with saints whose halos shone with a bloody light or kings with robes decorated with emblems and symbols: branded with their own birthright. Each vision was so delicate, it could have come from a palette of air.
Oil painting had been in use for less than a hundred years, but already Paul, Johan and Herman Limbourg had used the mixture to create a masterpiece. Colored with earthy things – gemstones, turmeric, saffron, ivory, cinnabar and rust – the layers of tinted oil produced landscapes that glistened with life. From this geology of detail – hoofprints in the dust, silver castles lifted from the powdery dusk – a universe, pure and complete, was born.
When I finally stepped out of that room, I stared at my hands – and imagined the worlds and endless generations that could be held there.