An Illuminating Experience

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.

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8 responses to “An Illuminating Experience

  1. somehow I doubly needed and appreciated this post, read on the heels of the post on the shameless octuplets' breeder. if the world could be even half as lovely as the world you create with words, 'tis more blessed it would be indeed …

  2. The colors are so vivid! I don't think the modern mind can grasp the artistry of these unknown scribes, or understand the commitment of laboring in obscure devotion. Beautiful.

  3. The colour and detail are simply astonishing.In fact, in feeling, they remind me of the first time I saw Gozzoli's Procession of the Magi or Piero della Francesca's Legend of the True Cross or Signorelli Last Judgement in the San Brizio chapel or Masaccio's Branacacci Chapel cycle. They all have stonishing colour and vibrancy and detail but most of all truth.

  4. Wow! Those are incredibly vibrant pictures. And the illustrations look so modern!

  5. oooooo I am so jealous. How pretty. I have a book of pictures of this book and several other books of hours that were done in the medieval times, but the Hours of the Duc du Berry is one of the best.

  6. WBaby – thanks…if it makes sense, I escape into history. These illustrations are little windows through which you can catch glimpses of 15th century life – no matter how fanciful the subject matter. I consider these very welcome lessons in history and art.
    Doug – trying to imagine illuminators bend over their work makes my head spin. These particular artists were in their early twenties, not considered a decade of commitment now, but 600 years ago they were practically middle-aged!
    Suga' – thanks; I have a book of illuminated manuscripts from around the world and some of the finest I've seen are from India; have you ever had the chance to see them yourself?
    Bobble – this takes me back to my art history classes! I know just what you mean.
    The illustrations here are more decorative, I think, and glow from the use of oils that the Northern painters specialized in. But these compositions, and the portraits (each face is different!) reflect Italian 14th-15th c. painting – the Piero Della Francesca example especially (it's lovely!).
    Alex – These are early examples of group portraiture, investigations of expression, experimentation in perspective and in the portrayal of the human body. Oh, I wish I could go back!
    roisin – I have read that the 'Tres Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry' – begun but never finished by the Limbourg brothers – is better, and is considered the most valuable book in the world. It's kept in France – it will never go 'on tour'.

  7. I SO needed this escape, too. Amazing and beautiful. Thank you, dear Aubrey, for sharing your escape with us yet again!!!

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