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Tiny pages, grand scale

A collection of illuminated manuscripts by three gifted young brothers represents a high point in late-medieval painting.

November 16, 2008|Suzanne Muchnic | Muchnic is a Times staff writer.

NEW YORK — It takes piles of money and power to commission projects destined to become pinnacles of art history. Sometimes it also takes a bit of royal boredom.

Just listen to Timothy B. Husband, curator of the Cloisters Collection of medieval art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He's providing some background on "The Belles Heures of the Duke of Berry," an exhibition opening Tuesday at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

"Jean de France, duc de Berry, was son, brother and uncle of successive kings of France. As prince of the realm, he was in a position to commission almost anything he wanted," Husband says of an extravagantly ambitious art patron who lived from 1340 to 1416. "He began by collecting palaces and chateaux, building chapels and that sort of thing. After he had gone through about 17 of those, he moved on to other works of art."

As ruler of Auvergne and Berry, a historical area in central France, the duke controlled a huge portion of the country during the middle period of the Hundred Years' War. With exacting tastes, he hired the finest artists and made sure they had the best materials to create tapestries, sculptures and gemstone-studded gold objects that Husband calls "lavish displays of excessive consumption." But he is probably better known for the passion that seized him at about 40 years of age: luxury manuscripts -- particularly illuminated personal prayer books known as Books of Hours.

The bestsellers of the Middle Ages, Books of Hours were popular because they allowed believers to establish an immediate relationship with God without intercession of the clergy. Another attraction was that the books could be customized to suit the tastes and pocketbooks of their owners.

The duke was perpetually in debt, but that didn't prevent him from funding two of the most celebrated Books of Hours made in the late medieval period. One of them, the "Tres Riches Heures," is hidden away in the Musee Conde at the Chateau of Chantilly, northeast of Paris, where hardly anyone can see it. The other manuscript, the "Belles Heures," landed in the Met's collection in 1954.

Thanks to the recent publication of a facsimile edition of the "Belles Heures" and related conservation work, which required disassembling the sumptuously illustrated volume, 180 pages -- measuring 9 3/8 by 6 11/16 inches and containing 82 of the 172 miniatures -- are traveling to Los Angeles. A related exhibition will appear at the New York museum next fall. For the first time, the public will come as close as possible to turning the pages of an astonishing compendium of paintings by three young Franco-Netherlandish brothers, Paul, Herman and Jean de Limbourg.

Designed to wow

Like all bound manuscripts, the "Belles Heures" is usually displayed as an open book with two pages visible at any one time. At the Getty, the show will occupy a pair of manuscript galleries. Nine folios -- large sheets folded into two leaves, or four pages, with illuminations on both sides -- will be displayed on pedestals so that visitors can see how the manuscript was constructed. The rest of the leaves will be framed and hung on walls.

Jeffrey Hamburger, an authority on medieval devotional art who teaches art history at Harvard University, calls the exhibitions a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "We live in an age of virtual reproductions, facsimiles, simulacra of all kinds. . . . but they are no substitute for the original," he says. "To be able to see one of the great masterpieces of late-medieval manuscript art unbound is extraordinary." The illuminations, he says, are "exquisite, elegant, elaborate, virtuosic. Each page is designed to knock your socks off. This is a prayer book, but it's also a miniature museum, usually bound between two covers."

Husband puts it this way in a book accompanying the exhibitions: "Here, within one volume, are more brilliantly preserved paintings from the first decade of the 15th century created north of the Alps than can be found collectively on the walls of all the major museums in Europe and North America. And they are paintings not by ordinary artists, but by the most prodigiously gifted of their time."

In the "Belles Heures," the brothers worked in ink, tempera and gold leaf on sheets of animal skin, painting scenes of tenderness and violence in meticulous detail. A miniature called "The Procession of the Flagellants" looks almost modern in its orderly depiction of men in white robes, hooded or stripped to the waist, engaged in a bloody ceremony intended to solicit saintly protection. In sharp contrast, "Saint Nicholas Saves Travelers at Sea" portrays a boatload of desperate men roiling in a tempest of waves.

"Saint George and the Dragon" is a heroic rendition of a popular theme, with the beast, already impaled by a broken lance, awaiting death by the saint's sword. In "Descent From the Cross," a naturalistic Christ slumps into the arms of four figures who lower him to the ground.

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