By Joynel Fernandes –
Introduction to Illuminated Manuscripts: As we unfurl the pages of history and zoom past a century we encounter an age of type written and hand written documents called Manuscripts. Hidden among its fragrant fascinating pages are the greatest and the finest arts of the Middle Ages. This includes text supplemented with a variety of decorations such as initials, borders and illustrations. Embellished with ornate gold and silver, the scripts are referred to as Illuminated manuscripts.
The Book of the Hours:
The greatest illuminated manuscripts were often liturgical in nature. The most popular of these is the Book of the Hours. It is an abbreviated form of the Breviary which includes the Divine Office as recited in the monasteries. The breviary was further developed into the Book of the Hours in order to adhere to the desires of the laity who wanted to incorporate the virtues of monasticism in their daily life.
Written in Latin, the Book contains a Calendar of the Church feasts, weekly cycles of psalms, prayers, hymns and readings. Grooms often presented these as a wedding gift to their brides. Regarded as a family legacy, it was then passed down through generations and mentioned in wills.
Tres Riches Heures (Very Rich Hours)
The greatest, famous and finest example of an illustrated Book of the Hours is the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. It was conceived between 1412 and 1416 for the extravagant royal library of its patron John, Duke of Berry by the Limbourg brothers (Herman, Paul and Jean). Although faint in the fog of history, the Limbourg brothers were the best miniature painters in 15th century France.
Material and Technology:
The technique followed by the Limbourg brothers in executing this work of art is captivating as well. Sheets of parchment (animal hides) were specially prepared and sized for writing. The general layout was planned in terms of the borders, the capital letters etc. Next the page was lightly ruled using a pointed stick. The scribe then began writing with the help of a sharpened quill feather or a reed pen.
In order to execute the process of illumination, the artist began by employing graphite powder to create an outline. Silverpoint drawings were sketched. Next the illustration was retraced using ink. Gold leaf was laid and burnished as desired. Base colours were applied and darker tones used to create volume. Finally the borders were drawn to embolden the effect.
The most remarkable and unique aspect of the Tres Riches Heures (Very Rich Hours) is its Gothic style of illumination. This is best witnessed by the art work in consideration. We observe that the figures are more animated in pose and are smaller in relation to the architectural background. The use of light and shade (chiaroscuro) is apparent. The scheme of the painting is elongated and elegant.
But what narrative does it illustrate?
Narrative and Details
Heeding the Gospel of Mark chapter 1, verses 21 to 28 the manuscript mirrors the miracle of the man with an unclean spirit. The scene is set within the porch of the hierarchic Gothic Cathedral, scripturally the Synagogue at Capernaum. Exquisite quatrefoils hail the porticoes and the nave roof. The ribbed vaults are dense with stars and the capitals of the piers graced by gilded Tudor roses and leaves. The patron saints of the Duke of Berry guard either side of the entrance bearing witness to the commotion below.
The setting of prayer, preaching, worship and community gathering is astounded at the teachings of Jesus for He taught them with ‘authority’. The authority of His words translates into action as an unclean spirit shrills in despair and attempts to battle with the Holy One of God. It was a sudden outburst. Gasps echo the hushed porticoes. Christ in a blue cloak turns towards the soiled man garbed in crummy clothes. No prayers, No formulas. Radiant by the Trinitarian halo, Jesus simply yet sternly commands, ‘Be silent and come out of him.’
As the man convulses and droops down the tiled floor, his relative perhaps attends to him. The unclean spirit in black demoniac attire with bat wings and insect claws shrieks to escape but is interestingly restricted to a niche. This symbolises the capture of evil. The crowd is appalled and astonished. They ask one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching – with authority.’
Thus through an illuminated manuscript nestled within the Book of the Hours, the Limbourg brothers succeed in amazing the viewer with regards to the visual beauty of their art and the narrative it shadows. They succeed in executing a work of authority, art and amazement!
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Joynel Fernandes is the Assistant Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Mumbai. She is currently pursuing her Masters in History. Researching on Church History and Church art is her passion. She hopes to make its understanding more approachable to the younger generation.