A long winter, or February, from Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

Here in Paris, the weather forecast for the week is snow, sleet, and some more snow. This feels like a long, long winter. So it is only natural that one of my favorite snow scenes, the representation of February in the Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, came to mind.

First, a word about Jean de France, Duc de Berry. Son, brother and uncle of Kings, he was one of the richest men in his 15th century. Greedy, harsh, ruthless, and also a bon vivant, fond of food and the pleasures of the flesh. But it is as a passionate art collector, and a patron of artists, that the Duc de Berry achieved fame.
Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry February
He commissioned the most gifted miniature painters of the time – Jean Colombe and the three Limbourg brothers: Pol, Jean and Herman – to illustrate his Livre d’Heures (literally Book of Hours, meaning prayer book.) The paintings represent the twelve months and many religious scenes, the two being closely linked since prayers follow, and vary with the times of the religious year.

This February is presumed to be the work of one of the Limbourg brothers, the one called the Rustic, because of his affection for scenes of peasant life.

Here the artist shows us the outdoors, the beehives covered with snow, the little character shivering to the right of the picture, the birds picking at seeds in the foreground, the village in the distance, the heavy skies.

But the painter also wants to remember the blessing of a good fire on a chilly day. He simply removes one of the walls of the cottage to give us a peek indoors. See how the fine lady in the blue dress barely lifts her skirts to warm herself, while the couple of peasants seated behind her show no such modesty. She is content to turn away from that candid display. The Très Riches Heures provide an invaluable look at 15th century mores and customs.

The constellations that mark the passage of February, Aquarius and Pisces, in vibrant blues and gold, preside over the scene. This extraordinary book was also a calendar.

For another illustration from the Très Riches Heures, see my Candlemas post, with its representation of the Purification of the Virgin. Different style, different Limbourg brother.

And please let me know if you enjoy these months from the Très Riches Heures. I certainly do, and will be happy to post March, by the third Limbourg brother, to celebrate the advent of spring at long last…

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13 Comments to “A long winter, or February, from Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry”

  1. Catherine Delors says:

    A very astute observation, Alexandra! Yes, this sounds quite likely.

  2. Alexandra says:

    Sure, I’ve always enjoyed these. It looks as if the peasants got their slips wet from working in the snow? I think I see their slips hanging up above the fine lady in blue, or maybe that’s just where they hang them.

  3. Catherine Delors says:

    Deal, Felio! I have been in love with these images since childhood, so this should be fun.

  4. Felio Vasa says:

    Definitely do the series. The Illuminated Manuscript art work is just gorgeous. Interesting to learn about Duc de Berry too.

  5. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you! I too love these pictures, and will post them with much pleasure.

  6. Amanda says:

    I love this series. I am a big fan of illuminated manuscripts and books of hours. So beautiful and so detailed. This one in particular always made me feel chilly. They look so cold! Thanks for the posts!

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    Will do, Penny!

  8. Penny says:

    Oh yes! you must publish spring. these are much more beautiful than the ones i saw excavated in the MIddle East. i had not known it was done in Europe. Gorgeous paintings.

  9. Catherine Delors says:

    Eva – Yes, May too is wonderful. It is by the Courtly Limbourg brother (probably the same as the Purification of the Virgin.)

    Pam – On with these stories then! Throughout the year they will give us a glimpse of  life in the 15th century, from peasants to princes.

  10. Pam S says:

    Catherine, Every picture tells a story, and I will be bored, now, with pictures that do not! Such secrets these pictures reveal when we know how to read them!

  11. Eva says:

    I just reviewed The Story of Art, and one of my favourite paintings in the book was “May” in the same series (it’s the only one of the series included, so I don’t know if it’s my favourite of the calendar). So I definitely am all for you posting them each month. :D

  12. Catherine Delors says:

    Yes, Lucy, isn’t the detail amazing? And at the same time there’s such poetry in this scene…

  13. Lucy says:

    Such beautiful and detailed subjects. I really do like the way the demure looking lady seems like she really chooses to look the other way.

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