Painted Prayers

by Mark Calderwood


Books of Hours are well known as the most richly appointed personal treasures of the medieval era, lavishly wrought by the finest artists. But more than opportunities for conspicuous consumption, books of Hours offer a glimpse into just how nuanced, quick-witted and complex the symbolic thought of middle ages was.

By the fourteenth century, books of Hours had become must-haves for the style (and status) conscious aristocrat, as the poet Eustace Deschamps mockingly wrote:

‘An Hours of Our Lady must be mine,
that are of subtle workmanship
encircled with gold and azure rich,
ordered and painted beautifully,
with fine cloth of gold covered well;
and to hold the pages,
two clasps of gold to close.’

This ostentation was not simply crass display: medieval collecting prized the adornment of both natural and devotional objects, stemming from the same philosophy that saw saintly relics encrusted with gems and gold. Precious objects were believed to possess spiritual qualities: untarnishable gold was equated with Christ’s incorruptibility, red coral was regarded as protective, topaz encouraged charity and so forth, leading to a costly culture of devotional display.

This philosophy is articulated more subtly in the books belonging to Jean, Duke of Berry (1340-1416) one of the wealthiest and prolific collectors, bibliophiles and patrons of illuminated Hours in medieval Europe. As a patron, his oeuvre reflected late medieval material culture and spiritual concerns; as an aristocrat in close proximity to the throne and as a powerful mediator between rival political factions, his ‘private’ devotional books of necessity created a public image that announced not only his wealth and taste, but demonstrated a piety that was not an affectation (or even genuine feeling) but unmistakably read as the divinely ordained basis of his position and power.

The devotional book as a status symbol is exemplified in the Grandes Heures, created in 1409. Its enormous size and the fact that its leaves assembled the leading illuminators of the day indicates it was intended for a public audience, rather than private devotional reading as a palm-sized tome with a single artistic programme would suggest.

Folio 96 in particular demonstrates the seamless fusion of secular promotion with public spiritual spin. Jean’s dynastic arms sit alongside his devotional cypher EV (En Vous, ‘In You’). Jean’s bear and swan emblems (ours and cygne) form a pun on the regional patron, St Ursine- as well referencing his mistress of the same name- while birds and butterflies from the local countryside perch amid the foliage. Above the historiated capital showing the Duke at prayer, the miniature depicts his self-confident petition to enter Heaven. Presenting himself to St Peter (who takes him sternly by the wrist like a naughty child) Jean indicates his collar of estate, from which hangs a massive jewel of sapphire surrounded by seven pearls: symbolic of the vault of heaven and of Christ, respectively, and more subtly of the Christian virtues/gifts of the Holy Ghost.  Aristocratic birth and enormous wealth are transformed into virtues, and are his credentials to enter Paradise.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

An even subtler dialogue is presented in the famed calendar cycle of the Tres Riches Heures, created 1413-1416. The calendar miniatures form a unified narrative within the larger programme common to books of Hours; here, they are unusual in their presentation as full page miniatures isolated from text, but also for the fact that for the first time the patron enters into (actually, dominates) the traditional labours of the months represented in calendar illumination.

This entry is no accident: Jean, grandiosely present on the first page of the calendar clearly demonstrates the perspective from which the succeeding images of peasant labor and aristocratic pastimes are to be seen. Indeed, the full cycle of labours is not present: four months are given to scenes of courtly pleasures.  The agrarian labours that are shown are painted with meticulous attention, through imaginative composition and vibrant colouring lend an aspect of liturgical theatre to everyday activities.

But for all their ‘realism,’ these scenes are in no way neutral: they form a directed ideological discourse. The semiotics of difference contrasts the representation of peasants at toil with the light hearted pursuits of the landowning nobility: in winter the duke and his court feast warmly, while the workers who produce his sustenance are shown huddled in their humble, snow covered farm. But while they inhabitant of irreconcilable milieus, the calendar subtly links the two groups. The fairy-tale chateaux that form the backdrop to each scene assert the Duke’s ownership of the landscape, but are almost a strangely sheltering presence, refuges as solid and natural as mountains that refute the historical moment of a turbulent, fractured France. So too the depiction of the common folk differs from the customary negative images of peasants: these are neither idle not indigent, and although slightly ragged their garments are the same rich hues as the nobles’ splendid attire.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda
While this may seem to be a simple reinforcement of the feudal social order, the format of the cycle’s miniatures has a spiritual significance. Rather than simply an illustration of a text, these scenes placed and framed exactly the same way as religious images of the time, similarly invite pause and contemplation in a frame of mind appropriate to a devotion context. So too, the use of skilled techniques such as washing paint over silver and powdered gold to enhance the suspended moments of the composition, creates a lucent illusion that equates with the timeless, shimmering space of religious painting. Although worldly scenes, they deftly use the language of religious images to draw the same contemplative response.

More so, the gold frame and arched vault of the heavens suggests the architecture not of a window frame, but an altarpiece frame: the calendar miniatures act as religious panels, combining to create an altarpiece-like narrative cycle.

In this interpretation then, the calendar acts a de facto altarpiece, proposing the commonalities and reciprocal feudal obligations between seigneur and serf as a form of contextual devotion. The Duke’s grandeur, wealth and position, and his honouring of his social-charitable obligation to protect and care for his people, are proposed as favoured by God- an idealised medieval worldly ordering.

painted   tres   calendar