Albert Châtelet’s handsome, slip-cased treatment of one of the richest eras of French manuscript painting, the several decades around 1400 that included the Très riches Heures, is divided neatly into the two parts announced in its title: first, a survey of French miniature painting at the time of Charles VI and second, a discussion of the Boucicaut Hours and its patron, Jean II le Meingre, the Maréchal de Boucicaut. The survey seems to be aimed at a fairly general audience, who will appreciate the author’s evocation of court life, of the growing independence of illustrations, of the increasingly representational style of various master painters, and of the techniques of Paris’s manuscript workshops, and who will find the back matter (a chronology, glossary, bibliography, and a dictionary-index) helpful. Given a lesser manuscript, the decision to append what is essentially a monograph to a general survey of early fifteenth-century miniature painting might have looked like an afterthought. Because the Boucicaut Hours is so historically and artistically central, however, the arrangement succeeds in offering the reader a more profound look at a single manuscript and a single patron than surveys allow, while prefacing the study with a more general introduction to the context in which it was made than a monograph usually includes.
The section on the Boucicaut Hours lingers understandably on the Maréchal’s life, which touched the leading figures and currents of the day often enough to excite the interest of any historical novelist. Educated at court as the Dauphin’s companion, marshal of France at the age of 26, captured with the crusading French forces at Nicopolis in 1396, captured again at Agincourt in 1415, governor of Genoa, and an admired poet whose chivalry (he founded an Order for the protection of women) was praised by no less than Christine de Pisan, our patron’s deeds were memorialized in his lifetime. Professor Châtelet uses this evocative resource, Le Livre des fais du bon Messire Jehan le Maingre dit Bouciquaut, to flesh out the rather sparse remains of Boucicaut’s life and patronage (besides the Hours, he cites a mirror for princes, a reliquary, and a drawing of the Maréchal’s tomb).
The book of hours Boucicaut commissioned was far from a routine production in either contents or form, beginning the text unconventionally with suffrages to two saints of understandable import: Leonard, patron saint of prisoners (the bound and kneeling figure at right has long been identified as Boucicaut) and the military saint Michael. Many of the miniatures are thickly strewn with the patron’s arms, colours, emblem, and motto, and yet the Boucicaut Master, as he is known, developed a remarkable approximation of three-dimensional space that clarified their rich, busy surface decoration. The many illustrations in Châtelet’s book are one of its strengths: all the 44 miniatures of the Boucicaut Hours are reproduced in colour, full page, including the borders, often with a well-chosen detail opposite, below the comments. The quality of the photographs allows one to see, for example, erasures in the inscribed gold band around heraldic elements in the St Anthony miniature (f. 35v), one of the many places where a subsequent owner’s motto replaced Boucicaut’s, and the individual highlighting brushstrokes that finish the patron’s hair (f. 26v).
To put a name to this extraordinary master, “soulever le voile de l’anonymat,” as the book’s Preface (written by Jean-Pierre Babelon) coyly seems to promise, probably requires more evidence than we currently have. In 1995, Professor Châtelet suggested that the artist might be identified with a libraire named Regnault du Montet and he mentions the possibility here (p. 178) but concludes by rejecting both his earlier candidate and a more familiar one, the Bruges artist Jacques Coene. Professor Châtelet dates the Boucicaut Hours later than is common, to c.1413, reasoning not from stylistic arguments but from details of the manuscript and the circumstances of Boucicaut’s life – begun before his capture at Agincourt because the St Leonard prayer and miniature are on an inserted binion; later than the death of his son in 1412 because he is nowhere shown; and later than the inheritance of his father-in-law’s lands in 1412, which restored his fortunes and presumably helped finance this luxurious manuscript.