After his death in 1416, Jean, Duke of Berry, was remembered throughout the fifteenth century as a patron of the arts. Readers of Froissart, for example, learned that Jean was fond of speaking with his artists at the château at Mehun, ‘one of the most beautiful houses in the world.’ Jean’s patronage remained such a byword for quality that in 1451, Antonio Astesano could find no higher praise for the windows of the chapel at the château of Coucy than to note that they had been paid for by the duke (see the poetic prologue to Book III of Astesano’s Heroic Epistles, presented to Jean, count of Angoulème, in Le Roux de Lincy and L. M. Tisserand, eds., Paris et ses historiens aux XIVe et XVe siècles, Paris, 1867, p. 556).
Like their patron, the Limbourg brothers died in 1416; however, the Duke’s official painters experienced little of his posthumous fame. They are not mentioned in contemporary chronicles, nor cited in later praises of the Duke. This situation is not particularly surprising, given the prevailing anonymity of artistic production at this point (though it is worth remembering that the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux were listed as the ‘Hours of Pucelle’ in the Duke of Berry’s own inventories, compiled some eight decades after Pucelle’s death). More surprising than history’s forgetting the Limbourgs’ name is artists’ neglect of their work. Few art historians today would doubt that the Limbourg brothers were among the most significant artists to paint in France between Jean Pucelle and Jean Fouquet. But while the individual innovations of Pucelle and Fouquet were quickly taken up and imitated by the artists of the next generation, the Limbourg Brothers had significantly less impact, and it was the Paris-based Boucicaut Master whose patterns circulated most widely in the years between 1410 and 1430. This isolation makes them seem like a lofty peak, set apart from the main currents of artistic production in these years.
This description of the Limbourgs as an isolated summit derives from L.M.J. Delaissé’s famous review of Millard Meiss’s French Painting in the Time of Jean de Berry, The Late Fourteenth Century and the Patronage of the Duke, in which Delaissé complained that Meiss’s ‘aristocratic approach’ distorted the period by defining it through its supreme achievements. ‘I cannot see … that one can explore a chain of mountains by jumping from one peak to another; it can only be done by climbing the knolls, hills and heights which are crowned by the peaks’ (Art Bulletin, 52, 1970, p. 209).
In his later volume on the Limbourg Brothers, however, Meiss did demonstrate a connection between the Limbourgs and subsequent artists, citing three books of hours from around 1420 that contained illuminations by an artist familiar with the Limbourgs’ compositions: the Hours of Charlotte of Savoy (now at the Morgan Library), a second book at the Musée Condé in Chantilly, and a third, the artist’s most important, in the collection of the Spitz family in Chicago. This manuscript was purchased by the Getty Museum in 1994, and is now published in a facsimile with commentary by Gregory T. Clark. Clark’s text is divided into four chapters: a short introduction that defines a book of hours; an image by image overview of the book’s miniatures; an analysis of the book’s illuminators; and a chapter on the manuscript’s place in French illumination.
The second section aims at a general audience, as Clark discusses the composition and iconography of each scene in great detail. Clark’s text will be a useful introduction to the field for students and a terrific complement to the broader coverage of the genre provided in Roger Wieck’s Time Sanctified and Painted Prayers, both cited in the useful guide to additional reading at the end of the book. If much of this material will be familiar to scholars, Clark’s attentive reading of the images also leads to many original and valuable contributions. Take the picture prefacing the book’s gospel passages: it is divided into four rectangular compartments, two on top and two below, with an evangelist in each one. The author observes that if we read the four from left to right and top to bottom, their order differs from that in the Bible, or in the Gospel sequences that follow. Ingeniously, he notes that the picture orders the evangelists in heraldic terms, moving from top left to bottom right, and then from top right to bottom left. Clark also has good things to say about the burial scene that prefaces the Office of the Dead, making the very plausible suggestion that the miniature’s cemetery refers to the cemetery of the Innocents in Paris. If he is correct, this would be the earliest extant image of the cemetery, thus adding it to the list of famous Parisian sites portrayed in contemporary painting (like Notre-Dame and the Sainte-Chapelle, painted by both the Limbourgs and the Boucicaut Master).
In the next two sections, Clark studies the three illuminators who worked on the book. The Spitz Master dominates, painting 18 of the book’s 22 miniatures, the remainder divided equally between the Master of the Harvard Hannibal and the Master of the Hours of Franois de Guise, who also painted the three historiated initials. This was not a one-time partnership: the Spitz Master’s Chantilly hours include pictures by the Harvard Hannibal Master, and the Guise Master had a hand in the Hours of Charlotte of Savoy.
Clark devotes the bulk of his discussion to the Spitz Master. Indeed, the facsimile is all but a catalogue raisonn&EGRAVE;e, reproducing in color twenty-nine of the thirty-six extant miniatures by the Spitz Master. Clark analyzes the artist in terms of a contest between three dimensional form and surface pattern, following an approach developed most fully by Otto Pächt. Clark notes the painter’s tendency to flatten the deep compositions of the Limbourg brothers, emphasizing the decorative unity of the two-dimensional page over the illusion of a space projecting behind the page. The author argues that this emphasis on surface emerged over time, providing him with a means to place the Spitz Master’s books in chronological order. While his ordering is plausible, it remains hypothetical, as the three manuscripts have no internal evidence for their dating. Clark supports his thesis by noting that the ‘conservative’ return to two-dimensional decoration is a common feature of Parisian painting from around 1420 to the 1440s, citing the Bedford Master as the dominant example. He also cautiously suggests that Parisian painters may have altered their style to cater to the tastes of English patrons, buying books in Paris during Bedford’s regency there. Making an interesting parallel with Meiss’ controversial linkage of the Black Death’s trauma and later trecento painting’s retreat from Giotto’s spatial advances, Clark also ventures that more traditional, less innovative styles may have been reassuring to a society under stress. These ideas deserve a fuller airing, so it is good to know that Clark’s next project is an investigation of Parisian illumination during the English occupation of the city, a period neglected in comparison to the decades on either side.
By providing us with such complete coverage of a previously little-known artist, Clark’s book also raises a series of interrelated questions. First, who was the Spitz Master and how did he know the Limbourgs’ work? Clark makes a convincing case that it was transmitted through sketches, and not from the original manuscripts. First, the Spitz Master’s work includes compositions from both the Belles Heures and the Très Riches Heures, the latter a work in progress at the time of the Limbourgs’ death. Second, while his compositions are often quite similar to theirs, his colors differ from the originals, suggesting that they derive from drawings. It is worth remembering that Pol, Jean and Hermann had a younger brother Arnold, living in Nijmegen and apprenticed – as they had been earlier – to a goldsmith at the time of their deaths. Meiss suggested that Arnold might have been the Master of St. Jerome, another artist familiar with Limbourg compositions. Meiss also published a document revealing that the Limbourgs’ estate was collected in Bourges, and transferred by Arnold and his sister Margaret to Theoderic Neven, Arnold’s brother-in-law (and probably Margaret’s husband.) Did this estate include the artists’ sketchbooks?
One might also ask whether the Spitz Master’s ability to quote the Limbourgs was recognized by his employers, who might have prized the echoes of the artists, their patron, or both. For while the Limbourgs had comparatively less impact than the Boucicaut Master, their work was appreciated after their death. Yolande of Aragon, for example, purchased the Belles Heures (though she paid well under half its appraised value). The scribe Gilbert de Mets also remembered them; his Description de la ville de Paris was written in Grandmont around 1434, but recalls an earlier Paris graced by such eminent figures as ‘Laurent de Premierfait, the poet … Gobert, the sovereign scribe who composed the art of writing and of cutting pens; and his disciples who for their good penmanship were retained by princes, like the young Flamel by the duke of Berry … [and] many artful workers like … the three brother illuminators,’ this last an unmistakable reference to the Limbourgs.
However his patrons felt, the Spitz Master certainly prized the Limbourgs: of the twenty-nine miniatures reproduced, fourteen (almost half) derive from known Limbourg compositions. The surviving manuscripts also suggest that he restricted access to the compositions: while he worked with at least three artists, none of them ever quote the Limbourg compositions. Patternbooks and models like this could be considered proprietary; in 1398, for example, John of Holland accused Jacquemart de Hesdin of stealing patterns (though these were actual material objects, like the paints Jacquemart is also alleged to have stolen; thus, Jacquemart is accused of theft, not plagiarism). Was the Spitz Master similarly jealous of his pattern book, believing that it gave him a marketing advantage? Or were his colleagues content with their own patterns?
Such questions can now be approached in a new way thanks to this facsimile. By carefully positioning the Spitz Master’s relationship to his admired predecessors, and by appreciating rather then deriding his departures from them, Clark takes a major step towards Delaiss&EGRAVE;’s desire for a more comprehensive account of the period. He has given us a better mapping that reveals a richer terrain.