LIMBOURG brothers
(b. 1370-80, Nijmegen, d. 1416, Nijmegen)

Les très riches heures du Duc de Berry: Janvier (January)

Manuscript (Ms. 65), 294 x 210 mm
Musée Condé, Chantilly

The arch spanning the rectangular calendar pictures, painted in exquisite lapis-lazuli blue, contains four concentric arched fields. The outermost of these (in the finished depictions) bear the Latin names of the signs of the zodiac that succeed one another in the month concerned. The second field shows the starry band of the zodiac on a blue ground. In the innermost semicircle, finally, the sun god Phoebus is enthroned in his chariot, pulled by winged horses through the sky as he holds the sun in his hands.

Beneath this cosmological coronation and cyclical frame of reference, seasonal activities are depicted in full-page images of courtly or rural genre scenes playing out in front of magnificent background landscapes.

The Limbourgs used a wide variety of colours obtained from minerals, plants or chemicals and mixed with either arabic or tragacinth gum to provide a binder for the paint. Amongst the more unusual colours they used were vert de flambe, a green obtained from crushed flowers mixed with massicot, and azur d'outreme, an ultramarine made from crushed Middle Eastern lapis-lazuli, used to paint the brilliant blues. (This was, of course, extremely expensive!)

The extremely fine detail which was the characteristic feature of the Limbourgs needed extremely fine brushes and, almost certainly, lenses. Later additions to the Très Riches Heures carried out by the late 15th-century artist Jean Colombe were carried out in a rather less delicate way. The calendars, however, were mostly painted by the Limbourgs; only November includes a substantial amount of Colombe's work.


In the scene illustrating the month of January, the month of giving gifts (a custom which seems to have died out now), Jean de Berry himself can be seen on the right, wearing the brilliant blue robe.