In the broad sweep of art from past ages, the patron is often as important as the artists who create it, not only providing funding but determining its content and influencing its style. A few names resonate as the great patrons of all time; Jean de France, duc de Berry, is one of them.
Jean de Berry (1340–1416) was the son, brother, and uncle of three successive kings of France (Jean the Good, Charles V, and Charles VI). He lived during a time of almost continual unrest between England and France, a period known as the Hundred Years’ War, and was at one time held hostage in England in an episode of that war. He acted as regent of France twice, first during the minority of Charles VI and later at times when Charles VI was incapacitated by mental illness. As befitted a wealthy and powerful man of his time, the duke’s likeness was painted or carved on multiple occasions, and some of those portraits survive today (54.1.1, folio 223v and 91v, and January from Très Riches Heures).
Notwithstanding his responsibilities as a prince, Jean de Berry was always active as a patron of art, beginning with architecture. He built or renovated seventeen châteaux and other residences, several of them with appended chapels. His castle at Mehun-sur-Yèvres is illustrated in a manuscript leaf from 1465; the favorite castle of the duke is portrayed in the distance, behind the angel Gabriel (58.71a,b). Architectural sculpture by great artists like André Beauneveu (1995.301) and stained glass animated the castles and especially the chapels; some survive in museums, although the buildings were demolished or heavily damaged.
The duke would have traveled between his residences with a retinue. They brought portable furnishings and adornments for the châteaux, including highly valued tapestries that provided color as well as warmth. He commissioned tapestry sets on ancient battles, hunts, religious and allegorical themes. The Cloisters collection includes one of the oldest surviving sets of tapestries, dating from the time of the duke of Berry and including his coat of arms (47.101.3). It depicts the Nine Worthies or Heroes: three from the classical world, three from the Hebrew Scriptures, and three from Christian history, all garbed in costumes of around 1400. The small subsidiary figures surrounding the heroes give an even more vivid sense of the dress and habits of the time.
Jean de Berry was especially fond of arts that were small in scale but high in preciousness. He treasured jewelry and miniature sculptures of gold and gems and enamel, some of them worked into functional objects such saltcellars, others with liturgical uses such as portable altars, others pure baubles. All of these were called joyaux. More than 300 of these items of goldsmiths’ work appear in the 1416 inventory of the duke’s possessions. One example of the type (although not specifically linked to Jean de Berry himself) is the Saint Catherine made of enamel and gold (17.190.905), small enough to fit in the palm of the hand. The duke had a true connoisseur’s taste, and an interest in the classical past. His awareness of ancient Roman medals led him to revive that lost art by commissioning his own. Medals in his collection were available to artists in his employ as inspiration for their own work. A medal (1988.133) commemorating the emperor Constantine was the source for a figure painted in the Très Riches Heures (The Meeting of the Magi from Très Riches Heures).
Jean de Berry presented himself as the profligate and wealthy collector he was. His garments were trimmed in fur and embroidered with gold threads (January from Très Riches Heures). He also collected precious stones, musical instruments, antique cameos, hunting dogs (in 1388, he owned 1,500 of them!), and even exotic animals, including a leopard, a camel, and a monkey.
To understand the duke’s collecting, it is useful to be aware of a special cultural practice of the period, the practice of étrenne (gift exchange) on New Year’s Day. This custom among the royal Valois family and court was an important means of acquisition and dissemination of precious objects. Such gifts were meaningful in international diplomacy, in cementing social relations at court, and establishing the prestige of the giver. A manuscript in Paris (MS Français 2813, folio 478v in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris) includes an image of the dukes of Burgundy and Berry presenting gifts to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV of Bohemia, who was their uncle. Although the most prized gifts were of precious materials, wit and skill were also valued: Jean de Berry received from the Limbourg brothers a fake book made of a block of wood, heavily decorated to resemble a luxurious bound volume.
Documentation provides thorough evidence of the duke’s collecting activity. Both royal and ecclesiastical patrons in this period kept meticulous lists of the items of value in their holdings, and Jean de Berry was no exception. Surviving inventories of his collections allow the historian to ascribe objects, now dispersed around the world, to his ownership. The title of the manuscript known as the Belles Heures is taken from its entry in the inventory. To maintain these records, Jean de Berry employed gardes des joyaux, (keepers of the jewels), one of whom, Robinet d’Estampes, received also the honorific title varlet de chamber (chamberlain). Jean de Berry also employed a secretary, Jean Flamel; his florid handwriting at the beginning of the Belles Heures (54.1.1, folio 1r) identifies the manuscript as belonging to the “excellent puissant Prince Jehan filz de roy de France Duc de Berry” (“excellent and powerful prince Jean, son of the king of France, Duke of Berry”).
Of all the duke’s collections, his manuscripts have brought him the greatest renown. He did not own as many books as his brother the king Charles V, but among those in his library could be found the most beautiful manuscripts in the world. He acquired them in a variety of ways: by gift, by family inheritance, by purchase from agents offering books from abroad as well as from Paris, and by commission from artists in his employ. Two books of hours once owned by Jean de Berry are in the Cloisters collection: the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux (54.1.2) and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry (54.1.1). Both reflect the courtly milieu where it was traditional for individuals to own beautiful books to guide them in their private prayer. The manuscripts contained texts familiar from church services, such as key prayers and psalms, but were made to be used by the laity, not the clergy, and could be richly decorated for noble tastes. Jean de Berry would have been familiar with his mother’s private prayer book, the Psalter and Hours of Bonne of Luxembourg (69.86). The importance of such personal devotional books is strikingly demonstrated by an illustration in the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux, where Saint Louis is shown receiving his breviary from a dove. The legend of the sainted king includes the story behind the picture: King Louis (r. 1226–70) was on a crusade in Egypt when he was captured by the Saracens. Soon after being put in prison, he realized it was time for him to perform the canonical hour of Vespers, and he called for his prayer book. Although the book had been lost in battle, it was miraculously returned to him.
The Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux is a tiny masterpiece created by Jean Pucelle for the queen of France, Jeanne d’Evreux, between 1324 and 1328. Upon her death, in 1371, she bequeathed it to King Charles V, brother of Jean de Berry. At Charles’ death in 1380, the manuscript may have passed to his son, Charles VI. Jean de Berry is known from the inventories to have owned this manuscript, but whether he was given it either by Charles V or Charles VI, or whether he appropriated it from the latter cannot be determined.
Jean de Berry already owned this and several other books of hours in 1405, when he commissioned the young Limbourg brothers to create what would become the Belles Heures. The three artist brothers, Herman, Paul, and Jean de Limbourg, were in their teens when they came into the employ of the duke of Berry. He gave them the opportunity to create a book of hours, and they started to make the standard elements of such a book, such as scenes from the infancy of Christ (54.1.1, folio 30, folio 63), which accompany the Office of the Virgin. As work progressed, it appears that the young artists grew increasingly proficient, and their patron, increasingly impressed with their genius, enlarged the parameters of this particular book of hours. In addition to the standard elements and prayers, this manuscript includes seven “picture book” sequences, groups of full-page illustrations telling the stories of key saints (54.1.1, folio 17v, folio 74v). After the Belles Heures were completed, Jean de Berry commissioned the brothers to create the Très Riches Heures, today in the collection of the Musée Condé in Chantilly, France (February, folio 2v). By the time of his death, he owned fifteen books of hours.
Even in death, Jean de Berry caused the creation of beautiful works of art. His tomb, modeled after that of his brother, the duke of Burgundy, included multiple sculptures in an ensemble completed years after his death. Among the figures were a number of pleurants, or mourners (17.190.386).
Jean de Berry is the great exemplar of late medieval patronage, and one of the greatest patrons of art of all time. His fame is a testament to the power of art to confer a kind of immortality.
Stein, Wendy A. “Patronage of Jean de Berry (1340–1416).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/berr/hd_berr.htm (May 2009)
Buettner, Brigitte "Past Presents: New Year's Gifts at the Valois Courts, ca. 1400." Art Bulletin 83 (December 2001), pp. 598–625.
Dückers, Rob, and Pieter Roelofs, eds. The Limbourg Brothers: Nijmegen Masters at the French Court, 1400–1416. Ghent: Ludion, 2005.
Meiss, Millard. French Painting in the Time of Jean de Berry: The Late Fourteenth Century and the Patronage of the Duke. London: Phaidon, 1967.