Jean de Berry: A Modern Medieval Patron
Jean, duke of Berry, count of Poitou, Auvergne and Estampes, was son, brother, and uncle, to three successive kings of France. Born in 1340 in the royal chateau of Vincennes, situated in the dense hunting forests outlying Paris to the east, he lived a long life, dying at the age of 76 in his Parisian residence, the Hôtel Saint Pol. He became regent of France on two occasions, alongside his younger brother Philip the Bold; firstly when his nephew king Charles VI was too young to govern the country, and latterly when the same monarch fell into successive bouts of insanity at the end of the century. These snatched moments of power were largely diplomatic, and he failed to make much of an effect on the fiscal and political direction of the state. Instead, it is the legacy of Berry’s collecting habits that has been passed down through history. His was a singularly obsessive program of acquisition of some of the most richly made and decorated objects that survive from the late medieval period. Many of these objects are well known to us today, not least through the fortunate survival of two inventories taken of his possessions in 1401 and 1415 respectively, and recompiled by the French historian Jules Guiffrey in the nineteenth century.They list a vast number of precious objects of all types and sizes, from single gemstones to richly bound books, lavish reliquaries, paintings, ivories, metalwork and tapestries. Alongside such informative records a selection of these exquisite works of art remain, now housed in museums around the globe and well known to academics and the public alike.
[Figure 1: Limbourg Brothers, January Miniature from the Très Riches Heures folio 1,
Painting on vellum, France, 1412-1416
Musée Conde, Chantilly, Image Source]
The most famous object to have originated in Berry’s collection must surely be theTrès Riches Heures, a magnificent liturgical Book of Hours illuminated by the de Limbourg brothers between 1411 and 1416. Of the large number of illuminated manuscripts made during the fifteenth century, the Très Riches Heures stands unparalleled for its intricacy and delicacy of production, the quality of its materials, and the excellence of its illusionism. In the same way that many art historians view the panel paintings of Hubert and Jan van Eyck as a locus of transition from an old, medieval style to a new, modern way of representing life, the manuscript miniatures of the de Limbourg brothers are something of a watershed in French illumination. The Très Riches Heures in particular is commonly cited as the first western manuscript to depict shadows. The de Limbourgs’ conception of both religious and profane scenes on a grand scale, with their remarkable attention to light, texture, and spatial realism, distinguish them both from previous generations of manuscript painters and from their contemporaries. Their output numbers only a few fabulous books, but this alone is remarkable for the fact that all three brothers died in 1416 before the age of thirty, presumed to be victims of the plague. The January miniature, one of twelve calendar pages included in the Très Riches Heures, depicts Jean de Berry himself, accompanied by an intimate courtly retinue. The scene shows the duke at table on New Year’s Day, during the feast and festival of Étrennes, a gift-giving ceremony not unlike Christmas day in its modern application. Throughout the day, presents would be exchanged between the nobility and all the members of their circle. Embedded behavioural codes regulated what was a fairly choreographed occasion, specifically in relation to the value of the gifts, such that it is now thought of as a primarily diplomatic and secular procedure, with the idea of ‘giving to receive’ commonly associated with its interpretation. In this respect, and behind the creation and consolidation of royal and noble friendships, Étrennes was a festival based around the collecting and exchange of objects. It was also a way for patrons and their courts to engage in material conversation, and delight in the highest levels of artistic workmanship.
As intriguing and remarkable as the de Limbourgs’ work, is the relationship they had with Duke de Berry. They had initially been employed at the court of Berry’s brother, Philip, before his death in 1404, and Jean seems to have wasted no time in poaching their talent before others could intersect. In the same year, the three brothers moved to Bourges, Berry’s capital and the centre of the duchy of Berry, where they set up shop with immediate effect. As court artists, they would have had a degree of liberty unknown to self-employed artists working in the public domain, whose livelihoods were not guaranteed by a regular salary. Similarly, they had the right to hold audience with the duke, and to engage their patron in the intellectual demands of their creations. However, their status seems to have gone far beyond what one might normally expect from court artists of the period. Their financial freedom was such that in 1415 they were able to lend the duke 1000 écus (twice the value of the Très Riches Heures as stated in Berry’s inventory of the same year), taking in exchange a small ruby in the shape of a bear, which they held as collateral. Berry even gave Pol - the eldest of the three brothers - a house in Bourges valued in 1434 at 2,000-3,000 écus, and described as being suitable for ‘a nobleman of the blood’.1 On one occasion Berry went so far for his ‘German painter’ (thought to be Pol), as to abduct an eight year old girl, Gillette la Mercière, for him to marry, a gesture which suggests a dedicated concern for aspects of his artists’ personal lives that few other patrons of his age, or since, have engaged.
In this respect, it is important to consider Berry as a collector of artists, as much as he was a connoisseur of objects. Indeed, his search for artists was not constrained to the lands of his own duchies, but drew from further afield. Originally from Valenciennes near what is now the Franco-Belgian border, André Beauneveu, who had first been commissioned by Berry’s eldest brother, king Charles V, to carve a series of tomb effigies for the dynastic mortuary chapel at the abbey of Saint Denis, spent the last twenty years of his life under Berry’s employ in Bourges. He served as master of works on the lavish chateau the duke had constructed fifteen kilometres outside of Bourges in the small marsh village of Mèhun-sur-Yevre, a building described by Jean Froissart in his Chroniques as ‘l'une de plus belles maisons du monde’ [one of the most beautiful homes in the world]. Although primarily trained as a sculptor, Beauneveu seems to have experimented with stained glass design and manuscript illumination while at Berry’s court, and it is likely that as he aged, he was allowed and encouraged to work on more manageable forms of artistic production. Such a deployment of artists, seeking out their aesthetic sensibilities as much as their artistic skills, over a period of decades rather than just the length of single projects, and asking them to experiment in a variety of media, suggests a patron eager to sustain close contact with his commissions, and foster new ideas. This notion of a flexible artistic milieu and a certain degree of creative liberty at Berry's court, must surely serve to nuance our understanding of the relationship between artist and patron during a period of western history that has been all too commonly overshadowed in modern discourse by the ‘bright Renaissance’ that succeeded it.
Of course, objects and works of art in the late medieval era were not often made for art’s sake alone, but were nearly always employed, at least in part, for fairly structured religious purposes. This becomes self-evident through the surviving inventories of Berry’s possessions. Many of the most important, and the most expensive, works he owned or commissioned were used either in his private chapels, of which his Sainte Chapelle at Bourges was one of the most magnificent examples, or in other foundations with which he was affiliated. The Holy Thorn Reliquary, a central treasure of the British Museum’s Waddington Bequest, is one such object. It takes the form of a heavenly vision rising from a turreted graveyard, out of which the souls of the dead rise to meet the figure of Christ, seated in glory and surrounded by the apostles. In front of Christ, and mounted vertically on a single large sapphire set into the central scene, sits a thorn from the crown of thorns, given to Berry by his brother Charles V. It is one of the finest examples of a Parisian goldsmiths’ work to have survived the past half-millennium, with its original polychromatic enamels coating much of the object’s silver and gold structure. While most of Berry’s metalwork was melted down both during his lifetime and after (it was a resource which could be liquidated at short notice to provide ready cash for military campaigns and other royal expenses) the Holy Thorn Reliquary provides us with a glimpse of how rich his collections of such objects must originally have been.
Alongside the overtly sacred works in his collection, Berry is also known to have enjoyed a vast array of secular objects, as visible in the magnificent table decorations and military tapestries depicted in the de Limbourgs’ miniature illustrated above. A surviving example is the Fonthill vase, a bluish-white Qingbai porcelain vase (c.1300-1340) with applied relief decoration, now kept in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland. It originally belonged to Louis the Great of Hungary, acquired as a gift from a Chinese ambassador travelling through the country on his way to an audience with the pope. It is unknown how Jean de Berry procured the vase, but it would have been a stand-alone object amongst his collections as well as those of his circle, for the fact that it is the first documented example of Chinese porcelain to have entered Europe.
[Figure 2: The Fonthill vase
Qingbai porcelain, China, Circa 1300-1340.
Dublin, National Museum of Ireland Image Source ]
Berry’s collecting habits reflected a well-established system of trade and cross-cultural exchange that permeated the later Middle Ages. Added to this, the kudos that could be gained from acquiring objects wholly new or innovative, or which no others could own in Europe, was prodigious. To fuel his interests, as was common among the royal circles of his time, the duke established extensive networks of mercantile contacts. These dealers took the form of travelling and salaried agents specialised in obtaining the highest quality objects of every kind. On one occasion, Berry interrupted his meeting with a papal delegate because he had heard that one of his favourite diamond sellers was entering Bourges, and rushed to meet with him. Such was Berry’s delight in gemstones that many received their own names. The duke owned a balas ruby bought from Valentina Visconti in 1407, which he called the Great Balas of Venice, and others had titles such as the Balas of the Cock-Crest, the Ruby of the Ear, the Barley Grain, and the King of Rubies. His collecting tastes thus spread like a spider’s web across a huge variety of materials, genres, and forms, in ways that few modern patrons can rival.
Other important secular objects to have survived from Berry’s collections include an outstanding series of large-scale tapestries depicting nine ‘heroes’ or ‘worthies’, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As with the Holy Thorn Reliquary, the tapestries can be securely attributed to Berry’s court through their multiple representations of his ducal coats of arms. Indeed, nearly all of Berry’s objects seem to have been emblazoned with a combination of personal heraldic and pictorial devices, such as the engrailed fleur-de-lys, as well as bears and swans, two of his favourite creatures. He kept several of each species on the grounds of his beloved chateau at Mèhun-sur-Yevre a few miles North-West of Bourges, alongside camels, ostriches, lions, monkeys; and fifteen hundred hunting dogs housed in his seventeen chateaux. These residences stretched across central and Southeastern France, from Paris to Riom, Poitiers to Bourges, reflective of the vast areas of land he controlled. Of them, only a handful remain, now gutted of their once ornate interiors. Over the course of his long life, Berry filled each residence with works of art of every kind, and took similar delight in their architectural potential; he even had their roof leadings gilded. Though their collections were largely formed from the slow accretion of objects, each of the chateaux would have provided a sort of cornucopian gesamtkunstwerk; alongside the salaried artists and architects decorating his chateaux, Berry also commissioned new music, and retained some of the most renowned composers of his age. Furthermore, he was the first patron to introduce the Flemish paddle organ into France, and the melodic sounds of chamber pieces, ballads, chants and plainsong would have resounded almost continuously within the duke’s residences and chapels alike.
The nature of collecting during the later Middle Ages was not dissimilar to our modern conception of the idea. Objects commonly underwent a seemingly clinical process of appraisal, weighing, and measuring for the purposes of valuation, and often formed part of collections within collections, categorised in a structured, taxonomical fashion. For example, the Goldenes Rossl, a large gold centrepiece given in 1401 by Isabeau of Bavaria to her husband, Berry’s nephew Charles VI, is recorded in the same year alongside secular plate (i.e. gold and silver table objects) in cupboard ‘A’ at the Bastille. Objects such as this were frequently exchanged, displayed, or kept in reserve, ‘ready to enhance [the patron’s] magnificence at secular and liturgical ceremonies’, as Jenny Stratford has posited.2 Indeed, patrons regularly ‘sent for objects or visited [their] collections’ in person.3 The de Limbourg January Miniature illustrated above offers a perfect visual example of such an occasion, during which whole dinner sets, table pieces and vessels would have been brought out especially. In this respect, abundance and variety were the true measures of a connoisseur’s eye. A patron such as Berry had the ability and freedom to be as broad in their interests as they were knowledgeable about any one subject, genre, or medium.
Jean de Berry was by no means the sole patron of note from his time. He was one of many, living in an era of tremendous artistic innovation fuelled by trade with foreign lands, and with all materials under the sun available for consumption. The existence of a wide circle of connected collectors was as pronounced in his lifetime as it is today. After all, patrons have always needed contacts, and many trade or give away objects alongside their ongoing programs of acquisition. As we have seen, a sophisticated and choreographed structure of giving operated across the highest levels of society, fuelling the practice of collecting. In a way it is echoed and extended by modern philanthropic gifts to museums today. By the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, works of art had become part of a well-established cultural currency that spanned the globe. We must thus conceive of the artistic language of Berry’s day as one filled with semi-philanthropic exchanges between artist and artisan, court and circle; a complex and highly nuanced system where value was determined by a combination of factors, both monetarily, as well as in the use of materials, the name of the artist, and the hierarchy of object genres.
However, as an individual, Berry also marks the birth of the patron in the modern sense of the word. That is, he is one of the first figures in Western art history to be known primarily for his collections, and for his stand-alone application of resources to the pursuit of beautiful objects. As with some of the finest collectors throughout modern history, Berry was interested and knowledgeable about the processes of each specialism, and was often closely involved with the design and development of his commissions.
It is somewhat apt then, that the inscribed prayer scroll held in the hand of his tomb effigy, carved by Jean de Cambrai for the duke’s Sainte Chapelle circa 1412, implicitly mentions his renowned collections. It leaves us with the dilemma he faced at the end of his life, that of having to relinquish the beauty and richness of his collections in death:
‘ Contemplate what nobility, what richly abundance, what glories were present before me. Once I had these things. Now they are passing away ’
Cover image: Hans Holbein, Jean de Berry in Prayer, after a statue of the same figure from the Sainte-Chapelle, Bourges. Circa 1523-4.
Black and coloured chalk, 39.6 × 27.5 cm.
Basel, Kunstmuseum. Image Source]