Saturday 5 March 2011

Local Hero

Those of you who drop in on our blog from time to time may have noticed that we have a penchant for 'Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry' and that we've been posting one of the illuminations each month since January. The Duc du Berry died in 1416; his duchy was just to the south/south east of Touraine; the area is still known as the Berry.  

The brothers Limburg (Dutch, but working in France & Burgundy in the very late 14th/very early 15th century) created his book of hours, arguably the best example of late medieval illuminations--handpainted illustrations and embellished capitol letters in books written on vellum. Printing didn't exist as yet so only the very rich could have a book with so much artwork created to order. 

There's a local Touraine lad who was also highly skilled at this artform--Jehan Fouquet. Born in Tours, he lived a little later circa 1420 to 1480 and, in addition to being a brilliant illuminator, was also a talented painter in general; painting portraits and altar pieces.

Pieta, Nouans les Fontaines
This (large) altar piece is in the church of Nouans les Fontaines, about 1/2 hrs drive to the north east of us, not far from Montrésor. Painted on wood panels, it is quite moving when you see it for real as Mary, the mother of Christ is portrayed with eyes reddened by weeping. This realism is what makes Fouquet special. He was painting at the point of transition from the Medieval to the Renaissance. He'd travelled to Italy and been influenced by all that was happening there. Nouans les Fontaines also has a small museum dedicated to Fouquet you can visit it by putting €0.50 in the turnstile (exact change only.

The Visitation
Fouquet was commissioned to create a book of hours for a rich patron Étienne Chevalier. In case anyone was ever in any doubt that it belonged to Chevalier he had his name plastered everywhere. Personalising your possessions is not new. You can clearly see it on the cornice above the figures in the illumination on the right here. Created around 1460 the 'Livre d'Heures d'Étienne Chevalier' is special not only because the illuminations are of very high quality but also because Fouquet did something novel. He dispensed with the traditional bordering of any illumination with foliage and flowers. This gave him a larger space to work with and so the illuminations become more 'mini' pictures. They are still very delicate and small--16.5 cm by 12 cm--just think how fine the brushwork had to be to make sure the details are as clear as they are. Not to mention the cost of the paints and real gold which was used. 

Adoration of the Magi
Fouquet also wasn't above a bit of political statement making either. In this illumination of the Adoration of the Magi the 1st king offering gold is Charles VII (he's kneeling on a blue cloth with fleurs de lys--a good clue, but looks like him as well). There's an additional star to the one top right shining on the Christ child; the 2nd star shines right on Charles VII. Finally in the background are 3 French heralds blowing trumpets celebrating the success of the french soldiers attacking--surprise, surprise-- the English!

Most of the illuminations which survive can be seen in the Museé de Condé in Chantilly, north of Paris. Same place as the famous race-course.

Forgot to mention: Excellent online exhibition by the Bibliotheque National de France of Fouquet's work. French version is more extensive but there is an English version available.


Susan said...

Isn't it more likely that Fouquet is flattering the king at Chevalier's request (or at the very least because as a professional artist Fouquet knew who his patron would wish to flatter)?

Niall & Antoinette said...

Of course he is; why stick a second star in otherwise...court politics and currying favour -- not political in the modern sense.

Denise Covey said...

This was tres interesting. Thanks for the heads up on the online exhibition. I can get to that,ha ha...


Pichets in Paris

Niall & Antoinette said...

Thanks Denise :-) Online exhibition is worth a visit if you like this kind of art. Hope things are easier to read now.

GaynorB said...

Fascinating post and beautiful illuminations.

As someone who didn't study history beyond the age of 13, (and only ancient studies from 11-13) your explanations are really helpful in understanding the times.

I look forward to learning more in future blogs.

Niall & Antoinette said...

Gaynor: you better be careful what you wish for! :-)
LOL You've just encouraged and medieval historian and a medieval literaturist and we live in an area full of fascinating locations....

Seriously--thanks for the compliment :-)

GaynorB said...

Isn't it disgraceful that my education should have almost completely missed out history!
I think it was because I was a three science and latin (which I hated) person, and history was in the same option blocks.
Is the situation any better today?

Niall & Antoinette said...

Don't think it has improved that much and sadly often the same period is repeated over and over: at 11 - 13, at GCSE and again at A level--so you 'get' the same things 3x.

When I went to a UK boarding school I wanted to take English, History, Chemistry and Biology and was told firmly that this was impossible!! (I'd done a mix at an international school which offered the IB Diploma)
With much pleading and because the TT allowed it they let me do English in addition to trad trio: Bio, Chem & Maths :-)