Magnificent Illustration—The Treasures of Jean, Duke of Berry (Part I)

Hildegard of Bingen’s notable monastic contemporary, French abbot St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), led reforms of the Cistercian so monks could more fully live out the Rule of St. Benedict by affirming the value of field labors, improving agricultural lands with the help of affiliated lay brothers, and cooperating with others to mill grains, process wool, and stimulate regional economies by marketing produce. The altarpiece at the Cistercian Abbey in Zwettle, Austria, by Augsburg artist Jörg Breu the Elder (c. 1475-1537) shows St. Bernard kneeling at the Virgin’s appearance as other monks reap and bind an abundant grain harvest.

Splendid naturalistic miniatures from the High Middle Ages were used to decorate Sir Geoffrey Luttrell’s Lincolnshire Psalter (c. 1330) and Jean, Duke of Berry’s Les Belles Heures and Les Très Riches Heures (c. 1415). These magnificent works served as collections of liturgical prayers to be said at the canonical hours. They are remarkable for detailed depictions of country life including scenes of reaping and binding that symbolize deeply held beliefs of priest, prince, and peasant that life’s struggles were in consequence of Adam’s Fall.

Jörg Breu the Elder, Altar Panel Harvest Scene with St. Bernard (1500)
Oil on wood, 28 x 28 ⅘ inches
Cistercian Abbey, Zwettle, Austria

The Luttrell Psalter is also the earliest English manuscript to show women harvesters bending over with sickles who in something of a reversal of gender roles are being followed by a man binding grain sheaves. Royal bibliophile Jean, Duke of Berry’s celebrated early fifteenth century Les Très Riches Heures consists of 206 parchment pages and was a magnificent undertaking of long gestation illustrated by teams of calligraphers, painters, and decorators including Paris’ famed Limbourg brothers—Paul, Jean, and Herman. (The trio may also have contributed to the larger Les Belles Heures.)