You are in Introduction. Click here to skip the navigation.
British Library
Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts
 Detail from the Roman de la Rose
About Simple search Manuscript search Advanced search  Virtual exhibitions Glossaries Contact us  Main
print Print this page
home Home
site search Search British Library website
back Back
 
 

French illuminated manuscripts: late fourteenth to early sixteenth century

Paris
14th c.
Paris
1400-1450
Loire & Paris 1450-1500 Paris
1500-1530
Other parts of France Further reading Index

Hours of Etienne Chevalier,
160 x 115 mm, c. 1420, Visitation,
illuminated by the Master of the Boucicaut Hours
Additional 16997, ff. 45v-46
Mara Hofmann

Introduction

This introduction to French illuminated manuscripts from the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth century presents examples of the work of the main artists of that time, as represented in the British Library. The focus lies on artists active in Paris, a renowned artistic centre in not only France but also Europe. In the second half of the fifteenth century, the Loire region became the main residence of the French court and Tours took over the leading role in the production of luxury manuscripts. Related centres such as Bourges and Rouen are also represented by examples from the main artists. The selection of artists from different parts of France gives a sense of manuscript production outside these centres.


Click on each of the links above for a list of artists active during that period.
Each image is identified by a short caption. Click on the image to magnify it and to see further information about the artist.
Although the texts are conceived to be read independently, their order is based on both chronology and artistic relationships. For alphabetical order of the artists’ names, use the index.

Click on the links below for an introduction to the central themes of the period.

Historical background
Fourteenth-century book illumination
The texts
John, duke of Berry, an exceptional patron of the arts
New trends in Parisian book illumination
The Loire as a favoured residence of the kings and the court
Paris in the shadow of Tours: established workshops
The invention of printing
Paris regains its leading role in book production

Historical background

Most manuscripts were produced in monasteries in the early middle ages. During the twelfth century cities began to take over this role. At this time Paris burgeoned into a university city and became the established capital of the French kings. It increased steadily in size and wealth, and by the late thirteenth century it was one of the most densely populated cities in Europe and a recognized artistic centre. The first lay workshops for the production of manuscripts appeared in Paris in the twelfth century, but the number of artisans multiplied rapidly in the thirteenth, and served not only the clergy, masters in the schools and the nobility, but also the mercantile and professional classes. Despite the ravages of the Hundred Years War (1338-1453) and the Black Death (1348), the Paris book trade continued in the fourteenth century due to the keen interest of the Valois kings and princes, notably the learned king Charles V (reigned 1364-1380). During the reign of Charles VI (1380-1422), Paris was the most important commercial and scholarly centre in Europe, attracting artists from all over France and Europe. Paris played a central role until 1420, when after the Treaty of Troyes the English seized the capital and Normandy. Many artists fled with their French patrons to the provinces, spontaneously creating new centres throughout the realm.

Fourteenth-century book illumination

At the end of the fourteenth century Parisian manuscript illumination was still influenced by Jean Pucelle, an artist active in the first third of the fourteenth century and whose greatest follower, Jean le Noir, lived until the 1370s. In the reign of Charles V (1364-1380), the most productive workshop in Paris, however, was directed by the Master of the Bible of Jean de Sy, whose style reflects the impact of Pucelle, but moves towards a greater naturalism, especially in the representation of landscapes. Typical are trees in umbrella form, called ‘boqueteaux’ in French, used not only by the Master of the Bible of Jean de Sy but also by a group of artists working in a similar style. After the death of Charles V, a generation of younger artists emerged, replacing the Boqueteaux group, and prolonged certain aspects of this fourteenth-century style until the end of the reign of Charles VI (1380-1422). Such precious and often highly illuminated manuscripts were luxury products and relatively rare. The university provided the major impetus for book production and a large number of texts were economically structured with simple coloured initials or pen-flourishing.

The texts

Liturgical books and books for private devotion were in constant demand and frequently illuminated. Indeed, the best-seller of the late middle ages was the book of hours, a prayer book for lay people, often illuminated with many miniatures. As literacy spread among the nobility in response to cultural desire and the demands of government, so it did among the rising merchant class, challenged by the needs of trade and management. With the increase in secular patronage in the thirteenth century, romance literature and historical works began to be illustrated by extensive narrative cycles, and vernacular translations of classical literature, law books, scientific and philosophical works became popular. As a result of the high demand, the French and Netherlandish luxury markets flourished in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and books were even prepared for export. While the history of painting in other countries is also represented by large scale works, the history of painting in medieval and early Renaissance France is mainly preserved in illuminated books.

John, duke of Berry, an exceptional patron of the arts

John, duke of Berry, brother of Charles V (reigned 1364-1380) and uncle of Charles VI (reigned 1380-1422), was an exceptional patron of illuminated manuscripts. He attracted many artists to his court, including the South Netherlandish painter Jacquemart de Hesdin, who entered his service in the early 1380s. Most famous are the three Limbourg brothers who came from the North Netherlandish city of Nijmegen and who entered Berry’s service in 1404 after the death of his brother Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy. The Limbourgs worked mainly in John’s castle at Bicêtre outside Paris. In addition, John of Berry ordered manuscripts from leading Paris illuminators like the Master of the Parement of Narbonne. He purchased the finest manuscripts available and received many as gifts from relatives and friends. Over the years the duke of Berry built up a legendary library of nearly 300 manuscripts, but his magnificent books of hours remain even today the crowning centrepiece.

New trends in Parisian book illumination

At the turn of the century, Paris book illumination underwent radical changes. A new generation of artists, especially the Boucicaut Master and the Master of the Mazarine Hours, pioneered innovative depictions of perspective and light. The Master of the Brussels Initials, who came from northern Italy to work in Paris during the first decade of the fifteenth century, introduced local artists to new ideas for enlarging the pictorial field and to the use of coloured acanthus leaves to brighten the margins. In the early 1420s, the Boucicaut and Mazarine Masters ceased their activity, leaving only the Bedford Master to serve the English. His style largely dominated Paris book production until the middle of the century. At the same time, towards the end of the Hundred Years War, Rouen became the centre of English administration and attracted artists like the Fastolf Master from Paris.

The Loire as a favoured residence of the kings and the court

Around the middle of the fifteenth century, further important changes took place. Under the reigns of Charles VII (1422-1461), Louis XI (1461-1483) and Charles VIII (1483-1498), the Loire Valley became the favoured region of residence for the kings and the court. Tours as a royal capital now occupied a leading role in the production of illuminated manuscripts, coinciding with the activity of the most important French artist of the middle of the fifteenth century, Jean Fouquet, who went to Italy and introduced Italian Renaissance elements into French painting. Fouquet’s influence is still felt in the work of the next generation of Tours illuminators, such as Jean Bourdichon and Jean Poyer, and also inspired artists in other centres, like Jean Colombe at Bourges.

Paris in the shadow of Tours: established workshops

While Tours took the leading position in producing luxury manuscripts, the production of illuminated manuscripts in Paris continued. Two different artistic families, who each thrived over three generations, dominated the second half of the fifteenth century. The first triad, which prolonged and adapted the tradition of the Bedford Master, began with the Master of Jean II Rolin, followed by the documented painter François, and finally by the Master of Jacques de Besançon. The second triad, which apparently originated in Northern France or in the Southern Netherlands but settled in Paris around 1450, started with the Master of Dreux Budé, followed by the Coëtivy Master and, in the next generation by the Master of the Apocalypse Rose of the Sainte-Chapelle. While the first succession of artists is known exclusively from works made for the book market, the second family also worked in other media, executing panel and wall paintings, tapestries and stained glass windows. Despite the influx of foreign artists at the beginning of the century, Parisian fifteenth-century book illumination shows a strong artistic continuity in the succession of established workshops, heralded by the achievements of the Boucicaut and Mazarine Masters and ending with the productive Master of Jacques de Besançon.

The invention of printing

Johann Gutenberg’s invention of printing with movable type around the mid-fifteenth century radically changed book production in Europe. In Paris, a printing press was installed at the Sorbonne around 1470. In the late 1480s, commercial editors began specializing in the lucrative production of printed books of hours, and established illuminators were paid to provide designs to illustrate printed books. The Master of the Apocalypse Rose of the Sainte-Chapelle was the most prominent of these and his compositions were used over and over again in incunabula, the technical term for books printed before 1500. Although handwritten copies of utilitarian texts virtually disappeared, luxury manuscripts continued to coexist with printed books for almost a century.

Paris regains its leading role in book production

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, expanding trade relations and the return of the French court to Paris under Louis XII (reigned 1498-1514) enabled the city to regain both political and artistic leadership. In the opening decades, Jean Pichore was the most successful Parisian illuminator and designer of manuscripts and printed books. Through his work, Pichore contributed to the success and popularity in France of Renaissance themes. Around 1520, foreign artists including Noël Bellemare and Godefroy le Batave came from Antwerp to Paris and introduced Antwerp Mannerism. By the middle of the sixteenth century, the production of illuminated manuscripts even for the court diminished considerably and was finally replaced by the printed book.



Paris
14th c.
Paris
1400-1450
Loire & Paris 1450-1500 Paris
1500-1530
Other parts of France Further reading Index

print Print this page
home Home
site search Search British Library website
back Back
top Back