The work of the early fifteenth-century artists collectively called “the Limbourg Brothers” is neither unknown to scholars of medieval history nor fully understood by them. Their first illuminated book of hours, the Belles Heures, was presented to Jean, Duc de Berry. In this book, we find an unusual and prominent portrayal of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. This popular medieval saint, whose image typically appealed to nuns and young women, does not appear to be an appropriate exemplar for a powerful male patron. Yet her portrayal cannot have been unintentional.
The cycle’s inclusion and manner of depiction are products of both the artists and the patron. Although art historians have not ignored this book entirely, it has not received the same depth of analysis as the later Très Riches Heures. Jonathan Alexander recently challenged Erwin Panofsky’s interpretation of the latter book as a “purely descriptive presentation of labor and leisure.” Instead, Alexander argues that the images reflect the ideology of the patron, and this scholar’s approach can be applied to the Catherine cycle of the Belles Heures. By comparing the cycles of a few other saints in the book to that of Catherine, we shall see how the Limbourgs tailored the work to the Duke through the themes of scholarship and temptation as well as the power of the mind over the body.
Lucy A. Boone, ’08 Norman, OK
Sponsor: Christina McOmber