The Belles Heures is a great, if small, work because it is the only manuscript decorated with minitatures painted exclusively by the three Limbourg brothers. The brothers died circa 1416 as teenagers soon after completing this devotional book for Jean de France, Duc du Berry, the son, brother, and uncle of three kings of France who gave the Limbourg brothers, for the most part, carte blanche. Much in the manuscript, in fact, was experimental for the already masterful hands of the brothers: They would try out different poses, for instance, to better master the figure (whose skin was, simply, a mixture of white and vermillion pigment). In addition to illustrating many customary stories from the Bible, lives of the saints, prayers to the Virgin, and so forth, there are paintings of contemporary events, notably the Black Plague, with its attendant graves and rat-colored skeletons. Many details fill each lavish page: the upturned head of white-blonde Catherine about to be martyred, two prim fish in a quatrefoil, delicate frames of filigree bounding each miniature, seraphim saturated in vermillion against an equally saturated ultramarine sky, white scrolls rolling out of the dead men’s hands, sounding last messages to the living, and so on.
One more thing to not miss at the Met this spring—and which also leaves soon, May 23—are the 39 mourning figures, or pleurants, also in the Medieval rooms of the Met. They were carved in alabaster to dress the graves of Philip the Good and John the Fearless (the nephew of Jean de France) and his wife. The Mourners, made in-the-round in marble each sixteen inches high, are typically at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon, but, because of renovation there, are presently in New York. In their usual context, the figures stand in frozen procession through arches, as if going through the arcade of a cloister. Unlike the rest of the shows mentioned here, these Mourners can be viewed online fairly well.
So while the queue to see the Picasso exhibition lengthens this spring and summer, make a dash to see these shows before they close. Picasso will be there, and surrounded at all hours with a sizeable audience of fans, until August 1.