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June 2011

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Book Review: "A Masterpiece Reconstructed - The Hours of Louis XII"

Last week at McKay's I stumbled onto a real find on the art shelf:  "A Masterpiece Reconstructed - The Hours of Louis XII," a series of essays on a wonderful series of illuminations painted by Jean Bourdichon, master illuminator for two French kings:  Louis XII and Charles VIII, his predecessor.  The book features super close-up photos of the late 15th-century illuminations, showing every brush-stroke, along with a long essay describing Bourdichon's technique.  Bourdichon's illuminations were actually miniature paintings every bit as lovely and realistic as easel paintings of the day.  They were created with lavish use of expensive colors:  pure gold in the highlights, and ultramarine in the skin tones - something easel painters could not afford at the time.  This lavish use of blue was forgotten until the 19th century, when French chemists synthesized ultramarine blue, and made it easily available, just in time for the Impressionists. 

The essays also include a fascinating foray into medieval eroticism in the work of the illuminators.  Apparently the subject of David and Bathsheba was an excuse for some quite explicit, almost pornographic little paintings.  And I had always thought that the little nudes scattered throughout the Hours of the Duke de Berry were just jokes, but according to the essayist, the Duke was quite a nasty perve in his time, and shared a predeliction for little girls with Pol Limbourg, his master illuminator.  I guess nowadays they would just be looking at the internet, but in the 15th century, they managed to get together and produce some exquisite and timeless art.  How things have changed. 

This book will take its place on my shelf with another little treasure I found a few years back:  "King Rene's Book of Love (Le Coeur d'Amours Espris)" published by the National Library, Vienna in 1975.  The book is a complete manuscript of illuminations painted, supposedly, by Rene, King of Sicily and Duke of Anjou while imprisoned by Duke Philip of Burgundy during the 100 Years War.  According to legend, while a prisoner he met Jan van Eyck and became his pupil.  The illuminations are fantastic and very three-dimensional.  Not all critics accept that they were actually painted by King Rene, but they bear definite stylistic similarities to the Bourdichon paintings and also to the work of Jan van Eyck.  Some art historians have even said that they could have been painted by van Eyck's sister or another female relative.

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