The Belleville Breviary by Jean Pucelle
Interpretation of Gothic Style Illuminated Manuscript

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Belleville Breviary (1323-26)
(detail) By Jean Pucelle.
A wonderful example of
Medieval painting from
the Paris school.

The Belleville Breviary (1323-26)


Elegant and Involved Style
Celebrated Illuminated Manuscripts


Name: "The Belleville Breviary"
Date: 1323-26
Artist: Jean Pucelle (1290-1334)
Medium: Grisaille and tempera on vellum
Genre: Illuminated manuscript
Movement: Gothic art
Location: Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

For analysis and explanation of other important pictures from the Renaissance, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For analysis of all types of
religious paintings by
Gothic illuminators like
Jean Pucelle, please see
our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of the Belleville Breviary

The Belleville Breviary, complete with a golden clasp emblazoned with the arms of France, is the most famous illuminated breviary known to French painting of the 14th century. (Note: A breviary is a religious book which contains all the liturgical texts necessary for the order or denomination in question.) It was produced around 1323-26 for Jeanne de Belleville - wife of Olivier de Clisson - by Jean Pucelle, one of the great experts in miniature painting of the day. Although not as intricate or beautiful as the earlier Book of Kells or the later Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1413), the Breviary remains one of the most striking Gothic Illuminated Manuscripts (c.1150-1350) of the 14th century. The breviary is made up of two volumes of 446 and 430 folios. The first volume contains the prayers used during the summer; the second contains prayers used during the winter. It was later owned by Charles V of France and his son Charles VI, who passed it on to his son-in-law Richard II of England. Inherited by Henry IV of England, the manuscript was then passed to Jean, Duc de Berry. Eventually it came into the hands of Marie Jouvenal des Ursins, a nun at Poissy.

NOTE: Other important breviaries include the Aberdeen Breviary (1507), the Stowe Breviary (c.1310), the Isabella Breviary (c.1490), although the Roman Breviary (c.1460), which eventually became the standard Roman Catholic reference book.

Jean Pucelle, the illustrator of the Belleville Breviary, was one of the finest miniaturists in Paris, with exceptional proficiency in a variety of media ranging from enamelling to stained glass art. He was celebrated in particular for his masterpiece The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux (1328, The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art) - a prayer book for the French Queen Jeanne d'Evreux. A favourite of the French court, he introduced Italian pre-Renaissance painting into France, notably the new naturalistic style of Giotto (1267-1337), and was familiar with the more conservative style of the Sienese School of painting, as exemplified by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319) and Simone Martini (1284-1344). His illuminations for the Belleville Breviary feature three-dimensionally modelled figures, typically executed in grisaille, with added touches of colour. The breviary also illustrates the increasing importance of perspective in Pucelle's work - a dynamic underpinning his move away from Gothic art towards the softer style of International Gothic art, which would soon come to dominate book painting later in the century. In this sense, his illustration can be seen as paving the way for the principles of the Florentine Renaissance. Pucelle had no real successor until Jacquemart de Hesdin (fl.1384-1409) and the Limbourg Brothers (Herman, Jean, Pol, all died 1416).




Elegant and Involved Style

The Belleville Breviary is one of the finest breviaries of the fourteenth century, which was part of the collection of medieval art at the monastery at Poissy. Royalty, nobility, clergy, and even the general populace showered gifts on the Poissy Abbey in honour of the Saint Roi (Saint Louis) who, following his death at the siege of Tunis and his canonization in 1297, had become an icon for an entire people.

It was during this period that laymen were taking over from monks in illuminating even religious manuscripts. Like other craftsmen, they formed guilds and would live in a particular district. At this time, little distinction was made between a sculptor and a stonemason, and it was said that more than one illuminated manuscript painter had a second job as an innkeeper. (Note: For more, see: Making of Illuminated Manuscripts.)

By the end of the twelfth century, Paris numbered some seventeen miniaturists; but because they did not sign their works, their names have not come down to us. Two are known, however, though only by their first names: Nicolas and Honore, both "heads of workshops." In their work, the colours are lighter, the decoration softer, the figures treated with suppleness and delicacy. The miniature is now more than "stained glass on parchment." Probably a pupil of Honore's, Jean Pucelle was instrumental in this new departure. (Note: For more, see: History of Illuminated Manuscripts.)

The entire development of the miniature in the fourteenth century, a time of Bibles moralisees, bears the imprint of his style. Private demand for breviaries intended for individual devotions and for Books of Hours (compilations of devotional texts, offices, and prayers corresponding to the time of the day - hence the name) swelled considerably. These books are enriched by illustrations, with ornaments whose quality and opulence depended essentially on the financial resources of the person commissioning the piece.

Compiled for Jean de Belleville, Jean Pucelle's breviary is remarkable for its elegant and involved style, its refined and tempered colours, for the delicacy of its tail - and head - pieces and its marginalia, and for a zoo-like bestiary, at once tongue-in-cheek and charming, wonderfully captured in a sinuous, whimsical line. A monkey and a butterfly, a dragonfly and some birds, blues and greens that match or clash in turn, the contours, the gentleness, charm, and joyful imagination of the whole - all these elements enchant.

With Jean Pucelle, who splendidly conveys the sensitivity of his time and who exemplified the prestige of the School of Paris, a new conception of the illuminated book is evident, in the way he surrounds the text with an interlace formed by stems sprouting into red, blue, or even gilt leaflets, weaving into veritable nets onto which the figures are grafted. In fact Pucelle is famous for the decorative art which appears in the margins of his illustrated texts. Sometimes called drolleries (or grotesques), these images were popular with all the best miniaturists between 1250 and 1400. The most common types of drollery include hybrids of different animals, or animals and humans, such as dogs wearing human masks, bird-like dragons and so on.

The 14th century represented the highpoint of manuscript illumination. By the early 15th century, large scale panel paintings like the Dijon Altarpiece (1394-99) by Melchior Broederlam would hasten its decline and lead directly to the monumental altarpiece art of the Italian Renaissance and its followers.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from "100 Masterpieces of Painting" by Michel Nuridsany (2006, Flammarion, Paris), a highly instructive source for any student of visual art.

Celebrated Illuminated Manuscripts

Christ's Monogram Page (Chi/Rho) (Book of Kells) (800)
Highpoint of Insular Illumination.

International Gothic Illuminations
Courtly Illuminated Manuscripts (c.1375-1450)

Medieval Manuscript Illumination (c.1000-1500)
Romanesque to Renaissance.

Romanesque Illuminated Manuscripts
Medieval Illustrated Gospel Texts: St Albans Psalter, Winchester Bible.


• For the meaning and interpretation of other Gothic illuminations, see: Homepage.

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