Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry | Art for Proper 26

Luke 19:5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
The Limbourg Brothers
Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
French Gothic manuscript illumination
book of hours
1412 – 1416
Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (with Zacchaeus), illumination, 1412-1416, Limbourg brothers (active early 15th century)

In the early fifteenth century, painting on wood panels had gained popularity among artists in Europe but exceptional book illuminators were still in demand; among the finest were the Limbourg brothers (Paul, Jean, and Herman) of Flemish origin. Their book of hours, commissioned by the Duke de Berry of France, is regarded a masterpiece of the International Gothic style. “Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem” (with Zacchaeus) is from the Lenten cycle of, “Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.”

Paintings of Christ entering Jerusalem are well known; they show typically a crowd waving palm fronds as Christ nears the gate of the city. He is on a donkey and is followed by Peter leading the disciples; a fine cloth is spread before him as he approaches the gate. Paintings of the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus also are familiar. They show crowds in Jericho standing by the roadside to see Jesus who is on his way to Jerusalem. Zacchaeus, being short in stature is sitting in a sycamore tree in order to see him. [Jesus spoke to him, stayed at his house, and Zacchaeus was converted.] In art, these two events are treated usually as separate subjects but in, “Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem,” Zacchaeus makes an unexpected cameo appearance. Perhaps the Limbourgs reasoned he followed Jesus and the disciples to Jerusalem and climbed a tree to gather branches and have a better view of this event.

Zacchaeus seems unnoticed by others in this painting. Christ is focused on the people in front of him and is offering them a blessing. Unlike the usual paintings of “Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem,” there is no crowd with palms; instead, Zacchaeus is alone dropping branches from a flowering tree. [Palm Sunday also is known as “Flower’s Sunday” or by the name of the tree from which branches are taken. The general term “Branch Sunday” also is used.]

While the Limbourgs were working in France, Brunelleschi, in Italy, was working on details of linear perspective; a means by which an illusion of space can be created on a flat surface. Its use had not spread to France at the time the Limbourgs were active, thus the perspective of the architecture throughout the painting is awkward. The city gate is not in proportion to the size of the people and its entrance is too narrow to accommodate Christ on a donkey. Despite flaws, the human aspects of this painting are foremost. As Christ is entering Jerusalem, he bears a sense of authority and dignity. There is warmth and awe in the faces of the people who are there to welcome him.

[The three Limbourg brothers and the Duke de Berry died in 1416. It is likely they were all victims of the devastating bubonic plague.]

Hovak Najarian © 2013

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