The Great Hours of Anne of Brittany is undoubtedly a masterpiece of French painting, as is fitting for a manuscript intended for someone who was twice queen of France: with Charles VIII and then Louis XII.
The folios of this codex feature veritable paintings rather than the miniatures usual in this type of book. Jean Bourdichon painted almost fifty full-page scenes with gold frames upon a ground of parchment dyed black. These miniatures are comparable to paintings on canvas or board not only because of their dimensions but also because of their foregrounds, use of perspective, pictorial technique, realism of the portraits, etc.
The Nativity (f. 51v) is one of the most outstanding night scenes ever painted in a book of hours. The supernatural light cast by the star of Bethlehem magically illuminates an image conveying a clear, theological message. Master Bourdichon’s talent stands out again in the Flight to Egypt (f. 76v), whose light, atmosphere and dark background of rocky mountains recall Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. The play of light and shade in a starry night is also masterful in the scene of Judas’ kiss (f. 227v); the lamps and torches guide the spectator’s gaze so that no detail of the tragic scene is overlooked.
Bourdichon enhances the intriguing luminosity of his colours by delicate brushstrokes of gold that highlight garments, weapons, hair, angels’ wings, etc.
Also noteworthy is the remarkably innovative nature of the calendar featuring not just marginal scenes but full-page paintings interrupted by the framed text beneath the sign of the zodiac of each month. This arrangement was apparently not used in French miniatures prior to Jean Bourdichon except in two manuscripts.
The magnificent herbal in the margins of the text folios makes this manuscript a peerless book of hours. The margins of this codex constitute a comprehensive, botanical treatise of more than 330 plants, with their scientific names in Latin at the top of the image and their common names in French at the bottom. Furthermore, this veritable herbal is dotted with brightly-coloured insects and small animals that enhance the beauty and originality of each miniature. This is, in short, two codices in one: a spiritual book for meditation and prayer, and a natural encyclopaedia; a book of hours and a botanical treatise.
Master Bourdichon was court painter to Louis XI, Charles VIII, Louis XII and Francis I, and his paintings clearly contributed to the Gothic to Renaissance evolution.
Following the death of the duchess of Brittany in 1514, her Great Hours enthralled Louis XIV who transferred them to the “curiosities cabinet” at the palace of Versailles. This beautiful codex subsequently enraptured Napoleon III, who exhibited it at the Musée des Souverains in the Louvre from 1852 to 1872. It is now one of the most highly-prized treasures of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Not in vain do art historians deem the Great Hours of Anne of Brittany to be one of the most outstanding books of hours in existence.