A medieval winter scene from the the Belles Heures. Completed by 1408 or 1409, probably in Paris, the Belles Heures, a private devotional book, was the first of several sumptuous manuscripts commissioned by the duke of Berry from the Limbourg brothers, Paul, Jean, and Herman. It is perhaps the only virtually complete and stylistically consistent prayer book to survive from the duke's extraordinary library. The richly illustrated text is amplified by unusual cycles reflecting the duke's personal interests. Using a luminous palette, the artists blended an intimate Northern vision of nature with Italianate modes of figural articulation. The keen interest in the natural world and the naturalistic means of representing it, so striking in ninety-four full-page and fifty-four column illuminations, foreshadow the work of Jan van Eyck and the ensuing generations of outstanding fifteenth-century painters in the South Lowlands. In this painting they have painted a medieval winter with extraordinary veracity, rendering details with a realism that captures the atmosphere of this harsh season. Pale light from a wan sky falls onto the whitened countryside. The starkness of the snow underlines planes and accentuates details, giving the landscape a particular sharpness. In the distance a village hides its snow-covered roofs between two hills.
A peasant on the road approaches the town, driving his donkey laden with the goods he intends to sell there.
In the foreground a farm is represented, its every element executed with meticulous care: the dovecote, heehives, cart, casks, sheepfold, a hare tree, the house and the wattled enclosure. Near the farm a young man cuts wood; in front of the dovecote a benumbed figure clutching a wool coat over his head and shoulders hurries home. A large fire shines from the wooden house in which two peasants immodestly warm their legs while the mistress of the house, elegant in a lovely blue dress, warms herself with more decorum. Linen has heen hung to dry on rods along the walls, and smoke curls from the chimney.
The severity of winter is further emphasized by the birds huddled near the house, scratching for food which the snow makes it impossible to find elsewhere.
Everything in this picture of winter is noted with care and rendered with skill, attesting to the painters' power of observation and the perfection of their art.