The Hours of Étienne Chevalier
Jean Fouquet’s greatest masterpiece finally available in a facsimile edition
The destiny of this famous manuscript remains obscure even today. What we know for sure, in contrast, is the person who commissioned this work: Étienne Chevalier, treasurer of France under the reign of King Charles VII (1422-1461). One may assume that the masterpiece remained in the family until the last descendant of Étienne: Nicolas Chevalier, baron of Crissé (1562–1630). Then, its trace vanishes and by the end of the 17th century the owner is already unknown; at that time the scholar and “antiquarian” Roger de Gaignières discovers the manuscript – which apparently remains intact – and reproduces two of the miniatures.
Probably it is the exceptionally high quality of the miniatures and their character that the manuscript falls victim to, because some time after de Gaignières the manuscript is dismembered. First, all the texts belonging to the miniatures were covered being uncertain the particular circumstances. However, we can reconstruct the remounting of the “images” on oak panels, since on some of the panels we can still find the label of the Parisian carpenter and frame maker Basset who worked at the end of the 18th century. Therefore, a total of 40 miniatures are preserved under passe-partout and mounted on panels. In the turmoil of the French Revolution since 1789, this series ended up in the hands of the Belgian art dealer Peter Birmann from whom then again the banker Georg Brentano from Frankfurt purchased it in the first years of the 19th century – for a total amount of 5,000 Francs.
A climax of European book illumination
For a long time, the cycle of miniatures from Chantilly was merely considered a sequence of images from the life of Christ complemented by scenes of the Old Testament, virtually a kind of legenda aurea. It was not before the 1970s when the systemic and reasoned approach of the miniatures in their overall context was developed scientifically. It was recognised that each miniature is closely related to the hymn text of the respective office. The discovery of the text bifolio in 1981 contributed significantly to carrying out a more exactly material reconstruction of the original state. The illustrated cycles of the three Offices – of Mary, the Passion and the Holy Ghost – are interwoven. This is also evident in the disruption of the traditional sequence, as the Visitation is arranged before the Annunciation, which in this case introduces the Office of the Holy Ghost. This is very rare and presents a unique feature to the Hours of Étienne Chevalier.
Each of the 47 miniatures is a world of its own. With his innovations, Fouquet demonstrates his sublime inspiration: the layout of the pages that proves his outstanding skills enabling him to reinterpret the scenes in an unprecedented way – some familiar scenes in the eyes of his contemporaries, and others rarely used. To the same extent, Fouquet introduces elements that are inspired by current events and the life of his time.
The commissioner and patron:
Étienne Chevalier was born around 1410 as the son of a secretary in Melun into a noble French family. In 1443, Étienne became a notary and a royal secretary of Charles VII as well as tax auditor of the administrative bodies of Languedoil-Languedoc and Outre-Seine. In 1446, he married the daughter of Dreux Budé, Catherine, and had a son and two daughters with her. The year 1452 was a fateful year for him: his wife Catherine died on August 24th; previously, on March 20th, Étienne had been appointed treasurer of France and consequently chief administrator of the public finances of France. He also held this high position at Court under the successor and son of Charles, Louis XI.