The first duty of a prince is magnificence. A royal prerogative to go forth and accumulate; especially on the backs of the disenfranchised poor, of which there seemed an unlimited supply. The four sons of King John took up their noble burdens with a tasteful zeal. They collected pearls and tapestries, illuminated books and lapis lazuli, ermine and statues, and tennis courts and rubies.When they died, channelling sibling rivalry into one of history’s most extravagant spending sprees, they left behind collections that were in themselves works of art.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries came a boom in the tapestry business , centered in paris and in Arras, which lay within the dominions of the dukes of Burgundy. Philip the Bold had an enormous collection of tapestries based on designs and cartoons by the leading artists. Some of them represented glorious episodes in his own career. A tapestry was his preferred gift to show favor to a courtier or foreign dignitary. There may have been a commercial factor in his lavishness. He obtained his tapestries cheap or for nothing from his factories; at small cost he advertised the art and industry of his weavers throughout the noble world.
Philip’s libraries did not match those of his brothers Charles and John. His barber doubled as librarian; this perhaps significant. About two hundred volumes are reported, including some fine illustrated books. But the collection is miscellaneous, a haphazard gathering. It reveals little of the owner’s taste.
That taste is better indicated by descriptions of his country retreats. These were provided by summer arbors, tennis courts, salons and baths. They were equipped also with surprises; a weather conditioned room producing artificial rain, snow and thunder, a concealed trap door dropping a heedless guest onto a bed of feathers, an ingenious water squirt designed to ”wet the ladies under their petticoats” . He also had a menagerie, including a bear, a porcupine, and a leopard so tame that children could ride on its back.
Philip died in April 1404, in his sixty-third year. According to his wish, he was buried in a Carthusian robe borrowed from a humble monk. No doubt he hoped to influence, or even confuse the Almighty Judge. But the funeral could hardly have escaped divine notice. In the tradition of the times, it bizarre, pompous and extravagant in the extreme. It was a pageant, with two thousand nobles, bishops, monks, down to cooks and menials, all robed in mourning mantles. Thus they appear in Claus Sluter’s sculptures for Philip’s tomb. The ceremonies were suitably magnificent and suitably extravagant. In order to pay for them, his heirs found it necessary to pawn his gold and silver tableware. Regarding the elaborate tomb:
”The architectural setting takes the form of a gallery in the finest Flamboyant tradition. To break the monotony of an uninterrupted arcade, a rhythm has been introduced between broad double archways and narrow triangular niches. In the shelter of these openings the figures of the pleurants are grouped, as if the funeral procession had halted and was standing at case. The alternation of the niches dictates the disposition of the figures, the triangula
ertures containing only one figure and the double archways two.
These juxtapositions play an important part in the composition; “as they turn towards one another”, wrote Pierre Quarré, “to exchange a few words or to make some gesture of consolation, or are turned in upon themselves in spiritual recollection, meditation or in an exalted moment of prayer, each one manifests his own grief with an astonishing variety of attitudes”.
Where are they now, all the great collections, all the beautiful illuminated manuscripts and pictures, the gem-studded constructioons of the gold-smiths? The books seem to have fared the best. Many of Charles V’s treasures descended to the Paris Biblioteque Royale, which became the Biblioteque Nationale. Almost a fourth of the manuscripts in Jean de Berry’s inventory are to be found in the great European libraries. Philip the Bold’s collection was kept intact at his death; most of it is now in the Biblioteque des Ducs de Bourgogne. But many of the greatest books came, by one chance or another, into private hands. The ”Tres Riches Heures” by the Limbourg Brothers was the pride of the princely Conde family. Jean de Berry’s ”Apocalypse” , with no doubt other relics of the noble duke, found their way into the Pierpont Morgan Library.
The rich artifacts of gold and gemsrecorded in the inventories are harder to recognize and to trace. Many were given away to churches as spiritual tax deductions or to diplomats as ”douceurs”. Many were sold by royal heirs in periods of distress. Occasionally a monarch in need of cash picked the jewels from some glittering bauble and melted down the gold and silver. Proud castles were pillaged during the wars of religion and the Revolution. Fire took its toll, as in the burning of the Tuileries in 1871. Nevertheless some identifiable objects remain, such as the magnificent cup of Jean de Berry’s in the British Museum.
And still the noble collectors remain, in history’s long memory and, humbly, on printed cards in museum showcases. They take second billing, though, below the creators whom the patronized. The collectors deserve our recognition and gratitude, for a collection is itself a work of art. The passionate collector merges with his collection; he is himself a creator.
Like his younger ducal brothers, Charles V gathered into his posession every kind of art object there was to collect, from carved gems to castles. He was, however, a bibliophile above all else, and this is a fact of considerable significance in the evolution, or rather dissolution, of medieval culture. Until Charles’s time the only serious repositories of learning were the monasteries. A man of learning himself, Charles may have been one of the first men to accumulate a library expressly for the use of his counselors. His library of twelve hundred manuscripts, including French translations that he himself had commissioned , became, fittingly, the nucleus of the French national library. The image above suggests a good deal about Charles’s temperament. The artist courtier who painted it felt free to depict quite unflatteringly the king,s long pointed nose, but he presented him in the robes of an astrologer, that is, a serious student of the astronomical science.