Beauty, power and myth in the Middle Ages

Beauty, power and myth in the Middle Ages
Thursday 1 November 2012

On St Andrew’s Day, 30 November 1340, one of the greatest cultural patrons of the later Middle Ages was born: John, the Duke of Berry.

A bibliophile and lover of all things beautiful, the duke commissioned some of the most outstanding artworks produced in the late medieval period, and at some stage, most people today would probably have seen scenes from his most famous commission, the Très Riches Heures (Very Beautiful Hours, A Book of Prayers).

This lavish prayer book, the production of which began c. 1412, reflects the duke’s use of his artistic patronage for political ends. Its folios  reveal exquisite illuminations by the Limbourg brothers of important castles and fortresses held by the royal family across France. One notable portrait depicts the royal Palace and Saint Chapelle, to the right, which each survive in Paris today.

One of the most well-known of the miniatures is the depiction of the castle Lusignan, in central France (below). Lusignan was the site of one of France’s most drawn-out but symbolically significant victories during the Hundred Years War. With its castle dominating the landscape, the image projects the authority and power of the lord of Lusignan, who just happened to be Berry himself. If you look closely, you will see a small golden dragon, painted flying over the right-hand tourelle (turret). The dragon was a potent political emblem that figuratively legitimised the duke’s victory at Lusignan. Named Mélusine, this dragon was the serpentine guise of the illustrious Lusignan dynasty’s mythical fairy ancestor from whom Berry claimed descent.

Originally an oral tale, the legend of Mélusine’s foundation of Lusignan was written down at Berry’s request, and the golden dragon may be the earliest surviving illustration of this fantastical creature. Mélusine’s story continues to thrive in oral form today in France and is also the subject of cartoons and children’s fiction. It is to John, Duke of Berry, and his interest in creating what Françoise Autrand terms an ‘aesthetics of power’, that we owe the memory of this medieval myth.

Tania M. Colwell is a School Visitor and sessional lecturer in the School of History. She currently teaches HIST 2220: Topics in History – Western Europe in the Later Middle Ages, c. 1348–c.1500, and is revising her dissertation on the Mélusine romance manuscripts and their audiences for monograph publication.


School of History


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