Bonne de Luxembourg's Three Living and Three Dead: Abnormal Decomposition

By Candace A. Reilly
2011, Vol. 3 No. 07 | pg. 1/1

In fourteenth century Medieval Europe the theme of the macabre was commonplace as seen by an overwhelming obsession of cadaverous legends and images created prior to the Black Plague. Illustrations and tales of corpses cavorting with the living were prevalent; however an image of three decomposing cadavers was a rare commodity to behold by anyone outside of Italy. The legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead began to be disseminated in the late thirteenth century in France from the popular poem by Baudoin de Condé (Sandeno). In the Bonne de Luxembourg's Psalter and Hours the illuminator, who I suggest to be Jean Le Noir, scripts and illustrates this legend using unique imagery that was not a style previously used in France; where this Book of Hours was devised. I suggest that Jean Le Noir, or a similar French illuminator, incorporated the Italian style in representing the Three Dead as decomposing cadavers rather than the typical French style of illustrating the Three Dead as skeletons. The Three Dead in the Bonne de Luxembourg's Psalter and Hours are a copy of frescoes found in Florence, Monti Sabini and especially from the Campo Santo in Pisa, which were seen by the artist through drawings and pattern books. I suggest that the illuminator created a unique image by combining certain elements from the Italian and French variations of the Three Living and the Three Dead. Supplementary, the Psalter and Hours of the Bonne de Luxembourg possesses other Italian themed images, which furthers my theory that the Bonne de Luxembourg's Psalter and Hours, predominately the image of the Three Living and the Three Dead, is an anomaly that assimilates French and Italian variations into a new form of unification.

The image of the Three Living and the Three Dead in the Psalter and Hours of the Bonne de Luxembourg is uncommonly placed in comparison to other Books of Hours. The image of the Three Living is on folio 321 and the image of the Three Dead is on folio 322, which precedes the Crucifixion and the wounds of Christ and is subsequential to the Latin text and calendar (Lermack 80). Folio 321 and 322 on the bottom of the page have the first twenty-six lines of the legend from the poem by Baudoin de Condé, which is a reflection of the image depicted above. In folio 321 shows three men that are of high social status hunting on their horses; the Three Living. The background scene is red with blue details, which were common colors used in the French manuscripts of the day (Lermack 86). On the opposing folio three male figures are shown in three different stages of decomposition; the Three Dead. From left to right the figures along with their shrouds covering them begin to disintegrate until the right figure is nothing but a skeleton with flesh peeling off its bones and entrails pouring out beneath its rib cage. The Three Dead are stepping on realistic dirt with coffins cast behind them in a disheveled manner as to express that they recently broke free from them. The background is highly detailed with blues, and when regarded closely one can see a fox and a peacock above the Three Dead. During the mid-fourteenth century the fox would have represented evil and the peacock would have been a symbol of salvation or pride (Lermack 115). As I will evaluate, the legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead was part of a commonly expressed theme of macabre, which is why this particular image usually just attracts attention for its detail and beauty. However, I suggest that this specific depiction of the legend is unprecedented.

To evaluate the image with context it is important to note who the receiver of this Book of Hours was. The Bonne de Luxembourg was the wife of King John II of France and mother of the famous Charles V of France. Even though her family was the royalty of France in the mid- fourteenth century, she was never crowned queen due to her death from the Black Plague in 1349; months before her inauguration (Lermack 77). Scholars have been unable to date her Psalter and Hours to a precise year; therefore the Book of Hours is dated to before her death. In the Bonne de Luxembourg’s Psalter and Hours the poem by Baudouin de Condé is both written and visually expressed therefore it must have made a dual impact upon the reader.

The legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead is accredited by many scholars to have started with the poem written by Baudouin de Condé. Baudouin de Condé was a prominent writer during the later of the thirteenth century, and his poem which later became a renowned legend, Li Trois Mort et li Trois Vif, was probably influential to other writings and legends of the Three Living and Three Dead in France, England, Germany and Italy (Aberth 199). His poem tells the tale of three hunters, which exemplify different stages of wealth and high social status, who stumble upon three corpses. In his poem the three corpses are in different stages of decomposition and they reveal to the hunters that one day they will become worm food just the same. Baudouin de Condé’s poem is certainly morbid to a modern reader, yet it would have forced one to contemplate one’s own demise in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. I suggest that this morbidity was customary when one lives in a society when everyone around you perishes from diseases day by day.

This theme of macabre did not stem from the Black Plague as the scholar Millard Meiss suggests the majority of macabre art did; on the contrary this anxiety was born from people perishing at young ages due to medical complications. In Robin Fleming’s article, “Bones for Historians: Putting the Body back into Biography”, many diseases are evaluated from the Medieval Ages through analyzing the skeletons from cemeteries and cemetery demography. The prevailing diseases that took the most lives were; Porous bone lesions, dental enamel hypoplasia, delayed growth due to nutrition deficiency, and Periostitus (Bates 29). Therefore, we can conclude that before the Black Plague infected regions in Europe there was already an obsession with death hence the reasons for the ample images of the Three Living and the Three Dead as with other dark legends. In addition, Bonne de Luxembourg would have been aware of this tradition of the macabre in Books of Hours, hence the inclusion of the Three Living and Three Dead in her Psalter and Hours would have been a normality. Other scholars believe that she had an anxiety about the Black Plague, which is why she desired the legend in her Psalter and Hours, however it was commonplace for many to have a tension concerning death sans the Black Plague. I suggest that the Bonne de Luxembourg did not influence any aspect of this image, that it was the sole result of the illuminator’s choices.

In addition the theme of the macabre was influenced by the Christian religion in the Medieval Ages through masses at church and worship. “Christianity; after all, placed death at the centre of its drama of salvation” (Binski 9). The focus of the death of Christ and other holy figures furthers the fascination with death and the afterlife. “Late-medieval sermons still clung on to the idea that those not properly honored in death or memory could be angry or even dangerous. But the living were also those-to-be-dead, and thus is behoved them to think ahead, both for the sake of those already dead, but also for the sake of themselves” (Binski 24). The Christian lessons were augmenting the macabre, therefore since the Bonne de Luxembourg was a Christian she was bombarded with the notion of death from her religion, the fear of Purgatory, and colloquial legends. This widespread dark fascination shows how many were affected by the legends and images of the macabre, however each region of Europe during the thirteenth and fourteenth century had different perspectives of these legends.

Baudouin de Condé’s poem has the Three Dead point out to the Three Living that one day they will be the same. No matter the riches the living possesses and no matter their placement in society they will one day be rotting away. The poem expresses Memento Mori, which states that one should remember their mortality, remember that they will and must die. The Three Living and the Three Dead are double images of each other. This follows the prominent style of the Three Living being mirror images of the Three Dead. This style expresses to the viewer that they too must contemplate their own mortality and place themselves in a hall of mirrors (Binski). In addition, the Psalter and Hours of the Bonne de Luxembourg adds another sense of duality because the text and image reflect each other. Folio 321 and 322 are a constant force of duality. The illuminator, as previously mentioned, included a fox and a peacock behind the Three Dead, which remarks on how salvation and evil are coexistent; another source of duality. Even the text selected for the two pages proves that the Three Living are meant to be the mirrors of the Three Dead.

Un jour, pour lor orguelmarcier, leur apert un mireoir Diex. (Lermack 111)

Death is certainly meant to be seen as an equalizing force, and as a form of humility for the living.

During the time the Psalter and Hours of the Bonne de Luxembourg was being illuminated there were three different variations of the way the Three Living and the Three Dead were portrayed in art, which varied by country, that shows the prominence of the legend. However, the Psalter and Hours of the Bonne de Luxembourg does not follow any of these traditions even though it was made in France where illuminators followed a strict artistic convention. The English and the French altered the presentation of the Three Living, while the Italians were unique in their expression of the Three Dead. In the majority of French manuscripts and frescos depicting this legend the Three Living are seen riding horses while they hunt, while the English art details the Three Living on foot (Kinch). Either does not have an alternate meaning or significance, except that it was the style of the country, hence why the Bonne de Luxembourg’s Three Living are on horseback; which is just following tradition. However, the Italians had an extremely different variation of characterizing the Three Dead, rather than using skeletons like the English and French.

Among early Italian frescoes of the Three Living and the Three Dead theme are some that show the living, usually mounted on their horses, before the dead in their coffins in varying stages of decomposition. Such images were painted on the walls of the church of Poggio Mirteto in the Monti Sabini region toward the end of the thirteenth century, (and) in the gallery of the University of Goettingue in Florence at the beginning of the fourteenth century (Kinch).

In addition to the frescoes found at Poggio Mirteto and in the gallery found at the University of Goettingue, the Triumph of Death at Camposanto in Pisa also follows the Italian tradition of showing the Three Dead decomposing in coffins while the Three Living are on horseback. The Bonne de Luxembourg’s Three Living and Three Dead shows the Three Dead decomposing. Why is there an Italian variation of the legend in a French Book of Hours? Is the image a compilation of the French and Italian representation or is it strictly Italian? All three of the mentioned Italian frescoes predate the Psalter and Hours of the Bonne de Luxembourg; therefore I suggest they influenced the illuminator to the Bonne de Luxembourg’s prayer book.

Scholars and I believe that the illuminator of the Psalter and Hours of the Bonne de Luxembourg was inspired by Jean Pucelle. Jean Pucelle’s death predated the completion of the Bonne de Luxembourg’s prayer book even though the Book of Hours is done in his style; a theory is that Jean Le Noir or an illuminator of France was the artist (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History). Knowing the illuminator, especially for this Book of Hours, is paramount because he was the one who chose to make this image unique by including Italian themes and breaking a strict tradition. It is documented that Pucelle made a voyage to Italy, which he would have acquired sketches and patterns of styles of famous Italian frescoes which would have included the Three Living and the Three Dead (Avril). Jean Pucelle was the mentor to Jean Le Noir and when Pucelle died one can assume that his pattern books and drawings were passed on to Jean Le Noir. Pucelle was known for adopting some Italian styles even though the French illuminators of the fourteenth century stuck to their own stylistic tradition. “The impact of Italian painting was felt precisely at a moment when a latent need for renewal was beginning to manifest itself in French illumination, after the end of the thirteenth century” (Avril). With this information of Italian influences seeping into Pucelle’s work it comes as no surprise that his student would incorporate some Italian traditions into his work as well. Jean Le Noir is rarely given credit as the artist of this work; however he is cited for the Duc of Berry’s Petites Heures and for The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre. In studying the margin work of both these Book of Hours one can notice a common artistic style of using trees, leaves, vines and birds. The same style repeats in the margin detail in the Psalter and Hours of the Bonne de Luxembourg.

I believe that the illuminator for the Bonne de Luxembourg’s prayer book is Jean Le Noir, even if not then it was a French illuminator, which would give my theory the same results. The illuminator and the patron were both residing in France, therefore it would have been normal for him to produce the French visual theme of the legend. However, that production of the legend would not have made him known, nor would it have given the Bonne de Luxembourg a unique image to contemplate and present to her companions. Including the Italian variation in a French Book of Hours made the Psalter and Hours a foreign treasure and unprecedented.

The image of the Three Living and the Three Dead in the Psalter and Hours of the Bonne de Luxembourg is a copy of Italian frescoes, especially the Triumph of Death at Camposanto in Pisa. In the image one can see that the Three Living are all on horses and staring down at the Three Dead in coffins who are rotting away in three stages of decomposition. The scene is presented realistically with trees, rocks and dirt clearly seen by the viewer. The combination of realistic background, the Three Dead residing in coffins and decomposing and the Three Living on horses all follows the Italian variation of the legend. As previously discussed, the Bonne de Luxembourg’s Psalter and Hours Three Living and Three Dead is not a typical French variation of the legend. The only consistent parts of the French variation are that the Three Dead are standing, the Three Living are on horses, and part of the background is stylized. The illuminator incorporated the Italian variation of the Three Dead decomposing and residing in coffins yet positioned them standing communicating with the Three Living. The background is a combination of Italian realistic and French stylistic, because at the feet of the Three Living and Three Dead there is dirt and vegetation. The illuminator entangled these variations together to make an emblematic version for the Bonne de Luxembourg. The Triumph of Death in Pisa predates the Psalter and Hours of the Bonne de Luxembourg by nineteen years (Artstor). In choosing to make the Three Dead decomposing for the Bonne de Luxembourg’s Psalter and Hours, the illuminator refers clearly to the poem by Baudoin de Condé, which is beneath the image, rather than other French and English Book of Hours. Likewise, it would have given the Bonne de Luxembourg a heightened sense of her ephemeral mortality that one day she will be like the image in her prayer book with the flesh hanging like drapery off her bones. While reading her Psalter and Hours and gazing at and reading the Three Living and Three Dead legend, the Bonne de Luxembourg was forced to mull over her demise in knowing that she will putrefy, be devoured by worms and maggots and therefore trapped to lament over her own death.

Ensuing my study of the Bonne de Luxembourg’s Three Living and Three Dead one can see there is an ample interference of Italian styles in a French manuscript. However, this image was not the only Italian stylized portion of this Psalter and Hours. The same illuminator, or another French artist, included the Crucifixion scene in folios 329-334 (Lermack 79). The inclusion of the Crucifixion in a French Psalter and Hours was uncommon in the fourteenth century since it was a developed Italian style (Avril). Therefore, this Psalter and Hours, I believe, has created a new category for itself. The combination of French and Italian variations makes the Psalter and Hours of the Bonne de Luxembourg prodigious. I am unable to answer why the illuminator chose to stylize this manuscript so uniquely, because many facts concerning this manuscript are lost to the past.

Furthermore, the Psalter and Hours of the Bonne de Luxembourg Three Living and Three Dead does not follow a traditional French nor Italian variation. The decision to putrefy and decay the Three Dead I suggest had brought this Book of Hours into an avant-garde variation in the 1340s. The depiction is not merely a copy of a famous fresco or idea, it is an incomparable amalgamation of two traditional stylized forms of art.


Aberth, John. From the Brink of Apocalypse. London: Routledge, 2001.

Avril, François. Manuscript Painting at the Court of France. The Fourteenth Century. New York: George Braziller Inc, 1978.

Bates, David, Julia Crick and Sarah Hamilton eds. Writing Medieval Biography 750-1250. Essays in Honour of Frank Barlow. Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2006.

Binski, Paul. Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Deuchler, Florens. “Looking at Bonne of Luxembourg’s Prayer Book.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 29.6 (1971): 267-278.

Kinch, Ashby. “Image, Ideology, and Form: The Middle English Three Dead Kings in its Iconographic Context,” Chaucer Review 43.1 (2008): 49-82

Lermack, Annette Ingebretson. “Fit for a Queen: The Psalter of Bonne de Luxembourg at the Cloisters” Ann Arbor, UMI Company, 1999.

Meiss, Millard. Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Mormando, Frank, and Thomas Worchester. Ed. Piety and Plague: from Byzantium to the

Baroque. Kirksville, Missouri: Truman State University Press, 2007.

Sandeno, Robin M. “The Legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead : the development of the macabre in late medieval England” Scholars Archive. (1997)

Tolley, Thomas. “Le Noir, Jean” Oxford Art Online.

“Probably Jean Le Noir, his daughter Bourgot, and his workshop. Psalter and Hours of Bonne de Luxembourg, Duchess Normandy.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-. (February 2010)

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