“Illusion is a refuge for everyone, not just for royal dukes. It softens life’s cruelties and smooths the sharp edges. The calendar cycles offer a sustaining image of pattern, order, and attainable achievement, to counter the confusions and disappointments in real life in the real world. For this reason, its little pictures continued to be welcome for centuries, long after they had grown detached from any teaching program and dwindled into decoration. In this afterglow they lived on as ornamental details, reassuring and endearingly familiar. […] As time rolled by, the calendar most needed labour for society, in any month of any year, was no longer to instruct but, instead, to charm, to comfort, and to cheer.”Henisch 1999
The Fabulous Middle Ages
Of all numerous miniatures made for the Duke Jean de Berry, those of the calendar cycle are distinguished by art history as the most renowned illuminations ever made (Henisch 1999:26; see Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry: Squared Humanity inscribed in the Cycle of God). The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry seems to be a suitably luxurious title for the most fabulous Middle Ages ever painted: gentry play, happy peasants’ toil – the rich man’s view (Beckett 1996). And that’s the Duke of Berry actually was (Ibid.). Although, the Limbourg brothers painted what was requested by their powerful and rich commissioner, their miniatures seem to have a double levelled meaning in each case (Ibid.). The ability to look truly and without any fixed ideas of what is fitting is what makes great paintings (Ibid.).
“The animated little scenes offer delightful glimpses of everyday activity and for this very reason have often been used as illustrations of daily life in the medieval world” (Henisch 1999:vii). They show the world of feudal society, including contemporary clothes, splendours of the rich and everyday labours of peasants marked with the rhythm of passing time of the successive months of the year (Battistini 2005:47). Simultaneously, “their surface-realism is deceptive [and all idyllic images of the medieval calendar served to style and discipline] the unwieldy, unsatisfactory complexities of life, to create an image more beguiling and beautiful than any attempted re-creation of reality itself” (Henisch 1999:vii). In the idealized picture of contemporary society of the calendar, peasants’ rural labours, such as ploughing, sowing, haymaking and harvesting, grape picking, or wood collecting in winter, continuously interlace with a represented side by side allegorical picture of a medieval aristocracy and their favourite amusements: feasts, tournaments, courtship, nuptials, and hunting with a falcon (Battistini 2005:47). Two strikingly different worlds co-exist there in full accordance complementing one another.
Hierarchy of medieval life
The miniatures capture a hierarchical idea of the world characteristic of the Late Middle Ages: on medieval calendar pages every man, every creature and thing seem to have been placed as said by the divine will and order (Białostocki 2008:213; Żylińska 1986:237). The lifetime of a human being is bound with the successive stages of nature, and with the cycle of transformations, it is endlessly subject to the rolling year (Białostocki 2008:213; Żylińska 1986:237). In the illuminations, a bulk of a knightly castle always dominates above an earthly life of peasants, while the law of God’s order rules over the whole universe (Białostocki 2008:213; Żylińska 1986:237).
The space of the fifteenth century painting had already reached quite far; all the same, it still looked like a mise en scène composition finishing behind several layers of hills (Białostocki 2008:213; see Żylińska 1986:237). Inscribed in the framework, the painted landscape seems to rise above human heads (Białostocki 2008:213; see Żylińska 1986:237). The forest, like a curtain, is covering from a viewer a mystery living beyond the horizon and a symbolical image of a ruling the universe order is harmoniously extending over the world of mankind (Białostocki 2008:213).
Nevertheless, the reality was not so harmonious, and contemporary daily live did not go through as delightfully and in line with the social hierarchy, as contemporary artists tried to show in their bright illuminations (Żylińska 1986:237). Wearing linen shirts, bare-foot peasants were not so pleased with their life, nobles not always led a romantic life near their charming châteaux, or showed gallantry towards women, the latter, in turn, more often demonstrated their disagreement with the place imposed them by the Church and society (Ibid.:237).
Memories of the peasants’ revolt of the year 1381 were still alive; the Black Death was persistently taking a devastating toll on human life in Europe; heretics were burning at numerous stakes, and the Hundred Years War continued (Ibid.:237). The owner of the Very Rich Hours, the generous Duke of Berry, was not definitely known as a lord “noted for his love of farm life or, indeed, of peasants. [Outside] of the pages his very own books, […] he showed a harsh indifference towards his peasants, and a positively rapacious interest in the profits he could wring from their exertions. His record as a master of men called for not paeans of praise of grateful subjects but resentment and rebellion throughout his vast domains” (Henisch 1999:26).
The Middle Ages, like every epoch throughout history, had strong reasons to long for a more beautiful world to live in and the deeper despair and suffering because of difficulties of the present day (Huizinga 2003:54). In those days, the more passionate and desperate yearning and melancholy may have born (Ibid.:54). One of the ways of escape from the reality was an artistic imagery (Żylińska 1986:237).
From gold to true colours of life
In the so-called classical epoch of the Parisian miniature in the thirteenth century, illuminations were usually plentifully decorated with gold and vivid colours harmonically put together in the way to avoid clashing in their various combinations (Pijoan 2006:57). In the fourteenth century, especially in the Avignon school, golden surfaces clearly diminished giving a place to the colours of blues and greens, like in the case of Italian miniatures (Ibid.:57). Finally, in the fifteenth century, in the schools of central France and Burgundy, sparkling gold completely disappeared; the background adopted colours imitating those one could find in the world of nature, and the sky and trees were only slightly touched with silver and golden marks just for underling the brightness and depth of the colour (Ibid.:57).
Books of hours were traditionally much smaller in comparison with the large Carolingian codes, and their sumptuous imagery turned out to be an integral part of the written word (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:213). Consequently, accompanying a text, an illustration was treated less as a book decoration and more as its dominant information (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:213). In illuminated manuscripts of the Late Middle Ages, the observation of the nature objectified the pictures of a represented world giving them innovative expressions: clearness, light and shadow, a horizontal distance shining in the mist, and foamed waves of floating clouds, all joined together with a dancing rhythm of human shapes and various concrete forms (Białostocki 2008:213).
Painting more expressive than words
In the fifteenth century, painting dominated literature in means of expressions (Huizinga 2003:340,343). Especially miniaturists successfully tried to seize a colour of the passing moment, such as the depiction of the play of light of a torch, or of the radiant sunset (Ibid.:340,343). The illuminator of the Hours, Pierre d’Ailly even dared to represent the sunbeams breaking through the clouds after the storm (Ibid.:340,343). A realistic picture of the nature in contemporary painting, unlike in the literature, was freely developed, irrespective of any conventions (Ibid.:340,343).
Furthermore, a depiction of the nature painted in the background was only of a marginal importance, and therefore, it could preserve a clean expression and form, independent of the rules of the hieratic style strongly influencing in turn a major subject of the paining in the foreground (Huizinga 2003:340,343). A precise parallel to this phenomenon of the medieval painting can be drawn from the art of the ancient Egypt; the less the landscape was linked to the thematic scene, the more its picture itself became harmonious and natural (Ibid.:340,343).
In the architectural background
Although the Limbourg represented an imagined world in their masterpiece, it was depicted against a background of real scenery, still idyllic and gentle (Żylińska 1986:237). In the miniatures, the viewing of the distance is usually hidden by huge silhouettes of the castles, represented in detail with almost an archaeological accuracy (Białostocki 2008:213): from the majestic walls in and around Paris: the Louvre, royal palace of Cité with Sainte-Chapelle, the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the castle of Vincennes, to the most charming royal residences, such as the Châteaux of Saumur, Lusignan, Étampes, or Clain, near Poitiers (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:3-4).
Amongst steep roofs of cities, charming castles, and towering cathedrals, the scenes of daily life arise in douce France according to the changing months of the calendar year; harvesting, grape picking, hunting with falcons, and sumptuous feasts belong to the most characteristic (Żylińska 1986:236-237). What the Duke of Berry saw was a paint in one of the most splendid manuscripts ever owned by a royal prince (Beckett 1996). And one can imagine him looking at these magnificent pictures with a proud of a rich owner (Ibid.). “For him the calendar pictures he enjoyed as he turned the pages of his book of hours must have woven a beautiful veil of illusion, to mask the ugly reality of the world outside his castle walls” (Henisch 1999:26).
The Very Rich Hours opens with January and the New Year’s feast at the court of the Duke, Jean of Berry (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Only the first of the twelve scenes of the cycle represents activities taking place indoors; the Duke is sitting down by the table laden with food and drink, on the right (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). He is wearing a typical of the epoch blue belted houppelande and a furry hat (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). The host’s subordinates are offering him gifts according to the custom (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). The Master of Ceremonies encourages them with his words written above in French: approche, approche, [approach] (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Behind the feasting group there is a blue tapestry hanging on the wall, which represents fighting knights (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Accuracy in representing details is astonishing; the authors even depicted the so-called Salière de Pavillon – the salt-cellar in the shape of a boat with the Duke’s bear and swan emblems (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Quite surprising is the lack of ladies at the feast (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Women’s role was quite important at the court of Burgundy though (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
To illustrate February the artists covered the landscape in snow for the very first time in the history of European painting (Secomska 1972:14-25; Białostocki 2008:213). After Sister Wendy Beckett, the winter cold, with its delight but also with its inconvenience, has been shown in a surprisingly charming way (Beckett 2001:267). The Duke’s barns must be fulfilled with harvests; in the background there is a snow-covered haystack up the hill, the birds are pecking scattered seeds from the ground (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). On the right of the framework there is an enclosure for the sheep, four bee hives, a pigeon loft, barrels, a bunch of brushwood, and a cart (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
At first sight, however, a viewer can see here a comic (Beckett 1996). In the foreground, inside the house a woman and a man are warming themselves by the fire; by the door, there is a lady in blue dress warming her underpants while bashfully averting her gaze from the couple inside the house warming there “their lack of underpants” (Ibid.). Outside the house, there are three peasants: the first man, trembling because of the cold, is covering himself with a white cloth and brushing the snow off his shoes, the second is chopping the wood, and the last one is driving a loaded donkey up the snow-covered and surely slippery road (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
“March” is also dedicated to the life at the countryside; first labours in the field; ploughing and sowing have just started (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Some peasants are trimming the grapevines (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Behind them, a looking after the herd shepherd is trying to escape from the March downpour (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). In the fond and up the hill there is the huge silhouette of Lusignan castle stretched out on the whole width of the page; towering over the region of Poitou, it was one of many residences belonging to the Duke (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Its story is bound with the beautiful French legend of Melusine (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Although there are different versions of the story, the legend has it that one of the Lusignans married a ravishing woman named Melusine who turns into a dragon (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). The miniaturist painted her in the shape of a fantastical lizard flying over the castle’s tower to watch over the lords of the castle and warn them against a coming danger (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Wonderful is that even the most hidden detail is to say a fascinating history (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
In April the nature is waking up again; in the background the Château de Dourdan is plunged in the green entourage of trees and meadows (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). In the foreground, accompanied by two witnesses, a young noble couple is exchanging engagement rings (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Plausibly, the scene shows the engagement of Charles d’Orléan with Jean of Berry’s granddaughter, Bonne d’Armagnac (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). On the right young women are picking first flowers; in the distance two boats with fishermen are floating on the waters at the foot of the castle (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). The whole illumination is imbued with the blossom of spring, which is symbolically underlined with the graceful scene of the engagement (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
“May” shows the scene of spring time outing taking its place outside the walls of a charming city in Auvergne (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). According to the depicted here tradition, people went to the forest in May to pick green branches used then for decorating houses (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
An elegantly dressed procession of lords and ladies are following the musicians; the nobles are wearing the so-called in French livrée du mai – the livery of May, and wreaths of leaves on their heads or on the shoulders (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Behind them there is the dense and dark forest and not less multiplied than the trees in the forest are the towers of the castle of Riom rising in the background (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Hay-making in June is placed in the foreground of Paris, being seen from the Hôtel de Nesles, also the castle of the dukes of Berry, with a view of Île de la Cité with the royal palace and Sainte Chapelle visible in the picture (Żylińska 1986:237; Secomska 1972:14-25). In the sweltering heat of summer the bare-foot peasants are working in the field, the men are scything; the girls are raking and piling the hay in the haystacks (Żylińska 1986:237; Secomska 1972:14-25). The figures of the peasant-women are slender; they are dancingly bending and assuming flexible ballet positions (Białostocki 2008:213).
Their slim shapes more remind the figures of the ladies picking the flowers in the scene of April, or those riding horsebacks with their lords in May, rather than of hard-working women of the lower stratum (Ibid.:213). It is because both, the peasants and ladies, are depicted according to the same sophisticated style dominating in art at contemporary courts of Paris, Dijon or Prague (Ibid.:213). Not all miniatures of the Limbourg, however, show this particular type of slender proportions of the body or excessive decorations of clothes; in some illuminations the figures of peasants are not only represented in a naturalistic way, but also with an excessive indecency (Ibid.:213), and lack of dignity (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:5), like in the scene of February.
In the miniatures summer is insistently going forward; the illustration of July represents the corn field with poppy and corn flowers between the ears (Secomska 1972:14-25). Two men are cutting the crops with a sickle; on the right, the sitting couple is shearing the sheep (Ibid.:14-25). Between the hills, the geometrical walls of the castle of Poitiers are mounting over the area of a scenic beauty (Ibid.:14-25).
In the miniature of August, there’s the castle – actually one of his seventeen castles – all fairly and gleaming in the summer light (Beckett 1996). In the foreground, a hunting scene is taking place; the nobles on horseback are using dogs and prey birds for chasing ducks and swans; a falconer is guiding the riders (Secomska 1972:14-25); the courtiers are wearing magnificent attire and sitting on their splendid horses, perhaps with the Duke himself on the white horse (Beckett 1996). As the Limbourg were great artists they did not reduce their representations to what the Duke really required to see but they depicted what they truly saw (Ibid.). And they saw those fields, the river and the peasants being engaged in different activities (Ibid.).
At the foot of the castle of Étampes, their small figures are caught while both working and enjoying the summer; some are stacking sheaves into shocks and piling them on a horse-cart, others are swimming naked and free, amusing themselves happily in the water (Secomska 1972:14-25; Beckett 2001:267). Striking is the difference between the look and attitude of nobles and depicted peasants (Beckett 2001:267). This is August, so probably it’s very hot (Beckett 1996). Yet, the nobles apparently living a good and wealthy life are dressed up to their neck in tight and heavy clothes (Beckett 2001:267; Beckett 1996). They are also all following the rules of the court game, which is visible in a look exchange of the couple riding at the back (Beckett 1996). Hence it is a very constricted life, which is still observed and judged by others (Ibid.). Accordingly, on one side, there is a rather strict and tight etiquette of the well-dressed nobles, and on the other, an unhampered behaviour of the unclothed peasants who could freely and happily indulge themselves in a refreshing bath in the cold water Beckett 2001:267; Beckett 1996). Unlike the courtiers, they additionally seem unbound and sincere in their joy (Beckett 1996).
The leading theme of the month of September, a grape harvest, is represented by the river Loire, against the background of the picturesque castle of Saumur (Żylińska 1986:237; Secomska 1972:14-25). With its Gothic towers, battlements (Żylińska 1986:237), “chimneys and weathervanes decorated with golden fleurs-de-lys” (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4), the château looks like a fairy-tale apparition (Żylińska 1986:237). “The architectural design of the château draws the gaze up towards the dreamily poetic volutes. The towers conceal their protective nature beneath festive trappings, redolent of fabulous adventures in the forests of Arthurian legends and suggestive of the presence of God in His creation” (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:5). Good King René of Anjou stated that the Chastel de Plaisance from his dreams looked exactly the same (Żylińska 1986:237).
“These extravagant towers are a dream landscape with constellations of canopies, pinnacles, gables and arrows, with their crockets fluttering against the light.”François Cali in “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:5
Grape-picking takes place in the foreground: plenty bunches of grapes are being loaded either into the vats on the oxen-cart or to the panniers attached to the backs of the waiting mules (Żylińska 1986:237). Peasants are working hard in the vineyard plunged in the September sun (Żylińska 1986:237; “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4). Most of them are leaning forwards, picking the purple fruits (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4), “while one of them is tasting the grapes. […] In the middle of the grape pickers, a character is showing his behind. This intentionally grotesque touch contrasts with the extraordinary elegance of the château” (Ibid.:4-5). On the left, a looking pregnant woman (Ibid.:4) is tidying her hat up and straightening her body as if she felt too tired of working in the vineyard. Such a depiction of the peasant-woman may also suggest the child-bearing potential of women in general, and underline a symbolical connection between a woman pregnancy and the womb of the mother earth giving birth in the month of September (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4-5; Żylińska 1986:237; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Together with autumn the artists move the action of the Hours from the lands of the Valley of Loire to the banks of the River Seine (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Human figures are moving along them (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Instead of charming châteaux by Loire, in the background are rising the towers of the Louvre (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). It is already October (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The scene shows the works typical of autumn; the man on horseback is tilling the field, another – sowing it (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Magpies and crows are stealing the seeds (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Behind the working men, dressed as an archer, a scarecrow is unsuccessfully trying to frighten the birds away (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).
The scene of November shows the autumn harvest of acorns (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).
The landscape is sparking with the colours of autumn (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Three swineherds are making the fruits fall down with the sticks (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Pigs are feeding on them (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). One of the men, depicted in the foreground, is accompanied by a dog (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The darkness of the forest and a navy blue colour of the sky are the signs of the coming nightfall (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).
The cycle traditionally ends with the scene of December (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The illumination represents a wild boar hunt (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The dogs are fiercely attacking the already hunted animal lying between two men (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The landscape is gradually rising up from the scene of hunting in the foreground through the dense forest behind, and finally finishes with the towers of the Château de Vincennes, being distinguished against the background of the dark sky (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Castles seen from the outside
On the example of the calendar pages of the Très Heures it is possible to compare the way the same motive is presented in painting and literature. The equivalent of illuminated châteaux of the Hours is the literary description of nine French castles in the work of Deschamps (Huizinga 2003:345-346). While illustrating the castle, however, the painter is observing it from the outside; the poet is looking out of it (Ibid.:345-346). Consequently, literally enumerating pleasures and advantages of the castles bears no comparison with an impression being given by the painted pictures of a fairy-tale Saumur, prestigious Lusignan and gloomy Vincennes (Ibid.:345-346).
The image gains an advantage of the word (Huizinga 2003:345-346). It is also because the Middle Ages mainly perceived the outside world by means of the image (Ibid.:345-346). Behind the enchanting imagery, the epoch hid its reality or masked it with the dream of a better world (Roger S. Wieck in: Henisch 1999:back cover).
Featured image: Labors of the months in Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Image by Przykuta (2008). Public domain. Photo source: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.
Faculty of History of Art and Archaeology
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland
University College Dublin, Ireland
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