Tilling and sowing: the Très Riches Heures in October

It’s the first day of the month, and I intended writing about the last book I read: another Barbara Comyns novel – Sisters by a River. I wrote about Our Spoons Came from Woolworths in a post in January. But I find I don’t have much to say about it right now. Might come back to it shortly, if I feel inspiration.

So as I did for April and May, I’m turning to the beautifully illuminated pages of the calendar in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, painted mostly by the Limbourg brothers in the early 1400s, although this page might be by a later artist who completed the work after the Limbourgs and their patron died (probably of the plague) in 1416.

A book of hours was a book of private prayers and devotions based on the church liturgical pattern. The kalendarium in medieval texts was originally a checklist of saints’ festivals for each month. Over time the tradition evolved so that illustrated versions included, by the 15C, scenes of the occupations associated with each month.

The Limbourgs painted landscapes from different scenes for most months – places owned by their noble patron, or which he’d visited, as here.

October in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

via Wikimedia Commons

In the background of the October sowing and tilling scene is the Louvre Palace, owned at that time by the Duc’s elder brother the king of France. Originally built in the 12C as a fortress, the Louvre was converted into the main royal residence late in the 16C. When Louis XIV made Versailles his main palace in 1782, the Louvre became largely a repository for the royal collection of artworks. This in turn was taken over as a public museum after the Revolution.

Its name perhaps derives from its origins as a wolf-hunting den (Latin ‘lupus’, wolf), according to Wikipedia, but this seems unlikely to me. OED cites a dance named in English from the French palace, but says the origin is obscure, and possibly derived from Latin and Icelandic terms for chimney.

Between the three towers on the palace’s outer wall are two bretèches (anglicised as ‘brattice’). These are small machicolated balconies. Machicolated? This means an opening between the projecting supports or corbels of a fortification’s wall through which missiles, boiling water or cooking oil, etc., could be dropped on to attackers beneath the walls. The word probably derives from OF ‘mâcher’, ‘crush’ + ‘col’, ‘neck’ (OED online).

On the terrace outside the palace walls can be seen people walking and chatting (presumably not peasants, and therefore they don’t have to labour in the fields). Several dogs prance and pose. At the bottom of riparian steps women appear to be doing their laundry in the water of the Seine, which flows in front of the palace. A boatman is embarking or arriving at a mooring.

It’s in the foreground that the main ‘labour of the month’ scene is depicted. A red-clad peasant whips on a horse pulling a harrow, weighted down with a rock to make the prongs dig deeper into the soil and thus bury the sown seeds. Nearer to us another lugubrious looking peasant sows seed by hand from a pouch. Behind him greedy crows and magpies gobble up what he’s sown.

The artist shows a nice eye for detail: we can see the footprints left in the freshly-turned earth by the sower.

The field behind has already been sown. It’s guarded by a scarecrow in the guise of a bowman, and a network of strings threaded with white feathers or rags.

Overhead there’s the usual solar chariot crossing the gorgeous blue of the arch of the starry heavens. There are the usual astrological and lunar cycle symbols around the outer arches.

April and May in the Très Riches Heures

The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry is one of the most important and beautiful illuminated manuscripts of the 15th century. It is done in the International Gothic style. It is a Book of Hours – prayers, psalms and other texts, usually commissioned by wealthy patrons, as here. Horae, as they were called in Latin, represented abbreviated forms of the Breviary, which contained the texts for Divine Office as celebrated in monastic communities. They were developed to enable lay people to introduce a monastic discipline and element into their private devotions.

It contains 206 folios, of which about half are richly illuminated, with expensive pigments and lavish gold leaf. It was painted between 1412 and 1416 by the three Limbourg brothers, originally from Nijmegen in Holland, for their patron Jean, Duc de Berry. They left it unfinished at their (and the Duc’s) death in 1416. Charles I, Duc de Savoie, commissioned another artist to finish the paintings between 1485-1489. It is now MS 65 in the Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

The most famous illuminations are probably those which represent the months in the Calendar, often containing images of the agricultural-rural labours associated with each month, as well as the nobility enjoying leisure pursuits in expensively commissioned examples like Berry’s. A calendar was usually incorporated at the start of the book of hours as a guide to the church feasts and saints’ days, so it was not specific to any year; its purpose was to remind the owner which saint or festival to celebrate on that date. Mary of Egypt, for example, about whom I’ve posted recently, is usually commemorated on April 2.

Above each month’s illumination is a hemisphere depicting the heavens, traversed by Phoebus’s solar chariot, with the signs of the zodiac.

As today is the last day of April I’ve begun (above) with the illumination for this month. As in many of these images, noble lords and ladies are seen with one of his castles in the background – in this one it’s the château Dourdan, or possibly Pierrefonds – and a walled garden, boats on a pond, and serried rows of trees. Other months depict peasants engaged in seasonal labours.

The subjects’ headgear is particularly elaborate, and the fabrics of the cloaks and gowns is sumptuous. To the right what appears to be two attendant women (at any rate they are more simply dressed) stoop to pick wild flowers – a traditional April pastime, and symbolic of the season of hope (not the cruellest month, as Eliot would have it).

The central figures are intriguing: the man in the elegant blue robe (the Duke himself? He’s depicted in other illuminations) seems to be exchanging rings with the young lady on the right (perhaps his second wife, Jeanne de Boulogne, who was much younger than him), while another couple witness the scene. Behind them a fifth figure lurks, apparently a young boy. Or is this just a typical scene of betrothal, again representing hope, rebirth and continuity?
Berry May 2 The illumination for May depicts courtiers on horseback, many of them wearing the green garments associated with this pageant, entering (or possibly leaving) the forest in a traditional Mayday cavalcade, wearing foliage to decorate their headgear or as garlands. They are preceded by trumpeters. In the background is probably the Hôtel de Nesle, the Duke’s Paris residence. Small dogs gambol in the foreground.

As I write this my friend Mary’s little dog snoozes on the couch beside my desk, grunting and sighing occasionally with sleepy satisfaction. The sun shines amiably outside, and these two beautiful medieval paintings seemed an appropriate way for me to round off April’s posts and usher in those for May.

More literary material will follow soon. I hope you all have a peaceful, healthy month of May, and experience the hope and vitality so wonderfully depicted in these images.

All images are in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.