Sunday, 1 January 2017

The Year in Medieval Art: January

There has been a good deal of doom and gloom around in the closing months of 2016, so I wanted to start the New Year with something more uplifting. Our Medieval ancestors suffered through wars, famines and plagues, and even the wealthiest among them could not have imagined some of the comforts that most of us take for granted today; yet they produced a great quantity of art that can still speak to us, and lift our spirits in the modern world. The passage of the seasons is a common theme in Medieval art; so, over the coming year, I shall be looking at each month in turn.

The Labours of the Months: manuscript of c818 AD (image is in the Public Domain).

The only art that most people in the Middle Ages would have seen was in churches, and the theme of this art was, of course, religious. The year itself was structured around the great feasts and solemnities of the Church: both those which are familiar to us, such as Christmas and Easter; and those that have become more obscure with the passage of time, such as Michaelmas and Candlemas.

Books were expensive, since they had to be copied by hand, on vellum (animal skin), and few individuals owned them. In the earlier Middle Ages, most literate people were either priests, monks, or nuns, and few books circulated outside the libraries of the great cathedrals and monasteries. Through their activities as copyists, Benedictine monks and nuns, in particular, ensured the survival, not only of Christian texts, but also of some of the most important literature of Classical antiquity.

From the Fourteenth Century, however, commercial workshops emerged, especially in Flanders and the Netherlands, producing books, sometimes elaborately decorated, for the households of the wealthy. Both men and women worked in these ateliers, the skills being passed from father to daughter, as well as from father to son.

The Arnhem Book of Hours, 1465-85, National Library of the Netherlands (image is in the Public Domain). Unusually, the language here is Dutch, rather than Latin.

"Books of Hours," combining the functions of a calendar, diary and prayer-book, were especially popular, and were often presented as wedding gifts to noble women, or as baptism gifts to their children. They were used for private devotion, and most were in Latin. A few have marginal annotations, suggesting that they may have been used to teach children to read.

January began with feasting (the festivities of Christmas extending until the 6th of January), and this is sometimes portrayed directly.

Feasting and gift-giving at New Year, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1411-1416, Musee Conde (image is in the Public Domain). The Duke (seated at the right, in a blue robe) was a member of the French Royal Family. The work was produced in the Flanders workshop of the Limbourg brothers.
Feasting at New Year, from the Grimani Breviary, 1490-1510, Biblioteca Marciana (image is in the Public Domain). 

In terms of religious devotion, the calendar for January included commemorations of Mary the Mother of God (1st); the Epiphany (8th); the Baptism of Christ (9th); and the Conversion of Saint Paul (25th). These were occasions for both public and private devotion, and are often marked, in Books of Hours, both by specific prayers, and by appropriate illustrations.

The Hours of Marie of Burgundy, c1477, National Library of Austria. Marie herself is shown reading in the foreground, but also, with her husband, worshiping the Virgin Mary in the background.  
The Epiphany, from the Hours of Charles d'Angouleme, late 15th Century, National Library of France. Image: Cardena2 (licensed under CCA).

The liturgical, agricultural and astrological dimensions of the year moved in concert with one another, and scenes of daily life appropriate to the season often appear alongside astrological symbols, interspersed with the devotional passages. Medieval winters really were colder than modern ones: the "Little Ice Age" that ended the Norse settlement of Greenland and Newfoundland at the beginning of the Fourteenth Century was felt across Europe, and extended into the Seventeenth Century.

January, from a Flemish Book of Hours, 1400-50 (image is in the Public Domain). The artist is Simon Bening, whose workshop was in Bruges. 
"Hunters in the Snow," by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565, Kunsthistoriches Museum (image is in the Public Domain). Such paintings emerged directly from the tradition of earlier Flemish Books of Hours.

The commercial workshops that produced hand-copied and illuminated Books of Hours continued to operate even after the introduction of printing in the mid-Sixteenth Century, and their clients included the English Royal Family, as well as households of the newly-wealthy commercial class. It was only with the Protestant Reformation that the popularity of this art-form began to decline.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

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