Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Year in Medieval Art: May

The beginning of May finds us, this year, still very much within the Easter season: the third week of Easter, to be precise, and Easter has seven weeks, commemorating the forty days and forty nights (a significant time interval in both the Jewish and the Christian scriptures) that the risen Christ remained on Earth before ascending into Heaven; and the further ten days before the Holy Spirit manifested itself to the Apostles, as commemorated in the feast of Pentecost. This year, the Feast of the Ascension falls on the 25th of May, and that of Pentecost on the 4th of June.

The Ascension of Jesus, from the Rabula Gospels (Iraq), 6th Century AD. Image: Dsmdgold (Public Domain). 

Medieval theologians expended much sweat and candle-wax in considering the status of Christ during the period between the Resurrection and the Ascension. The early Church Fathers had agreed, after much deliberation, that the living Jesus was both fully divine (and thus able to turn water into wine, cure the sick and the lame, and raise the dead); and fully human (and would thus have experienced the same pain on the cross as any of us would in the same circumstances, and without which the crucifixion would have had no meaning); but what of the risen Christ? Surely he must have been, in some sense, more divine than human, which might account for the fact that so many people who had known the living Jesus failed to recognise the risen Christ? Books of Hours and similar documents were, however, intended for the use of lay-people, who were, on the whole, happy to leave such weighty matters to the scholars.

The Ascension of Jesus, from The Bamberg Apocalypse, 11th Century, Bamberg State Library MS A II.42 (image is in the Public Domain).

The pages for the month of May in Medieval Books of Hours frequently depict the leisure activities of the wealthy. It was a season for spending time outdoors, and enjoying the natural world. Boat trips on lakes and rivers seem to have been especially popular, and these may very well have been "picnics" in the modern sense: the word "picnic," however, seems not to have been used before the Eighteenth Century, and the Medieval equivalent may well have been Undrentide.

Calendar page for May, from Les Petites Heures du Duc de Berry, 1372-5, National Library of France (image is in the Public Domain).

Boating in May, workshop of Simon Bening, Bruges, early 16th Century, Munchen StB 23638 fol.6v (image is in the Public Domain).

Boating in May, from The Golf Book, workshop of Simon Bening, Bruges, 1520-30, British Library Add.24098, f22v (licensed under CCA).

This is an extract from the poem, Sir Orfeo, written between 1330 and 1340, probably in London or the South Midlands of England (if the words sound familiar, you may have heard the recording by The Medieval Baebes). The original poem is to be found in the Auchinleck Manuscript, now in the National Library of Scotland:

"Bifel so in the comessing of May
When miri and hot is the day,
And oway beth winter schours,
And everi feld is ful of floures,
And blosme breme on everi bough,
Over al wexeth miri anought,
This ich quen, Dame Heurodis
Tok to maidens of pris,
And went in an undrentide,
To play bi an orchardside
To se the floures sprede and spring,
And to here the foules sing ... "

Illustration from the Auchinleck Manuscript, NLS Adv. MS 19.2.1 (image is in the Public Domain).

The poem tells a story of enchantment, derived from the Roman author, Ovid (the queen falls asleep on the grass and, in her dream, is transported to the world of the fairies), but the context is recognisable enough in the modern world, and recalls my own season of "undrentides," as a student, punting from the "Backs" of Cambridge up to Grantchester, for picnics with "prized maidens."

May, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. The Duke is shown setting out for the countryside from his Parisian residence, L'Hotel de Nesle, accompanied by some gentlemen, and rather more ladies (of the latter, he reportedly said "the more the better, and never tell the truth"), 1412-16, Musee Conde, Chantilly (image is in the Public Domain).

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

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