Archive for January, 2010

Friday, January 22, 2010

Butcher’s Broom

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Above, from left: Butcher’s broom growing in a pot indoors in Cuxa Cloister; detail of the stiff, sharp “leaves,” which are actually modified stems; detail from the tapestry The Hunters Enter the Woods showing Butcher’s broom.

An odd-looking little shrub, Butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus), which reaches a height between one and a half and two feet for us here at The Cloisters, was also known as knee-holly, because of its short stature and prickly nature. (Another old name is “pettygree” or “pettygrew.”) Usually included in the very large lily family, butcher’s broom is a botanical curiosity as well as a household and medicinal plant with a long history of use. Read more »

Friday, January 15, 2010

The January Feast

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Above, from left to right: Detail of the January calendar page from The Hours of Jeanne d’Évreux, ca. 1324–28; detail of the activity for the month of January from The Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, 1405–1408/1409; Ewer with Wild Man Finial (detail), late 15th century, German, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1953 (53.20.2).

In the Middle Ages, the  Christian liturgical year, and not the old Roman calendar, determined the date on which the new year began. The date used differed depending on the period and locale, and coincided with either the Nativity on December 25 or the Annunciation on March 25. However, throughout the Middle Ages, the ancient Roman tradition of January festivities in celebration of the New Year continued unabated. Banquets and gifts were given, and folk rites intended to ensure good fortune and plenty and to stave off disaster and want were performed. The Church discouraged such practices, but found the celebration of the New Year more difficult to suppress than any other calendar tradition inherited from pagan antiquity. Read more »

Friday, January 8, 2010

Offering Incense

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Above, from left to right: Detail from a fifteenth-century panel of The Nativity that shows the Emperor Augustus censing an apparition of the Virgin and Child; cover of a gilded copper censer in The Cloisters Collection (1979.285); Detail from Panel with Censing Angels, on display in the Treasury at The Cloisters.

The ceremonial use of incense in devotions and rites of purification  is common to many religious traditions  and dates back to antiquity. (The incense trade was of great economic importance.)  While some animal substances such as ambergris and musk are used, most incenses are of botanical origin. Read more »