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.
Feasting is the typical activity for the first month in medieval calendar scenes. The two examples above, from books of hours in the Museum’s collection, allude to classical tradition. (See also the New Year’s feast depicted on the January page of the Très Riches Heures, which shows the Duke on the right, richly robed in blue, celebrating the day on which gifts were exchanged with his household. This is the most elaborate New Year’s feast in the medieval calendar tradition. The large golden vessel in the form of a ship on the far right of the food-laden table is a saltcellar.)
The Limbourg brothers, who painted both the Très Riches Heures (now in the collection of the Musée Condé, Chantilly, France), and the Belles Heures, in The Cloisters Collection, for the Duke, participated in these festivities and presented their patron with a work of art on the occasion of the New Year.
Boehm, Barbara Drake, Abigail Quandt and William Wixom. The Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.
Chambers, E. K. The Medieval Stage. Oxford: 1925.
Henisch, Ann Bridget. The Medieval Calendar Year. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.
Husband, Timothy B. The Art of Illumination. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008.
Longnon, Jean, and Raymond Cazelles. The Très Riches Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry. Preface by Millard Meiss. New York: George Braziller, 1969.