Friday, February 19, 2010

Getting Warm

February Activity page from The Hours of Jeanne d'Évreux february-calendar_activity_bh_150 february-calendar_pisces_150

Above, from left to right: Detail of the activity for the month from the February calendar page of  The Hours of Jeanne d’Évreux, ca. 1324–28; detail of the activity for February from the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, 1405–1408/1409; detail of the zodiacal symbol Pisces from The Hours of Jeanne d’Évreux. See the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History to learn more about manuscript illumination in Northern Europe, or see special exhibitions for information about the exhibition “The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry” (on view at the Main Building March 2 through June 13, 2010).

In the medieval calendar tradition, the month of February is frequently represented by a solitary male figure seated before a fire; he may or may not be cooking his meal as he warms himself. A table set with a few dishes is sometimes placed by the fire, a variant on the theme of feasting common to both January and February. (See “The January Feast,” January 15, 2010).

Unlike the outdoor scenes proper to spring and summer, the calendar scenes proper to the winter’s rest from agricultural labor were usually set indoors. (See “Works and Days: The Medieval Year,” January 9, 2009.) Both the fourteenth-century Hours of Jeanne d’Évreux and the fifteenth-century Belles Heures are faithful to a long-established type: a solitary householder is confined within a single chamber, and artistic attention is given to the details of the well-furnished room. In both manuscripts, the February calendar scene is the only one set in an interior space. The earlier of the two books—see image above, at left—depicts a man swaddled against the cold, hunching in a chair and warming himself at his fireside, as he stretches one leg toward the embers to toast his toes; a few sausages are hung to cure from a rack above his head. The latter shows a prosperous, fur-hatted householder, well-wrapped up, warming himself before the fire blazing and smoking in the hearth as his Lenten fish supper cooks on a grate.

Although the famous February calendar page of the Très Riches Heures (see image) keeps to the set theme of warming by the fire, the painter breaks with tradition in representing a seated woman raising her skirts to warm her bare shins; two men sit to her left, further from the fire, warming their legs as well. The simply rendered shelter in which they all sit contains a roomy bed, but is open to a wintry landscape, in which a flock of birds pecking at a meager patch of bare ground, a herd of sheep sheltering in a tightly packed fold, a man with hunched shoulders and a shrouded head, and a row of bee skeps crowned with snow, all testify to the bitter cold of the season and the common lot of all creatures. Outside the wattle enclosure of the farmyard, a man cuts firewood, while another drives a donkey laden with faggots toward a distant village. In contrast to the confined, quasi-allegorical representation made in the Belles Heures, the elaboration of the same theme in the Très Riches Heures opens an entire world to our view.

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:

Boehm, Barbara Drake, Abigail Quandt and William Wixom. The Hours of Jeanne d’Évreux. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.

Henisch, Ann Bridget. The Medieval Calendar Year. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

Hourihane, Colum, ed. Time in the Medieval World: Occupations of the Months and Signs of the Zodiac in the Index of Christian Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Husband, Timothy B. The Art of Illumination. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008.

Pérez-Higuera, Teresa. Medieval Calendars. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1997.

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Comments (2)

  1. Nancy Heraud Says:

    We are finally having several sunny days here, but I’m really looking forward to some heat! Not just from a fire either!

  2. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Dear Nancy,

    I do hope you get that heat, and soon. We had a mild, sunny day yesterday, but today is gray and chill, and the wind is shrieking around The Cloisters like a banshee. I drove uptown to work this morning and realized that it was 42 degrees in Chelsea and only 36 in northern Manhattan. The trees downtown are beginning to swell, but the only thing happening in the gardens here are the snowdrops—but I’m very glad to see them.

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