Posts Tagged ‘wheat’

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Bread from Heaven

Wheat Sheaf in Langon Chapel Detail from The Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard

Above, left: The holiday decorations at The Cloisters are made by hand from plants linked with the celebration of Christmastide in the Middle Ages. A sheaf of wheat—an allusion to the eucharistic symbolism of the “altar-manger” and the transformation of the Christ Child into the bread of the Mass—stands near the altar frontal in Langon Chapel. Right: In the central panel of Gerard David’s triptych Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard, the wheat ears that fill the manger and spill from the sheaf in the foreground are shown in meticulous detail.

A strong link was made between wheat and the Nativity early in the history of Christian exegesis, based on the symbolism of the Eucharist. The identification was founded in the interpretation of such scriptural passages as John 6:41, in which Jesus identifies himself as “the bread come down from heaven.” In his homily on the Nativity, Homilia VIII in die Natalis Domini, the sixth-century Doctor of the Church, Saint Gregory the Great, translated “Bethlehem” as “house of bread” and expounded the transformation of the Christ Child from hay into wheat. These interpretations—as well as the practice of placing consecrated bread in the relic of the Holy Crib installed at the church of Santa Maria Maggiore and the liturgical manger plays that originated there and were revived and popularized by Saint Francis of Assisi—emphasized the sacramental aspect of the birth of Christ. The pictorial tradition of showing the infant Jesus lying on a heap of grain is found in representations of the Nativity from the end of the fifteenth century. As Maryan Ainsworth notes, the composition of the central panel in Gerard David’s early sixteenth-century triptych, in which Mary and Joseph adore the Christ Child, owes something to the Nativity by Hugo van Der Goes (see image) in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, painted about 1480. For a list of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian paintings with similar iconography, see Mirella D’Ancona Levi.

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:

Ainsworth, Maryan W. Gerard David: Purity of Vision in an Age of Transition. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998.

Levi D’Ancona, Mirella. The Garden of the Renaissance: Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting. Firenze: L. S. Olschki, 1977.

Schiller, Gertrud. Iconography of Christian Art. Translated by Janet Seligman. Vol. 1. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1971.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Garden in Heraldry: From Field to Field

At certain times of the year in the medieval rural landscape, it would have been common to see plump sheaves of grain standing in sunny fields like so many golden tokens of agricultural wealth and prosperity, as numerous depictions—even in some of the most sumptuous manuscripts of the Middle Ages, such as the Belles Heures of the duke of Berry—attest. At harvest, the wheat was cut at the base of the stalk with a sickle and then gathered up in large armfuls and tied about the middle. The resulting bundles were left spaced and standing upright in the fields, which allowed them to dry even if it happened to rain before they could carted off for threshing.

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Details of illuminations from Folio 8r and Folio 9r from the Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry, 1405–1408/9.

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Friday, December 3, 2010

Major Barbara

Saint Barbara 50.159 Saint Barbara 37.52.1 Saint Barbara 55.166

Above, from left to right: Saint Barbara (detail), mid-15th century, French, Gift of Mr. Edward G. Sparrow, 1950 (50.159); Detail of Saint Barbara from The Virgin Mary and Five Standing Saints above Predella Panels, 1440–46, The Cloisters Collection, 1937 (37.52.1); Saint Barbara (detail), ca. 1490, German, The Cloisters Collection, 1955 (55.166).

Although Saint Barbara is not mentioned in early martyrologies, hagiographies place the early Christian virgin and martyr in the third century A.D. According to The Golden Legend, a popular collection of saints’ lives dating to the thirteenth century, she was martyred on the fifth of December, during the reign of Emperor Maximianus and under the orders of Martianus, the prefect of her city of Heliopolis, in Phoenicia. Veneration of Saint Barbara was common in both the eastern and western churches by the ninth century, and she remains a popular saint to this day, although her feast is widely celebrated on the fourth rather than the fifth of December. Read more »

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sowing Broadcast

October page from the Belles Heures thumbnail October Activity: Sowing Wheat thumbnail The Zodiacal Sign of Scorpio thumbnail

Above, from left to right: Calendar page for October from the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, 1405–1408/1409. Pol, Jean, and Herman de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France, by 1399–1416). French; Made in Paris. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1); detail of the activity for the month; detail of the zodiacal symbol Scorpio. See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

The annual cycle of cereal production that dominates the depiction of the agricultural year in the medieval calendar tradition began and ended with the sowing of seed corn. Scenes of tilling and sowing typically appear as the activity proper to October, before the arrival of the winter rains. While a plow was used to turn the earth in spring, a harrow was used to prepare the ground in autumn, as in the Très Riches Heures. The harrow was also used to cover the seed once it had been sown. In the Belles Heures, as in many other calendars, a single sower represents the month, although a harrow appears at the edge of the scene.

In The Medieval Calendar Year, Bridget Henisch notes that the sower shown in calendar scenes is always male, although a woman may be shown walking behind him with a sack. Neither do women plow, but a female might be shown guiding the horse who draws the harrow.

In her masterly description of the art of sowing seed broadcast, Dorothy Hartley emphasizes that it was highly skilled and responsible work. (Depending on the grain and the weather, sowing was done either immediately after plowing or harrowing. ) The field to be sown was measured, and the seed was measured into open sacks that were set out at each end of an open furrow. The sower then walked smoothly and steadily down the furrow, counting his steps and keeping them even for the length of the field, guiding his feet down two adjacent plow lines. He then reckoned how many steps he must take to each handful of grain he would cast. (Field workers would not have been able to write or to count above ten, so agricultural tallies were kept by reckoning in four sets of five fingers, making a score.)

If a man sowed from a basket hanging from his neck, he might sow with his right and left hand in alternation. If he used a sowing cloth or apron, he would cast with one hand only and only to one side as he went up or down the furrow. Once the rhythm that determined how many handfuls of seed would be matched to the number of steps needed to cover the ground was established, it remained constant for the whole field. However, a skilled worker might be asked to sow more thinly or thickly in different parts of the field, which might be drier or damper in one place than another. He did this not by changing the rhythm, but by taking a little larger or smaller handful of grain.

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:
Hartley, Dorothy. Lost Country Life. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

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

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

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

Friday, August 14, 2009

Threshing It Out

August page from the Belles Heures August Activity thumbnail The Zodiacal Sign of Virgo

Above, from left to right: Calendar page for August from the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, 1405–1408/1409. Pol, Jean, and Herman de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France, by 1399–1416). French; Made in Paris. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1); detail of the activity for the month; detail of the zodiacal symbol Virgo. See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

Sometimes busy, bound by rings,
I must eagerly obey my servant,
Break my bed, clamor brightly
That my lord has given me a neck-ring.
Sleep-weary I wait for the grim-hearted
Greeting of a man or woman; I answer
Winter-cold. Sometimes a warm limb
Bursts the bound ring, pleasing my dull
Witted servant and myself. I sing round
The truth if I may in a ringing riddle.

—Anglo-Saxon riddle from The Exeter Riddle Book, translated by Craig Williamson

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Monday, July 6, 2009

Gaining Grain

July page from the <em>Belles Heures</em> July Activity: Reaping Grain The Zodiacal Sign of Leo

Above, from left to right: Calendar page for July from the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, 1405–1408/1409. Pol, Jean, and Herman de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France, by 1399–1416). French; Made in Paris. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1); detail of the activity for the month; detail of the zodiacal symbol Leo. See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

“No tempest, good Julie,” said Thomas Tusser. In Tusser’s sixteenth-century English, “July” rhymed with “truly”—as it did until the mid-eighteenth century. (The Oxford Companion to the Year, 1999). If the midsummer storms did not spoil the crops, the farmer could count himself lucky. (For charms against bad weather, see “Midsomer Magick,” June 23.)

The great event of the medieval summer was the harvest. A poor yield meant privation for the whole cycle of the year to come. By July the grain stores of the last harvest were depleted. In the great fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman, Piers speaks of staving off hunger with a vegetable diet of parsley, leeks, and cabbages, supplemented with a little cream and some cheese, until the grain in his barn can be replenished at Lammas, the first of August. Read more »