Introduction to the Tres Riches Heures of Jean, the Duke of Berry

 

Books of Days were common in the late-middle ages. They carried the viewer from season to season, with religious themes foremost. One expects a Christian iconography in the art of that time, but in the late 14th century miniature art of The Tres Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry the artists, the three Limbourg brothers from Europe’s Low Country, have avoided religious themes and symbolism. The miniatures mourn the loss of a stable agrarian world and reflect a desire to escape the painful distractions of politics through art. An undertow of renunciation flows through the paintings, turning to us the sublime face of elegy and prompting a regret for the loss of our own natural world. These miniatures are themselves an oddity: they have a fanciful fairytale quality uncharacteristic of the age and depict colorfully adorned princesses riding brilliant white steeds, laboring peasants back-dropped by cloudlike castles -- and an occasional chimerical dragon. No battles are fought in these paintings, no martyrs are burned at the stake, and no miracles are performed. They’re suffused with a wistful sadness, reflecting a time of plague, famine and the coming-apart of the feudal order.

 

EXERPTS:

 

JUNE

 

No shadows are cast in most Limbourg paintings,

no footprints left to show where the peasants

touch the ground -- they glide above the earth,

without expression, consumed as they are

by cutting and raking. Outside the painting

a baby cries, the Duke sips his frothy

cup of wine. In mid-distance three male

reapers wield scythes, and in the foreground

a woman in a pale blue dress holds

a rake, another a twin-tined pitch-fork,

all this under the same sun that shines

on the slate rooftops of the Palais

de la Cite, on the reapers in flimsy

tunics and blue dresses whose day

begins with a cup of broth and a sigh,

a plunge into the Seine to wash off

dusty sleep, and then the long barefoot

walk to the meadow where hay is cut

and stacked under a pale sky. Paler skin --

grass the color of brine, and the river

with cattails foamy behind a promenade

of sea-green plum trees. It's Paris.

Early summer. The first hay cutting.

 

 

June: haymaking, from the 'Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry' (vellum)

Bridgeman Art Library

 

 

NOVEMBER

 

Nothing tells a story better than a hog.

What it eats and what it wants -- a cool pond to

wallow in, a fencepost to scratch its bristled

butt on. In late fall, a hog wants to fatten up.

Regardez, hogs, it's raining fist-sized acorns!

But none look up. A chateau's fairy-tale

crenellations tell us these hogs come

with a history, blueblood hogs that go back

to the tusked, razorbacks of Charlemagne.

A swineherd flings a stick into an oak's

branches. His left arm falls back in a salute

to November. Oak leaves in the dusk,

peasants with clubs retreating into

a dark oak forest -- as their voices

ride down the valley, more hogs rush from

their pens, eyes slanted, and more acorns

patter onto the hogs' heads. Circe

turned Odysseus' shipmates into pigs.

They snuffled around her courtyard

hoping to be changed back into men.

Wake up, hogs! Raise up your heads!

In these last precious hours

your real life is about to begin.

 

 

November: feeding acorns to the pigs, from the 'Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry' (vellum)

Bridgeman Art Library

 

 

DECEMBER

 

It's too late for the boar to retreat

into the Forest of Vincennes. Too late!

The dogs plunge into the boar's haunches.

A broad-faced man grapples with the tangle

of dogs and holds back a bloodhound whose

tongue lolls from his mouth like a red flag.

The suppleness of the dogs, the way their bodies

contract and ripple -- each finds a haunch,

a loin, to gnaw on. And as for the men,

they're not worth much more to the Limbourgs

than a few centimes in the hands of the poor.

But they are men B alive to how the leaves

rattle in the wind and alert to when

the dogs catch a scent and begin their

feverish baying. The hunters' bellies

rumble with cold porridge, their armpits

exude an angry stench. Once they were held

by mothers who caressed them, who asked a priest

to bless them, and sent them into this world.

Look how life has changed them. Thanks be to Ovid --

he's left us countless ways to see our world

transformed, fish to bird, bicuspid to crab,

snake into the flaming staves of our pens.

One man with the face of the sower we met

in October (he has yellow patches on his green

britches) curses while another blows

the "mort" on a little horn. The trees

are stained in pale russets, December

light streaks the forest floor. A cold morning,

with no snow. Bloodhounds, boarhounds -- their teeth

sunk into a wild pig in a tableau vivant

of rippling dogs, gawking men. A wild boar

bleeds from his mouth. His breath comes fast.

His little hocks, his exquisite tusks.

 

 

 

December: Hunting Wild Boar, from the 'Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry' (vellum)

Bridgeman Art Library

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