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.
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
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
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