A very rich duke and his bear

The above image is detail from the January folio of the Calendar section that forms part of the Très Riche Heures manuscript. It shows John duke of Berry hosting a New Year banquet where gifts are exchanged between the host and his guests.

This particular panel of the folio was probably painted by Pol Limbourg, one of three brothers the duke commissioned in 1410 to produce the manuscript. The artist has cleverly embedded features that serve several narratives and themes. The duke of Berry figure is an example.

He is portrayed seated at a banquet table, wrapped in a fur-lined blue gown, wearing a large fur hat and a chain around his neck. Fifteenth century castles and mansions could be cold places in winter time, even when sat in front of a blazing fire.

The colour of the duke’s gown is said to emphasise his connection to the French court. In his time John was a son of a French king, a brother to another, and an uncle to a third. But close inspection of his gown shows that the gold pattern is not the fleur-de-lys, but represents something more personal in his life – a bear. The motif is a pawprint.

The duke of Berry kept several bears in his menagerie but was attracted to one in particular; a small bear became his companion in his later years and is even depicted chained and resting at the feet of the duke on his tomb effigy.

Along with the swan, the bear was also adopted by John as one of his heraldic devices or emblems.

Pol Limbourg has also portrayed the duke of Berry with claws as hands, resting on the banquet table, and to his left there’s a bear placed on the bridge of the gold, boat-shaped, serving dish. There’s an interesting contrast on the duke’s tomb sculpted by Jean de Cambrai where one of the bear’s paws is depicted as a human hand (see image below).

Notice the bear’s human-like front paw… a nod by the sculptor to Pol Limbourg’s miniature.

Back to the minature and between the duke’s hands (claws) is a glove. It also has a bear connection but not to the one associated with the duke, which I will explain in a future post.

Another bear reference is the pole behind the duke’s back which, in this instance, can be considered as a “scratch-pole”. It also has other connotations, notably as a reference to Pol Limbourg, the figure portrayed behind the duke of Berry. The scratch-pole, or “back-scratcher”, is symbolic of mutual benefit, but conditional, even extending to the custom of exchanging gifts at the New Year banquet. It also points to the biblical passage in Luke’s gospel and the advice given when inviting guests to dinner (14 : 12-14).

The pole may also be a pointer to the banquet’s venue – the Hôtel de Pol in Paris, one of many residences belonging to the duke, and one where he died in 1416.

Earlier, I mentioned the exchange of gifts. In the past the Duke of Berry had been given a special gift by his brother, the French king Charles V. It was a thorn from the crown of thorns associated with the passion of Jesus and which Charles had obtained and kept in the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. A reliquary was made to house and display the Holy Thorn mounted upright on a sapphire stone. The reliquary and thorn is now in the British Museum. The duke’s blue gown represents the sapphire, and his hat is portrayed not as fur, but as a crown of thorns.

The Holy Thorn Requilary and a close-up of the thorn and sapphire. © British Museum

Finally, the artist Pol Limbourg may also have had in mind one of Aesop’s Fables when he linked references to the thorn and the bear – The Hermit and the Bear.

The Hermit had extracted a thorn from the bear’s foot. The animal was more than grateful and offered to serve the Hermit from thereon. The Hermit accept the Bear’s offer and they passed the time in friendship. Then one day as the Hermit slept the Bear noticed a fly had settled on the man’s nose. In his effort to swat the fly the bear came down heavy with his paw and crushed the Hermit’s nose in the process. The Hermit concluded he would rather have a dozen flies settle on his nose that to suffer the pain and discomfort of the Bear attempting to protect him in this way.

How this applies to John duke of Berry may refer to his role as Regent, first when Charles VI was a minor, and again at the time when the king began to suffer attacks of insanity. Could it be said the duke may have been over-protective at times during his role as Regent?

A more visual connection is that John did not share the sharp or long nose featues of his father John, or three brothers, Charles, Louis and Philip. His nose was rather fleshy and stubby in comparison, as shown on his tomb effigy. No flies on Pol Limbourg!

The head of Jean duke of Berry from his tomb at Bourges Cathedral

Other posts on the January folio of Très Riche Heures:
Checking the guest list
There’s a book in this…
Identifying Pol Limbourg
Thoughts on the “wise men”
Telling tales about Chaucer
Happy New Year!
We’re going on a boar hunt!
The Pearl Poet… another sighting
A very rich duke and his bear
Playing hide and seek
A who’s who, what’s what list