There is a key that Pol Limbourg has devised to lock and unlock the composition and its features in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures calendar section, also referred to as “labours of the month”.
Here’s a visual clue. It shows the facing page to the feasting illustration, a list of holy days, or saints’ days, for the month of January, some of which were considered more important than others. At least five of the feast days are referred to in the banquet illustration. There may be others:
Jan 1 New Years Day and the Circumcision of the Lord
Jan 6 The Epiphany of the Lord
Jan 18 St Peter’s Chair, Rome
Jan 21 St Agnes, virgin and martyr
Jan 25 Conversion of St Paul
The calendar is not the only list Pol has used to construct his illustration. There are two others, plus references to ‘list’ as a word in itself. The more important of these lists helps identify some of the figures and their placement in the painting. It is a legal document held at the National Archives and provides a list of magnates and their roles in the proceedings at Richard II’s coronation on June 23, 1377. A second list, or inventory, compiled for John duke of Berry, was also utilised by Pol Limbourg. There are three extant inventories covering 1400 to 1416 which list the duke’s possessions during that period. Richard II also produced a ‘treasure roll’ describing the jewels and plate in his possession. It is made up of 40 sheets of parchment and when laid out measures around 28 metres. From this we can see the significance of the tablecloth laden with plate in the Limbourg miniature.
Pol Limbourg fuses the lists of Richard and John to create another meaning to ‘lists’ – that of the boundary or partition associated with the sport of jousting, the Middle English word ‘liste’ meaning stripe or strip (of land) on which the knights would compete. He takes the meaning of stripe of strip and applies it another way, almost like a book or page marker. The spine edge of the illustration is a vertical strip or list placed beside the calendar list.
At the top of the strip is a set of lances and two distinct flags which I am unable to identify, but they probably represent the coming together of two families, possibly in marriage. There is also a steep hill in the background and, combined with the lances, may represent an emerald coloured stone to mount thorns taken from Christ’s crown of thorns, bought by the French king Louis lX in 1238, similar to the thorn mounted on a blue sapphire given to John duke of Berry, mentioned in a previous post.
Next item down is the man wearing a black chaperon, seemingly warming his hands at the fireplace. This is Michael de la Pole, 1st earl of Suffolk. He served as a trusted adviser to Richard II and was once tasked to arrange a marriage for the king. His waving hands are a pointer to his own marriage and wife Katherine Wingfield. A feature of the Wingfield coat of arms are three winged birds, inverted or ‘conjoined in lure’, meaning the tip of the wings point downwards. In this instance the hands or finger tips point upwards, and for two specific reasons.
The wings are symbolic of the Holy Spirit and the Light of God descending or hovering over Pol Limbourg. It represents a moment of conversion, from darkness to light. Whether Limbourg is implying a conversion experience in his own life, I can’t be sure, but what he is referring to is the Conversion of St Paul on his way to Damascus. St Paul’s feast day is celebrated on January 29 and is listed on the calendar.
Notice also the relaxed pose of Pol Limbourg as he leans forward on the back of the seat in front of him. Observe also that the fabric on the back of the seat is striped. Pol is a spectator or observer in the unfurling events happening before him. He is listless – not a participant. The striped fabric that extends past the end of the table represents the barrier or list between the jousting guests, not for any favours from the absent ladies but from the boy king Richard II and John duke of Berry. Richard’s coronation list provides evidence of competitiveness between high-ranking individuals seeking to be honoured and affirmed.
The distinct red scarf around Pol’s neck is a reference to the Welsh dragon and relates to another theme in the minature which I will explain in a future post. But it also connects to the next item on the list, the gold, boat-shaped ‘nef’ used as a container for tableware. The boat could be said to be listing, weighed down by its cargo of riches. However, it is kept buoyant and afloat by the saltcellar underneath. The bear and the swan are devices of John duke of Berry. Here the resting Pol Limbourg is referring to the passage from Matthew’s gospel where Jesus invites all who labour and are overburdened to come to him and find rest for the soul as his yoke is easy and his burden light (11:28-30). The ploughing analogy is echoed in the March folio of the Très Riche Heures.
The three plates are a reference to the tablecloth (a treasure roll) that is another theme Pol has woven into the painting and which I will explain at another time. Likewise the two small cats that represent a play on two words, catalyst and catastrophe.
So now we arrive at the last item on the list, the young man who has moved from the place of honour to a servant’s role of feeding the white greyhound. As explained in the previous post the placement represents the deposition of Richard ll who was ten years old when crowned king of England, hence the small figure compared to others in the illustration. The white greyhound belongs to the ‘usurper” Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, who coerced Richard into giving up his throne in 1399. The dog at this stage is portrayed in a submissive, begging role, eagerly waiting to be fed by the hand of Richard. The roles later became reversed. Richard’s emblem was a white hart wearing a crown collar. Now it is Bolingbroke’s dog – a hunter – who wears the jewelled collar. It is said that Richard ll starved himself to death after he was captured and later imprisoned in Pontefract Castle. But notice also the black scarf around Richard’s neck. Is this Limbourg suggesting that the king may have been strangled and not starved, or is he referring to the earlier death of one of his enemies, Thomas of Woodstock, who is said to have been murdered while held prisoner at Calais on Richard’s orders? A manuscript of the time depicts Thomas being stangled by his own scarf.
Richard can also be linked to the calendar list. He was born on January 6, Feast of the Epiphany. A failed rebellion against Henry lV to to reinstate Richard ll as king was planned to take place on this feast day in 1400 and resulted in Richard’s capture and eventual death in February that year. It’s at this stage that the black chevron seen on the yellow flag at the top of the list, coupled with the inverted wings above Limbourg’s, head can be recognised as symbolic of hierarchical change. Limbourg has switched the visual references to the order of feasts. Pol, or St Paul, has been raised after falling frorm his horse, while Richard has fallen from grace and occupies the last place. St Paul’s ‘epiphany’ has taken presidence over Richard’s association with the Ephiphany. Richard was a firm believer in the divine right of kings to rule, but here Limbourg demonstrates that divine will is not always “done on earth as it is in heaven”. This links to another aspect of the ‘inverted’ symbols which I shall post on at another time.
Other posts on the January folio of Très Riche Heures:
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