As I looked to the east right into the sun, I saw a tower on a toft, worthily built; A deep dale beneath, a dungeon therein, With deep ditches and dark and dreadful of sight.
William Langland, Piers Plowman
So why has Pol Limbourg portrayed the poet Geoffrey Chaucer looking West and turning away from the (Yeast)?Could it be that Chaucer’s choice is for the yeast that has risen to the head of the figure below him – Richard Fitzalan, 4th earl of Arundel – who in political terms could be described as a ‘Sadducee’ or maybe even a ‘seducer’?
“Keep your eyes open, and be on your guard aganst the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” – Matthew 16 : 6
In my previous post I named three poets who are referenced in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures. There is a fourth, but anonymous, who wrote Richard the Redeless (“Richard without counsel”), a fifteenth-century English alliterative poem that critiques Richard II’s kingship and his court.
In a play on the word ‘redeless’ the painter Pol Limbourg has depicted Richard in livery which is ‘less red’ than what appears to be King Richard’s actual gown worn by his close friend and advisor Robert de Vere, the figure with the long baton.
The general opinion of art historians is that the figure in the corner is simply a servant feeding one of the Duke of Berry’s dogs, matched in the colours of the servant shown on the left side of the illumination. But there is a reason why the two men are depicted in similar style and colours.
Pol Limbourg is repeating, perhaps even confirming, a rumour that the isolated Richard II was the illegitimate son of one of his mother’s servants. Legitimacy and identity are major themes expressed in the January folio.
Officially, Richard was the son of Edward of Woodstock, known as “the Black Prince”. The appellation is said to derive from Edward’s black shield and his brutal reputation earned in battle, particulary against the French. The black cloth hanging from Richard’s waist represents the shield, while the reflection is that of the dog he is feeding. The shift from a white greyhound to a perceived black hellhound is probably a pointer to Richard’s own cruel reputation toward’s the end of his reign.
Some more notes on the identities of the figures in the above detail taken from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures.
Already identified is Pol Limbourg, tucked in behind Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby and later King Henry IV. But another identifier to Pol is the “e-paul-ette” on his right shoulder. Its truncated conical shape is also a clue to the identity of the man below in blue. For conical, read chronicle. He is Jean Creton, an esquire who served at the French court of King Charles VI and wrote what is referred to as the Metrical History of the Deposition of Richard II after travelling to England in 1399 “for amusement and to see the country”. His right hand rests on the right shoulder of the knight dressed in green and wearing a red chaperon. This man is John Montacue, 3rd earl of Salisbury. In front of him and already identified in an earlier post is Thomas Blount. Both Montacue and Blount were executed for their part in the failed attempt to restore Richard II to his throne after being deposed by Henry Bolingbroke.
Pol Limbourg has carefully created two identities for the ‘green knight’ John Montacue. The figure also represents Jean de Montaigu, Master of the Household at the French royal court. His career and life was also terminated by beheading, and his placing behind Thomas Blount is for a reason connected with the execution.
Next to Blount and dressed in blue is the designated butler for Richard II’s coronation, the 4th earl of Arundel, Richard Fitzalan. He made an enemy of of the king under Richard II’s reign and was executed in 1397 for his opposition.
The guzzling figure above Fitzalan is the poet Geoffrey Chaucer and the mysterious, half-hidden person behind is another English poet, Thomas Hoccleve doubling up as Wiliam Langland.
I will highlight the iconography that discloses these identities in a future post.
This illumination is from the Metrical History of the Deposition of Richard II. The chronicle was written by Jean Creton who served as a valet de chambre to the French king, Charles VI.
It shows Creton kneeling before an unknown French knight before starting out on his journey to England in 1399 “for amusement and to see the country”. Creton later wrote his account of the events surrounding the deposition of Richard II that happened while he was there.
His chronicle was later given to Jean duke of Berry and is listed in the duke’s inventory of 1413, about the time the duke commissioned the Limbourg brothers to produce the Très Riche Heures.
Pol Limbourg referenced the above illustration in the TRH January calendar to make an important connection to the work of poet Geoffrey Chaucer and also the Epiphany Rising witnessed and recorded by Jean Creton.
How subtle is some of the detail identifying Pol Limbourg with the Conversion of St Paul, one of the listed feast days on the January calender from the Très Riche Heures.
Pol is wearing a ‘voyager’ cap. It’s flap represent a tongue. The legs of two riders behind him represent the ears of a hare. For hare, read hair. Notice how clean-shaven Pol is. His temple and the side of his face are lighter in tone than the rest of his face complexion. The hare’s ears are also meant to represent scissor blades. Pol has had a haircut and his beard shaved. A warm, wool hat covers his head.
These are all pointers to a verse in the Acts of the Apostles (18:18) mentioning St Paul having his head shorn: “Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sisters and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchreae because of a vow he had taken.”
As for the tongue reference we move on to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and the verse 13 : 1 which reads: “If I have all the eloquence of men or of angels, but speak without love, then I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing.” The rather large tongue represents “all the eloquence of men”.
For cymbal, read symbol, those on Pol’s blue collar which doubles up as a hat to help identify the man below. The bell shape of Pol’s collar, is also symbolic of the bell shape feature which distinguishes the capital that tops a Corinthian style column. Two Corinthian columns support the fireplace mantle further along the “Straight Street”.
Christianity celebrates the Epiphany on January 6, a feast day commemorating the visit of the Magi to pay homage to Jesus the new-born king. The Magi are sometimes referred to as the Three Kings or Three Wise Men and it is this context they are represented in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures.
The three men are grouped, one behind each other, with their arms and hands extended. Commentators have suggested the men are looking to warm their hands at the fire as they are called to approach by the marshall and pay homage – not to John duke of Berry, but the newly crowned king of England, Richard II, (shown elsewhere in the painting and whose birthday is January 6). However, the artist Pol Limbourg suggests that the homage and gifts these three wise men desire to offer is akin to the false homage Herod the Great wanted to pay the infant KIng, Jesus.
But the marshall is wise to the false intentions of the three men. His call to approach is a signal for combat associated with knights competing against each other at a tournament. In reality the three men are backing away from the marshall. They are wise men to do so, but their surrender stance will not save them. Hell fire, French style, awaits behind the screen.
The marshall is Robert de Vere, a close friend of Richard ll, standing his ground ready to defend his king. The three men, right to left, are Edward of Woodstock (the Black Prince), Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, and Henry Bolingbroke, the future King Henry IV, all opposed to Richard II and his rule as KIng of England.
The fourth man in the lineup (behind Henry Bolingbroke) is the artist Pol LImbourg. He does have a connection with the group but the reason is better explained with his association to another calendar date which occurs later in the month.
In my previous post I made mention of Geoffrey Chaucer and his appearance in the January Calendar of the Très Riche Heures. The English poet is pictured above making an early start on the hospitality provided by the Duke of Berry. It’s a clue among many to the writer’s identity.
The vessel he is drinking from is a saucer. For saucer, read Chaucer. Supping the wine before the Duke of Berry is served by his butler is not good manners, but it seems Chaucer has the thirst of an elephant, indicated by the trunk-feature formed by the armoured leg of the rider at his right hand.
The elephant theme is used again on Chaucer’s blue cowl. The left side forms the elephant’s head, while Chaucer’s right shoulder bears the weight and bulk of the animal’s body and legs. This points to Chaucer’s responsibility of managing the Tower of London after he was appointed Clerk of the King’s Works in 1389. The Tower’s battlements are suggested by the elephant’s legs, even more so if the the feature is turned upside down and the elephant is visualised on its back with legs turned upwards – which makes another association with the poet and the Tower of London.
Part of Chaucer’s work at the Tower entailed overseeing construction and repair of the Tower’s wharf. More than a century beforehand King Louis IX of France gifted an elephant to Henry III. It was kept in the Tower’s menagerie. The elephant is said to have died in 1257 as a result of drinking too much red wine! Linked to this fact and Chaucer is that another king, Edward III of England, rewarded the writer at some time a gallon of wine daily for the rest of his life. A final elephant connection to Chaucer is the “Sir Olifaunt” character who appears in the Canterbury tale about the knight “St Thopas”.
Having seemingly imbibed so much wine in his life, it’s no surprise the artist has depicted Chaucer supping from a saucer. But there is another reason for this. Pol LImbourg is suggesting the figure is somewhat garrulous and perhaps incomprehensible, that he may even be talking through his hat and not his mouth, and here’s why.
It was considered at the time that Chaucer may have had Lollard sympathies. Lollards was a derogatory term given to those who followed John Wycliffe the Christian reformer and disagreed with elements of Catholic teaching, especially the authority of the Pope. The nickname derived from the Dutch word lollaerd, meaning ‘mumbler’. So with drink taken and not making much sense, and his garrulous hat doing all the talking, we arrive at the scene associated with one of the pseudo-texts attributed to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, that which relates to a conversation overheard between a Pelican “without pride” and a Griffin of “grim stature”.
Chaucer’s grey hat is shaped as the Pelican, its pouch is the blue cowl (big enough to absorb an elephant). The Griffin attempting to engage in an almost one-sided debate is formed from the red chaperon on the head of the figure in green. The position of the Pelican is one of domination, looking down on the Griffin, and echoing the general tone of the debate. The conversation is concluded when the Pelican flies off, only to return with an avenging Phoenix portrayed by the figure of Thomas Blount.
The January folio is said to have been produced by the Limbourg brothers who all died in 1416, and therefore it is probably the earliest visual reference to the so-called pseudo-texts of the Plowman’s Tale which found their way into later printed copies of The Canterbury Tales.