During the past two years I have posted several times about the January folio from the Très Riche Heures calendar section. More recently I have uncovered some interesting features about the painting which, as far as I know, have not come to light in any other commentaries concerning the miniature.
The Très Riche Heures (Very Rich Hours) was commissioned by John, Duke of Berry and assigned to the Limbourg brothers to produce illustrations for the calendar section and collection of prayers. However, both the sponsor and the brothers died in 1416 before the work was completed. The book was inherited by René of Anjou and further pages were completed in the 1440s, attributed to Barthélemy d’Eyck, a relative of the brothers Hubert, Jan and Lambert van Eyck. The Duke of Savoy acquired the book in the 1480s and more pages were finished by the painter Jean Colombe.
Some historians attribute the March, September (part of), October and December calendar pages to Barthélemy d’Eyck and refer to him as the “Master of the Shadows”. However, there is evidence to postulate that the January folio was also painted by Barthélemy.
In previous posts made about the January folio, I referred to Pol Limbourg as being the painter. He does feature in the scene, as does Barthélemy, who I now believe painted the banquet scene celebrating the feast of the Epiphany which occurs on January 6.
Sat at the table is a priest wearing a white alb which symbolizes purity of the soul, so the banquet can also be considered as a celebration of the Catholic Mass, the Eucharist, which is a memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection. The host of the occasion is the Duke of Berry, clothed in royal blue and sat before the host-shaped fireguard. Christ’s death is denoted by the duke’s hat, a crown of thorns. The table represents an altar and the cloth is depicted as the shroud that covered Jesus in his tomb.
Parts of the picture are based on the Three Marys at the Tomb painting attributed to Jan van Eyck or his brother Hubert, which indicates that the folio was completed after the attribution date of 1425-1435 given to the Three Marys by the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam and where the painting is housed. If this is the case then it rules out Pol Limbourg or one of his brothers as having produced the January folio.
Most of the guests at the banquet are assigned with double identities. For instance, the kneeling figure in the bottom right corner of the frame is portrayed as both Richard II and St Bartholomew, the latter as a pointer to the artist, Barthélemy d’Eyck. The iconography relating to Richard ll was published in a previous post.
St Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. He is also identified as Nathaniel, the disciple brought to Jesus by Philip (John 1 : 43-51). Tradition holds that he was martyred by being skinned alive for proclaiming the Gospel. His skin was cut into strips and then peeled back to expose his inner flesh. The body was then allowed to bleed for some time before Bartholomew was eventually beheaded. Most representations of the saint show him holding his peeled skin along with a flensing knife.
The illustration alongside shows the hem of the Duke of Berry’s gown peeled back to reveal the patterned strips of the dias beneath. The figure’s gown also hangs in a manner to suggest a piece of loose flesh. In his hand is a knife, seemingly carving strips from a piece of meat (notice the very faint suggestion of strips). The loop of his chaperon is shaped as a sickle, indicating the saint’s decapitation.
The knife also represents a bull’s horn. This connects to the black hood of the chaperon that hangs down and doubles up as the face of a cow and also a shield which both connect to Edward the Black Prince, father of Richard ll. The bovine reference echoes a similar attribute depicted in the Three Mary’s at the Tomb, as do the four men standing left of Richard ll who doubles up as Barthélemy d’Eyck. The group of four men also have two identities.
Interestingly, Barthélemy has painted both the January and December folios, the beginning and the end of the year, when one looks back on the past and forward to the future. The month of January is named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, transitions and duality. He is usually depicted as having two heads. The bear-like figure of the Duke of Berry is the head looking back on the past, while the bear perched on the boat-shaped ‘nef’ is shown facing the opposite direction, looking forward into the future and the new year.
The painting is designed to entertain and amuse, an occasion to ‘spot the historic celebrities’ among the crowded scene, even though all of the ‘faces’ are practically identical, making it somewhat a puzzler for art historians and researchers, especially as the painting is also embedded with word play features and riddles.
For instance: why are two cats allowed to eat on the banquet table, and why are some of the guests seemingly warming their hands at the fireplace?
• More about the January folio in my next post.