Riddle of the cats

Detail from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

A prominent theme in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures is water, necessary for life in both a physical and spiritual sense – no water, no life.

A pointer to the water theme is the gold, ship-shaped ‘nef’ placed at the end of the table. The two ginger cats on the table next to the ‘nef’ represent the ships cats, whose role was to catch and kill rats that found their way on board. Rat fleas were considered a source of disease and carriers of the plague. Hence the proximity of the Duke of Berry and two of the Limbourg brothers who are assumed to have died from the plague, all in the same year, 1416. Observe also the noticeable gap between Duke of Berry and the seated guest in red, and also the hesitancy of the three men behind to advance further, despite the usher’s order to “Approach! Approach!” 

That the deaths of the Limbourg brothers are referred to is further evidence that they were not responsible for painting the January folio. This miniature was completed at a later period by another artist, Bartélemy d’Eyck, as explained in my previous post.

The two cats link to another theme in the folio, that of riddles. In this instance the two cats are given names: One-two-three, and Un-deux-trois. The riddle states that the two cats had a swimming race from England to France and asks which cat won the race.  The answer is the cat named One-two-three because Un-deux-trois quatre cinq (a pun on words and sounds… Un-deux-trois cat sank).

The riddle also connects to the five table plates around the two cats. They represent the historic Confederation of Cinque Ports, five English coastal towns granted privileges for providing the Crown with ships. The dish plated with portions of meat represent the seven ‘Limb’ ports that were members of the Confederation because of their connection to the other towns.

Crossing the English Channel at that time ships could harbour at Calais in France. It was a port owned and controlled by England. So the other end of the table represents Calais – a safe and protected haven from French forces. The Calais reference derives from one of four identities given to the knight at the table folding a napkin. In this scheme he is Amery of Pavy, made captain of Calais by King Edward III in 1347. His identity connects to one of two given to the seated figure next to him, the French knight Geoffroi de Charny who attempted to ‘bribe’ Amery to betray the faith placed in him by the English king and ‘sell’ control of Calais.

More revelations about the January folio in my next post.

A list of all posts about the Très Riche Heures made at this blog.