At surface level, the January folio of the Très Riche Heures represents a banquet celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, but there are other scenarios within the scene that connect to the date of the event, January 6, and the meanining of the word epiphany.
For instance, one of the identities given to the kneeling figure in the right hand corner is King Richard II. January 6 is the date of his birthday.
Pol Limbourg, depicted leaning on the seat behind the Duke of Berry, is one of three brothers associated with illustrating many of the folios in the manuscript. He is named after St Paul the Apostle, who experienced his ‘epiphany’ moment on the Road to Damascus. St Paul’s conversion is celebrated on January 25.
Another reference which links to the Richard II figure is the Epiphany Rising, the failed rebellion against Henry IV of England in January 1400. Thomas Blount the knight at the table folding the napkin, was one of ‘rebels’ executed. Henry IV is the figure dressed in black placed immediately above him.
The ‘Rising’ theme is extended to the tablecloth. It represents the burial shroud of Jesus, and his resurrection or ‘Easter Rising’.
The Resurrection theme extends to the five five figures front of table. Each of them are linked to the three guards and three women featured in the Van Eyck painting titled Three Marys at the Tomb. In fact there are several other references to paintings by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.
From these examples we can see how Bathélemy d’Eyck has taken his lead from the Van Eyck brothers to build his composition very much in the ‘jig-saw’ style used by Jan and Hubert in the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly in the Just Judges panel where four identities are applied to each rider. In the January folio the number of identities applied to each figure are usually two, but in the case of the napier in red and white, there are four. This likely a hat-tip to Jan and Hubert van Eyck as the figure behind the napier is Jan and one of the identities given to the napier is Hubert van Eyck (d.1426). The three others are Thomas Blount (d.1400), Amery of Pavy (d.1352), and Geoffroi II de Charny (d.1398) who was the son of the seated Geoffroi de Charny.
The biblical Epiphany story relates how three Wise Men from the East followed a star to Bethlehem to seek out a new-born king and “do him homage”. They brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Hence the tradition of exchanging gifts at Christmas and New Year. So is Bathélemy paying homage to Jan and Hubert va Eyck. Hubert died in 1426, Jan in 1441. The folio is likely to have been painted sometime in the 1440s and probably as a work of homage after Jan had died, hence several pointers to paintings by the Van Eycks.
The Wise Men of Magi rmade their journey on camels, led by the light of the Star of Bethlehem. The Star and camels are also referenced in the painting.
The star is introduced by way of Geoffroi de Charny (mentioned in the previous post), a French knight who, along with the French king Jean II, founded the chivalric Order of the Star, sometimes referred to as the Company of the Star, in 1351. Geoffroi de Charney is the bald-headed figure seated opposite the Duke of Berry who also doubles up as King Herod.
There is an interesting folio (394) which forms part of the Grandes Chroniques de France (14th century) that shows the inception of the Order and some of the knights feasting at table. There can be little doubt that both illustrations were used as a source by Barthélemy for the composition of the January folio. The similarity of the table scene speaks for itself, but the group of knights approaching the French king is echoed in the group of figures huddled together behind the seated Geoffroi de Charney who is dressed in the same colours and style adopted by the Order of the Star.
As well as being father and son the two Charny figures are connected in two other ways. Charney senior was the first recorded owner of the claimed burial shroud of Jesus, now known as the Turin Shroud. It later passed into the possession of his son, hence the representation of the shroud as the tablecloth. Charney senior also wrote three works on chivalry, the most acclaimed being the Book of Chivalry. However, recent scholarship suggests that this treatise may have instead been written by his son to commerorate his father’s death, in a similar way that Bathélemy d’Eyck has honoured Jan and Hubert van Eyck with his painting of the January folio.
• More revelations about the January folio in my next post.
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