The Order of Things

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.

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

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.

The Three Mary’s at the TombMuseum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

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.

Detail from folio 394 of Grand Chroniques de France showing the inception of the Order of the Star.

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.

A banquet reception for members of the Order of the Star, (Grand Chroniques de France).

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.

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.