The butterfly effect

Barthélemy d’Eyck adapted several features from The Three Marys at the Tomb painting for his composition of the January folio in the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry. The field of gold representing the burial shroud of Jesus is one instance. In Barthélemy’s painting the Shroud is the cloth covering the banquet table. Like the field, it glitters with its gold plate and tableware.

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

It’s worth remembering that there is more than one narrative attached to the figures and groupings in the January folio. The reason for this was Barthélemy emulating the composition system used by Jan and Hubert van Eyck of embedding several underlying themes and identities in their paintings, notably in the Ghent Altarpiece and The Three Marys at the Tomb.

The “Field of the Lord” at Saint-Hippolyte-sur-le-Doubs attracted pilgrims for many years because the claimed burial cloth of Jesus, now known as the Shroud of Turin, was displayed there at Eastertime to commemorate the Resurrection of Jesus – a transformation to a new life.

Barthélemy may have likened visiting pilgrims to butterflies, flitting from one pilgrimage destination to another. There were many at that time to choose from, mostly associated with the display of a saintly relic of some sort. But butterflies are also the result of a kind of metamorphosis or transformation, forming their shape through egg, larva and pupa stages to finally become a colorful adult creature of wonder.

Gathered around “The Lord’s Table” set for celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Magi – pilgrims from the East – travelled to Bethlehem to bring gifts and pay homage to the new-born king, are guests of all all types and status, from servants to ‘kings’, all clothed in an array of colours. Even the armoured soldiers fighting in the battlefield tapestry are decked in colourful coats of arms.

Arms, representing wings, is the key to recognising the butterfly theme in the January folio, and there is more than one narrative attached to the theme. Arms and wings also link to another theme in the picture, that of warfare and the equipment and methods used for conducting sieges and conquering castles. Notice also some of the figures are placed shoulder to shoulder, i.e. paired or yoked, suggesting they share a fellowship of some kind, or of the same ilk. For instance, take the identical livery colours of two men in the corners or wings of the frame. At top level they represent the Duke of Berry’s servants. However, the kneeling figure also represents Richard II whose father was the Black Prince, Edward of Woodstock. It was also rumoured that Richard was the illegitimate son of one of his mother’s servants. Hence the pairing of livery colours for the two figures.

So where are the butterfly depictions in the January folio? Apart from bearing in mind the colourful display of some of the men’s garments we can start with the man guzzling at the drinks table, and the man behind eating bread. A list of caterpillar behaviours published on Wikipedia states “Many caterpillars display feeding behaviors which allow the caterpillar to remain hidden from potential predators.” This explains why the faces of the two men are partially hidden. Predators include birds and the drinking man’s hat is meant to represent a pelican arguing with a griffin. An explanation of for this motif is at this link.

Further along the back line is the blue-collared figure with the floppy head cover. The hat combines with the ear-shaped legs of two soldiers in the tapestry to represent a hare, a play on the word hair and a clue to unravel the connection to the group of three men ahead in the line. The flat cap also represents a sow’s ear. Apart from defining a female pig, a sow is a name given to a slow-moving covered apparatus used in siege situations. This is also echoed in the bell shape collar decorated with musical notes and meant to represent a belfry or siege tower, another slow-moving structure. Notice the collar is fur-trimmed and here we have the first reference to the slow-moving caterpillar known to cause significant destruction to crops. Wikipedia states: “ The English word caterpillar derives from the old French catepelose (hairy cat) but merged with the word piller (pillager). The “Cat” was also a mobile shelter used to approach a castle under siege.

The next figure in line, and another hidden face, also has a caterpillar collar. The crown of the hat resembles the shape of a torte cake. Torte is a pun on both taught and torque (as in tension). The figure in this instance represents Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV, who rebelled against Richard II and gathered a force against his cousin to usurp the throne. Torque applies to another medieval siege machine, that of a catapult or its larger version the trebuchet. The Old French word trebucher means “overthrow’. Torte also lends itself to the slow-moving tortoise and its tendency not to stick its neck out when danger threatens, hence Bolingbroke’s hidden face.

In this scenario the figure in front of Henry Bolingbroke is the Duke of Gloucester, Thomas of Woodstock. Dressed in silk garments, his fur-lined sleeves represent caterpillars dangling from a tree branch when in the process of creating a silk cocoon. The figure’s face is half covered, his mouth muffled. This motif echoes the muffling feature found in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece and also links to the tonsure feature of Henry’s hat, explained at this link.

The covering of the mouth is a visual pun on the word moth, a transformation of the silkworm. It is while the moth is in its larvae stage, before its cocoon and adult span that it damages and targets animal-based fabrics such as silk. It can also be understood as damage to the fabric and stability of society, In a sense, the artist has portrayed the Duke of Gloucester as his own worst enemy.

Thomas was an uncle to Richard II who made him Earl of Buckingham at his coronation in July 1377. Many of the figures portrayed in the January folio are taken from an extant list of nobles assigned to duties at Richard’s coronation. Thomas was also created Duke of Gloucester in 1485. However, Gloucester was opposed to the king’s royal advisors, namely Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, and Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford. In 1388 Thomas led a group of nobles known as the Lords Appellant to impeach and force the dismissal of some of the king’s royal advisers which included Suffolk and Oxford. Afterwards Richard’s authority as king was somewhat limited but in 1389 with the help of his uncle John of Gaunt he was able to rebuild his power base and exert his authority as king once more. But after further fall-outs with Thomas the king clipped his uncle’s flitting wings and had him arrested and imprisoned in Calais. It is speculated that Richard ordered Thomas’s murder some months later when he was strangled or smothered, or both, and so another reference to the muffled mouth feature in the January folio.

The murder of Thomas, duke of Gloucester. Jean Froissart, Chronicles

The Duke of Gloucester did much to undermine his nephew’s authority as the rightful king, prompted in the background by another appellant and claimant for the throne, Henry Bolingbroke. However, Gloucester too would have felt undermined when Richard II’s father, the Black Prince, returned to England to assist in regaining his son’s control over his opponents.

Gloucester’s blue headdress is a reference to undermining, and a siege tactic where attackers dig or mine beneath a castle wall to weaken its structure. In medieval times miners believed in underground spirits named Kobolds or Bluecaps. Several legends are associated with them. Miners claimed the Kobbolds lived in the rocks and they could hear the spirits drilling and hammering. This is also a reference to the occupants of a castle under siege hearing the mining attempts of their aggressors on the outside. The colour cobalt blue takes its name from the Kobald spirit, hence the colour of Gloucester’s headdress.

The mining theme is also reflected in Gloucester’s ‘tunnelled’ sleeves and the ‘castle ramparts’ design of the cape covering his shoulders.

That Gloucester may have felt undermined on both sides is expressed both in the sense of the chaperon covering his head and as the two men chaperoning him on either side, his brother the Black Prince, and Henry Bolingbroke. Notice two fiendish shapes outlined on either edge of Gloucester’s blue headdress.

The three men as a group also refer to the maxim “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil. Bolinbroke has his eyes covered, Gloucester his mouth, and the Black Prince, his ears. This is another motif borrowed from Jan van Eyck’s Just Judges panel in the Ghent Altarpiece.

The figure wearing the light blue-grey chaperon and dressed in black silk with ‘caterpillar’ trims on the sleeves and collar, is Thomas’s elder brother, Edward of Woodstock, better known in history as the Black Prince. He was the eldest son of king Edward III and heir apparent to the English throne, hence the crown motifs on his black gown. The Black Prince died before his father and it was his son who succeeded to the throne as Richard II, bypassing any claim the duke of Gloucester or Henry Bolinbroke may have considered they had to become king.

The appearance of the trio warming themselves at the fire is not what it seems to be at first glance. There are other narratives embedded in the composition. Their arms are raised to reveal that there is nohing untoward is hidden in the sleeves of their garments. The marshall, in this instance depicted as Richard de Vere, Earl of Oxford, is inviting the three men to “Approach” but the trio appear hesitant. Hands are raised as if on guard. There are reasons for this: One is the fighting reputation of the marshall and another is the three figures behind him all died from the plague. Not only that the three guests represent English forces that fought on French soil in the Hundred Years War.

Royal arms of England

The royal heritage of the brothers Gloucester and the Black Prince is also depicted by their raised arms. The Black Prince strkes the pose of the heraldic Lion Passant Regardent. His head is turned as if looking over his shoulder, possibly wondering if his younger brother, the duke of Gloucester, may have ambitions to usurp his claim to the English throne. Gloucester strikes a similar pose except that both arms are raised to depict him as the heraldic Lion Rampant, while Henry Bolingbroke is shown with only one arm. Like his face, the other is hidden.

The Black Prince is heir apparent to his father’s throne, and here we have another pun incoporated by the artist – the word heir at the front of the sequence of the four-man group, and hare at the start of the line. In between there are several references to the word hair or hairy caterpillar. The pun is extended to the group of Appellants and the word apparent.

The identity of the figure at the start of the group is Jean Creton, a French knight and chronicler, who wrote The Metrical History of Richard II, hence the musical notes on his blue collar. The reference to his floppy hat being a sow – a siege apparatus – also points to the word creton as a French term for bacon fat.

Returning to the butterfly theme and the mention of riddles in an earlier post, here’s another:

First I was small, and round like a pearl;
Then long and slender, as brave as an earl;
Since, like an hermit, I lived in a cell,
And now, like a rogue, in the wide world I dwell

The answer is butterfly, and I shall explain in my next post how this riddle is translated in the January folio.

Revisiting the Très Riche Heures

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.

Detail from January folio in the Calendar section of the Très Riche Heures de Duc de Berry

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.