Wednesday, 1 March 2017

The Year in Medieval Art: March

With Christmas behind us, and the spring not far ahead, the beginning of Lent focuses the mind on the preparations for Easter. Since Easter, unlike Christmas, is a movable feast, Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the six penitential weeks, falls sometimes in February, and sometimes in March. This year, it falls on the 1st March. For a large and prosperous Medieval household, Lent required practical, as well as spiritual, preparation: some foods had to be used up (all the smoked bacon and sausages that had been hanging from the rafters since the autumn); whilst others (smoked and salted fish, for example) had to be bought in. Some books of hours include charts on the basis of which the relevant dates could be calculated.

Chart for calculating the date of Easter, from the Hours of Charles d'Angouleme, late 15th Century, National Library of France. The artist is Robinet Teslart. Image: Cardena 2 (licensed under CCA).

During the six weeks of Lent, people were expected to abstain, not only from the consumption of meat, but also from sexual intercourse. Marriages could only be celebrated if a special license were obtained, and, in practice, this privilege was usually extended only to rich and powerful families. Shrove Tuesday, or Carnival, represented a last, riotous farewell to the long nights of winter carousing.

"The fight between Carnival and Lent," by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna. Image: Dguendel (licensed under CCA). In the foreground, a fat man, representing Carnival, sits astride a barrel; confronting a thin woman, representing Lent, who holds out two fishes. Behind them, the church (on the right); and the taverns and brothels (on the left); compete with one another for the attentions of the townsfolk.
Penitential flagellants, from Les Belles Heures du Duc de Berry, workshop of the Limbourg brothers, c 1409, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image is in the Public Domain). Such extreme mortification was often discouraged by the Church authorities, and it is difficult to imagine the Duke himself as a participant.

March is often depicted as a month for gardening: for planting crops such as onions, leeks, and greens, that would provide a welcome diversification of the diet in springtime. In wine-producing areas, the vines, not yet showing any leaves, are depicted in the process of being pruned in preparation. Lambing, which would certainly have continued from February into March, is rarely depicted, but ploughing often is -  a potent symbol of the beginning of a new cycle of agricultural labours.

March, from the "Golf Book," workshop of Simon Bening, Bruges, 1520-30, British Library Add.24098, f20v (licensed under CCA). In the foreground, a man tends his garden, whilst a woman looks on; behind them, men are felling a tree.
March, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, workshop of the Limbourg brothers, Musee Conde (image is in the Public Domain. A man ploughs the field in the foreground; whilst, behind him, vines are being pruned; the castle in the background is that of Lusignan (Poitou), one of many held by the Duke.
March, from the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux, workshop of Jean Pucelle, 1324-8, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image is in the Public Domain). The man on the left prunes the vine-stock with a billhook, whilst the man on the right tips manure onto the ground.
Aries, from the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux (image is in the Public Domain).

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. Medieval calendars are rather fascinating and I'm always glad to learn more about how to approach them.