Medieval Art: May (Day) in Les Tres Riches Heures

“It’s May, it’s May, the lusty month of May…” So sings Queen Guinevere in musical Camelot. Those lyrics are based upon a medieval French song, the middle ages being the heyday of May Day. (sorry). . The first of May is a quarter-day, meaning that it falls midway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. The holiday derives from the earlier pre-Christian festivals of the Celtic Beltane and the Germanic Walpurgis Night. In many parts of northern Europe, traditional May Day rites included Morris Dancing, crowning the May Queen, and dancing around the flower and ribbon bedecked Maypole, a symbol of fertility. In the British Isles today, it is fashionable for students to leap into streams and ponds in celebration of the onset of summer.

The first day of May was truly a day of celebration and rejoicing. Just as many of us wear the color green on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone wore green for May Day. On the page for May in Les Tres Riches Heures, the Limbourg brothers depict an aspect of the May Day festivities. Three princesses, sumptuously dressed in green, are shown riding caparisoned horses. The headresses of the girls are bedecked with leaves and flora. Accompanying them are 2 men, one wearing the royal livery of France (a prince?) and the other a brocaded coat strewn with golden flowers (the Duc de Berry?)

In front, musicians playing trumpet, trombone, and flute, are leading the group as the pet dogs caper about.Behind the wooded background are the tops of a grand chateau, modeled after the Palais de la Cite in Paris. The two towers of the Conciergerie and the Tour de L’Horloge, all of which still stand on the Ile de la Cite, can be identified, suggesting that this scene has been set in the woods near what is now the rue de Bellechasse.

In the tympanum are representations of the astrological symbols for the month, Taurus and Gemini. The god Phoebus is shown in his golden chariot following the course of the sun into Gemini.


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