Medieval Art: January in Les Tres Riches Heures

In past centuries, the time for exchanging gifts was New Year’s Day rather than Christmas.
Duc Jean de Berry enjoyed giving and receiving; Paul de Limbourg and his brothers often participated in the festivities, presenting the prince with an object worthy of their artistry.
The Duke sits at his table, surrounded by friends. Behind him the blaze of a large fire in the monumental fireplace is guarded by a wickerwork screen. Above the fireplace rises a red silk canopy bearing the Duke’s heraldic motifs: golden fleurs-de-lys, strewn on a blue ground. Wounded swans and bears symbolize the Duke’s love for a lady called Ursine (ours: bear, cygne: swan). Brilliant  tapestries hanging behind the canopy depict knights emerging from a fortified castle to confront the enemy; the few decipherable words of the poetry inscribed at the top of the tapestries seem to indicate a representation of the Trojan War as imagined in medieval France.
The table is covered with a damask cloth and laid with platters, plates, and a beautiful gold saltcellar in the shape of a ship, which is referred to in the inventories as the “salière du pavillon. ”  The Duke’s little dogs wander freely among the dishes. Behind the Duke stand two young men whose coiffures and dress suggest figures from the scenes of April, May, or August. One of them casually leans on the back of the Duke’s chair. They might be close family members or princes of his retinue.
A prelate with sparse white hair and a purple coat sits on the Duke’s right, thanking him for this honor. He is probably a close friend, Martin Gouge, Bishop of Chartres, who shared the Duke’s love of beautiful books. Behind him several figures are seen entering and stretching their hands toward the fire; the chamberlain encourages them, saying “Approche approche!” “Come in, come in ! ”
Other figures follow, including a man with an angular, willful face, who wears a cap folded over one ear.It is possible that artist Paul de Limbourg intended this figure to be a self-portrait, a hypothesis which appears all the more credible since the coifed head reappears in two other books of hours by the Limbourgs: the Petites heures (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) and the Belles heures (The Cloisters, New York). If the hypothesis were carried even further, we could identify a hooded figure greedily drinking from a cup as one of the brothers, and the woman behind him, whose face is partially hidden, as Paul de Limbourg’s wife, Gillette le Mercier, the daughter of a Bourges burgher. A cup-bearer, a pantler (the keeper of the bread and other food), and a carver, busy waiting on table in front of the officers of the ducal court. The sun chariot, as always in this book, occupies the tympanum, with Capricorn  and Aquarius above.

Excerpted from


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