The Treasures of Jean, Duke of Berry (Part II)

The colorful pictorial instruction of the Labors of the Months seen in the stained glass windows of cathedrals and manorial homes and in Les Très Riches Heures depicts peasants and aristocrats in commonplace activities throughout the year. They reveal through master craftsmanship the inexorably turning wheel of seasonal toil in uneasy relationship with Nature’s forces. Plowing, sowing, reaping, and threshing all served one great purpose—to provision society’s larders, and while fruits, vegetables, and livestock contributed significantly to the medieval diet, most figured calendars give special prominence to wheat raising.

July and August (c. 1470)
Labors of the Month Stained Glass; Cassiobury Park, Herfordshire
Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Wikimedia Commons

                The refined depictions of July appear to be the work of artists other than the Limbourgs since the unfinished manuscript passed on to the King Charles II of France following the Duke of Berry’s death in 1416. Two reapers are prominent in the July illumination in a field where poppies and cornflowers also grow before the beautiful Chateau de Poiters and chapel, also acquired by the king after the duke’s passing. The workers use a stick to gather the stalks for cutting with short-handled scythes and are lightly clothed and wearing broad-brimmed hats. A couple is shearing sheep on the other side of a stream where swans frolic among trees and reeds.

The busy August miniature was painted by the Limbourg brothers and shows an elegantly clad party of aristocrats—probably including the blue-clad duke, departing his Chateau d’Etampes for a hunt with their falcons. Peasants beyond the water cut the grain with a scythe in straight rows, gather the cuttings into shocks, and load the crop into a horse-drawn wagon. The artists also include four peasant swimmers who playfully show that medieval life was not without recreation even for commoners.

Limbourg Brothers, “July” and “August”
Les Très Riches Heures du Jean, Duc de Berry (c. 1415)
Illuminated parchment, 11 ⅘ x 8 ½ inches
Musée Condé, Chantilly, France; Wikimedia Commons