The Limbourg brothers were born in the town of Nijmegen in Flanders. Their uncle Jean Malouel was the court painter to the Burgundy Court in France. Through his associations, at their father’s death, the brothers were taken to Paris to be trained in the art of goldsmithing. On a visit to their home of Nijmegen, they were taken prisoners in Brussels, but their uncle arranged for Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, to pay their ransom. They were released in May 1400, and two years later they were commissioned by Philip, who had become King of France, to paint a bible moralise, an illuminated bible with commentary on the text. Their “Bible Moralise” can be found in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.
After Philip II’s death in 1404, the Limbourg brothers began to work in 1405 for Jean, Duke de Berry, brother of Charles V, King of France. Jean was one of the wealthiest men of his time and a great patron of the arts. The Limbourg brothers created for the Duke two of the most important and lavish books of hours: “Belles Heures” (1405-1409) and “Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (1413-1416).
During the Middle Ages in Europe, the wealthy were the only patrons of the arts. They commissioned lavish decorations for their palaces and for the Catholic Church. They also commissioned manuscripts. One of the most popular types were the small book of hours for individual use in devotions. Rather than the term “illustration” to describe the drawing in other books, religious books are “illuminated manuscripts,” as the words and images “illuminate” the reader’s religious understanding. These books might contain series of the life of the Virgin, scenes from the life of Christ, stories of various saints, and prayers said with various masses. They also contained a section depicting the twelve months of the calendar year, including seasonal events and astrological signs for each month. In the Middle Ages, the stars were linked to the agricultural season, and medical practices and health issues were linked to the constellation of one’s birth. The Catholic Church also linked feast days to the zodiac.
In the old Romulus calendar of 750BCE, October was the eight month of the year, however, when the later Julian and Gregorian calendars became the official European calendar and added the months of January and February, the name Octo, meaning eight was kept.
In the “Belle Heures” (1504-09) (9.3’’x 6.6’’) (October) the French Gothic quatrefoil design is placed at the top of each page. A man sowing seed corn for the fall harvest is depicted with a bag of seed is at his left and a harrow, used to create furrows, is at his right. In spring a plow was used to till the ground, but in fall a wooden harrow was used to create furrows and to cover the seeds as they were sown. In the quatrefoil at the bottom of the page there is a scorpion, the zodiac sign for the period from October 23 until November 22. The text records the names of saints and contains decorative first letters of names. Each line of text is filled from edge to edge with elaborate decorations. All of the spaces are filled to keep the page protected from any intrusion. Pages are gilded though out, and elaborate leaf designs surround the entire page as additional protection.
The calendar pages from “Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (1413-16) (8.8’’ x 5.3”) are personally related to the Duke. Each of the twelve calendar pages show seasonal activities and elaborate zodiac images, but in the background each depicts exquisitely detailed images of one of the Duke’s many estates or of a prominent Paris structure. In the background of October, the Louvre, the royal residence of Charles V, is depicted. The wall surrounding the Louvre has three towers, and between them are two balconies with windows. The windows could be used to pour boiling water or hot oil on attackers. A small door on the left serves as an exit leading to the lawn and a set of steps down to the Seine. On the steps a few women are doing laundry. Three boats are drawn up to the other set of steps. People and dogs walk along the river.
Moving forward in the composition an archer can be seen. On closer observation, the figure is actually a scarecrow. The October furrowing and sowing is completed in this field, and the scarecrow and crisscrossed strings keep the birds away. The image at the front is a rider in red using a harrow to plow the field. A rock on top of the harrow holds it to the ground to create the furrows and break the soil. A sower’s job was considered one of great importance, as he must sow the seed in an even amount knowing precisely how much to hold and release, and knowing how far to throw the seed. In the left foreground is a bag of seed; magpies and crows eat unprotected seed. It is a fully realized depiction of an October scene.
The celestial calendar of October is depicted in the arched top of the page. October falls under two zodiac sign: Libra from September 23 until October 22 and Scorpio from October 23 until November 22. Libra’s symbol, the scale, is depicted on the left side of the sky, and a scorpion is on the right side. In the lower arch a bearded and crowned figure holding the sun drives a chariot in the shape of a church through the air. Days, dates and months mark off the heavens.
Giuseppe Archimboldo was born in Milan into a family of painters. In 1562, he became the court portraitist to Ferdinand I at the Hapsburg Court in Vienna, and later to the court of Maximilian II and his son Rudolph II in Prague. They were all in succession the Holy Roman Emperor’s. Arcimboldo painted numerous royal portraits and religious works. He also was famous for his invention of unique portrait heads composed of fauna, flora and fruit. The Hapsburg court loved them. Maximilian turned his court into a scientist’s haven, inviting philosophers and scientists from all over Europe. His extensive Cabinet of Wonders collection and the zoo botanical gardens were open to Archimboldo and inspired him.
In keeping with the theme of this article, the month of October,“Autumn” (1573) (30” x 25’’) is the profile portrait of man made up of autumn produce. A pear forms the nose, a pomegranate the chin, a red apple the cheek, and autumn wheat the beard, mustache and eye brows. His hair is composed of bunches of grapes and grape vines, and a pumpkin appears out of the top of his head. Other fall fruits and vegetables complete the face, and the neck is composed of the staves of a wooden basket used for gathering the harvest. Framing the face is a garland of leaves and flowers. “Autumn” is one of a series of four portraits of the seasons.
Archimbaldo created several series of these portraits including the “Four Elements,” “Four Seasons,” and numerous single portraits of types such as “Lawyer,” “Librarian,” “Waiter,” and “Cook”. These paintings were extremely popular with the Habsburg Court, and he was commissioned to create several new images of the same subjects. Whether he painted these works purely for pleasure, which they clearly gave, or as critiques and satires of the type depicted, is still the subject of debate. They would seem to work well in either case. Archimbaldo’s legacy is assured. The Surrealists, such as Salvador Dali, discovered his work, and major exhibitions of his works and books about him abound.
To the reader and viewer of this article, this is the first article that depicts the work of two decidedly different artists. It is not something that will happen often, but an explanation is in order. The contrast between the two styles is easy to see as is the mostly religious intent ion of the Limbourgs and the decidedly secular intention of Archimboldo. However the theme of the works, October/Autumn, is the same. The choice of two artists was to raise the issue of the viewer’s personal response. Artistic taste is subjective and personal, and there is no right or wrong response. Here comes the art historian. No one likes every artists work, and sometimes a viewer responds only to one piece by an artist. In this one article two very different works were selected to gently remind the viewer that there is an immense world of art out there to be explored. Art has always been innate to humans and is a source of many things such as learning, pleasure and inspiration.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.