The Hours of Joanna I of Castile, Joanna the Mad (The London Rothschild Prayerbook)

The Hours of Joanna I of Castile, Joanna the Mad (The London Rothschild Prayerbook) f.3v,  Calendar, May


f.3v, Calendar, May

The sign of Gemini at the top of the upper border is peculiar in appearance, an androgynous being consisting of two embraced bodies, one female and one male, with a single head typical of the image of this zodiacal constellation in certain Flemish devotional manuscripts (never scientific codices) from the late 15th century until the first third of the 16th century approximately. This is, therefore, a representation totally unlike those in scientific treatises, classical tradition and mythology, which may possibly stem from a corruption of another version of the constellation, consisting of the figuration of a woman and a man –either separate or intertwined– whose origin is not clear. It may perhaps stem from the tradition that May is the month of love, being represented sometimes by a loving couple. This sort of representation could, on the other hand, have a literary description based on a source common to the one used by Alfonso X the Wise in Setenario, in which he says that they are like two bodies in one that never part, and that this is the symbol of Jesus Christ who was bound in the same way to the Father. If this hypothesis is true, then this is a Christianised, symbolic interpretation of the zodiac. The upper of the two medallions in the left margin depicts the apostles St Philip and St James the Lesser, whilst the bottom medallion shows the Invention of the Holy Cross. Underneath, as in previous months, is a figure not named in the red letters showing a person that could be a female saint holding what seems to be a large key: an attribute usually associated with St Petronilla, St Peter’s daughter. However, the image is not clear enough and these characteristics could also indicate a portrait of St John the Baptist (in reference to the feast of St John) before the Latin Gate. Perhaps the saint was not depicted being tortured in a cauldron of boiling oil because since this is not a feast highlighted in red letters it could not be represented in a medallion. Consequently, it was allocated a very narrow space. Indeed, although they are rare, some images show the beloved disciple (beardless and with long hair to symbolise him being young and a virgin in keeping with western iconography) with a fleur de lys signifying the testimony of the Word made flesh.

As regards the figures inside the medallions, the first depicts a bearded St Philip with long hair holding a cross –the attribute of his martyrdom– in his right hand and an open book –the symbol of the preaching of the Gospels– in his left hand. St James the Lesser appears with the large fuller’s rod shaped like a curved mace that he was killed with in Jerusalem, in his right hand.

The bottom medallion depicts the discovery of the holy cross, showing St Helen in her cloak and imperial crown, with a lady-in-waiting behind her and two men beside the empress. Next to the crosses is the bust of a naked man with his hands joined whose body seems to be emerging from a well. This may be in reference to Judas, the Jew who, in line with ecclesiastic anti-Semitism, was punished for refusing to reveal the location of the holy cross by being left in a well for seven days without food or drink. When he finally promised to reveal where the instrument of the Passion was, he prayed and an earthquake occurred, following which, the atmosphere filled with aromas. Upon the location of the cross there was a temple dedicated to Venus which St Helen ordered to be demolished. Judas then dug down until he found three pieces of wood. The man depicted next to some planks may perhaps refer to this scene. This feast had been celebrated since the late 8th century.

Depicted in the background in the bottom scene, accompanied by a servant, are two noblemen on horseback, ready to go falconing. One of them carries a peregrine falcon with outstretched wings upon his gloved, right hand. The servant, on foot, bears a falcon’s perch –a tall rod covered in a soft fabric used as a resting place for the birds and for beating the trees and bushes to make the game take flight– with a peregrine falcon or goshawk upon it. The falconry motif is of oriental origin –it already existed in Chinese art in the Tang dynasty– and was the hunting theme depicted most often in the calendars of the Latin West. This sport, which was introduced in the early centuries of Christianity, is from the Middle East and eventually became the favourite pastime of the regal courts in the Middle Ages. Falconry was associated, in medieval calendars, with the theme of the spring ride. In many calendars, this type of composition had a rather heraldic appearance in keeping with the noble nature of this entertainment. It appeared somewhat later in Europe: the first representation of May as a falconer is to be found in the calendars in the Winchester Psalter and the Saint-Albans Psalter, both made in the third and fourth decades of the 12th century. This type of image may have been included in the calendar cycle due to the need to illustrate a month in which few farming tasks were carried out. Hence the month was dedicated to the horseman in either a warring or pastime pose. The model used in the Hours of Joanna of Castile is English. It was in Gothic art, however, with its greater fondness for systematisation, that this theme was consolidated. As a result, in international Gothic books of hours, the May horseman retained his hunting nature and the image was enhanced with certain landscape details. Falconry was one of the nobility’s favourite pastimes and the miniature depicts the noble chase that was part of many courtly festivities. This was, more generally speaking, the sporting exercise of monarchs and nobles. It trained them in the exercise of power and warfare whilst providing repose for their mind and a healthy outlet for their cruel and violent instincts, which they could then control during their political activities. Hunting was also conceived of as a vehicle for ostentation and social interaction with other powerful persons, a pleasurable sport involving a degree of risk, and an escape from day-to-day life.

Depicted in the foreground is a river or canal with two boats, bedecked with tree branches, sailing upon it. The boat shown in full is steered by a servant wearing a Flemish-style, sleeveless tunic over a doublet with wide sleeves. Beneath a round, wire structure is a lady playing a lute whilst another lady, dressed the same as the previous one, wears a cap upon her wimple. It is not possible to know whether she is playing an instrument or simply listening because the man beside her, playing a recorder, covers her body. Upon the prow stands a white dog, and on the bank, a heron.

Some festivities in late spring, of pre-Christian origin, such as the ancient floralia, lacked any religious elements but were usually very popular amongst the population in general, particularly those at the beginning of May, deemed to be a time for the renewal of life and love. May festivities throughout Europe featured very ancient or traditionally popular elements: the May pole, the May queen and loving festivities, and the attribution of magical properties to “May water”, whose rain was used for rogations. It was customary for young people to go to the country or a nearby wood on the first of May to cut green branches to decorate their houses, streets and even people or certain utensils with in order to celebrate the rebirth of spring. The Church’s efforts to assimilate these festivities resulted in the commemoration of the Invention of the Cross, or Vera Cruz as it was also known, whose feast was established on May 3rd. It must also be said that, unlike the scenes of country tasks seen so far, distinctions are made between the different social classes, showing the refined higher strata (by means of music, conversation, hunting as a sport or what was known as otium cum dignitatem) as opposed to the lower classes, obliged to satisfy their basic necessities. The theme of strolling along canals is to be found outside calendars in the Hours of William Lord Hastings (London, The British Library, Add. Ms. 54782, f. 54r) as a decorative border around the text of St Erasmus’s suffrage. This motif is very common in Flemish calendars and its only variations consist of the boat floating along a river flowing through a field, sometimes featuring a hunting scene, or around a city with a bridge with riders on it. In the background of the miniature, to highlight the contrast between the social groups, is a fortified building, a tower and a longa domus.

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