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. 7r, Calendar, December


f. 7r, Calendar, December

Capricorn is depicted in the form of a walking goat.

Due to the number of feasts highlighted in red, the arrangement of the medallions is different and cleverly organised. As a result, the medallions related specifically to Marian feasts are larger and occupy intermediate places amongst two linked medallions concerning the commemorations of saints. The feasts after Christmas, on the other hand, are smaller quatrefoils arranged as encadenated medallions. The sequence of solemnities is as follows: St Giles the bishop and the episcopal consecration of St Nicolas; the embrace of St Anne and St Joachim at the Golden Gate; St Nicasius with his severed head in his hands, and St Thomas the Apostle; the Nativity (given particular importance by being situated beneath an ogee arch); the stoning of St Stephen and St John the Baptist; the massacre of the innocents and the murder of St Thomas Becket.

In front of the cloth of honour, garbed in episcopal vestments with a crosier, is St Giles, or St Eligius as he was also known, bishop of Noyon. As mentioned earlier, the date of his death or dies natalis is celebrated on December 1st.

Shown in the medallion alongside is the episcopal coronation of St Nicolas of Bari in front of a cloth of honour, with two bishops wearing mitres and with crosiers placing the mitre upon his head. He is venerated in Liege, amongst other Flemish dioceses.

The Immaculate Conception of Our Lady is represented underneath, symbolically or indirectly, by the embrace of St Anne and St Joachim before the Golden Gate. Next to this construction in Jerusalem appears St Anne covered entirely by a cloak with her hands joined and head lowered to indicate submission. She lets a well-built St Joachim –in bourgeois garb with a purse at his belt– put his hands near her shoulders in a sign of possession. Both are shown as elderly people. According to The Golden Legend, the husband and wife, informed separately, met at the Golden Gate of Jerusalem and embraced each other “de mutua visione et de prole promissa laetati”. This scene not only represents the beginning of the birth of the Virgin Mary but is also, and more importantly, a symbol of the Immaculate Conception for those theologians who defended this belief. Furthermore, they thereby taught that the Virgin was conceived by a kiss without the seed of a man and born of this kiss shared in front of the Golden gate, assimilated to the closed Gate in Ezekiel’s vision. This interpretation, which coincides with the conception of the Virgin, appears as if to remedy Eve’s sin, hence this episode acquires outstanding importance in the mystery of the Redemption. The iconography of this theme shows the influence of the Visitation: like Our Lady and her cousin, St Elizabeth, the spouses embrace and congratulate each other on the happening announced by the Archangel Gabriel.

The next two medallions feature portraits of St Nicasius of Reims and St Thomas the apostle. St Nicasius appears before the cloth of honour in a bishop’s vestments with his detached head, still with a mitre, in his hands, according to the appearance usual in his iconography. St Nicasius was the bishop of Reims in the early 5th century. When the Vandals besieged the city in 407, he went out to meet them singing hymns along with the clerics of the cathedral. According to the legend, despite one of the Vandals cutting his head off, he continued to walk forward, although he fell down dead after a few steps. He is the patron saint of Reims and his feast is also celebrated in Bruges.

St Thomas the Apostle appears against a simple landscape with a spear in his right hand – both the setting and the attribute alluding to his martyrdom. Although his name features in all the lists in the Synoptic Gospels, he plays a distinctive role in St John’s Gospel (Jn. 11: 16). Thomas is particularly remembered for his disbelief when the other apostles announced Christ’s Resurrection to him (Jn. 20: 25), although eight days later he made his act of faith, receiving Jesus’ rebuke (Jn. 20: 29). Even though these references constitute all the certain knowledge about the apostle, his name is the starting point of abundant apocryphal literature, and there are also certain historical facts which suggest that some of such apocryphal material may contain germs of truth. The main document about him is the Acta Thomae, which has survived, with certain variations, in Greek and Syriac, whilst bearing unmistakable signs of its Gnostic origin. His feast, in addition to being common, was celebrated particularly in Bruges.

The next scene is set beneath an ogee arch to highlight its importance. Inside a stable, flanked by an ox and an ass, is the new-born Jesus in a manger. Next to him on the left kneels the Virgin adoring him whilst two small angels on the right, also on their knees, praise him. St Joseph is outside, behind Our Lady. In western art in the Late Middle Ages, the Nativity was transformed into an adoration scene. The Mother of God, who, according to theologians had the privilege of painless childbirth, kneels with her hands joined in front of the naked, radiant Child. This theme, which appeared in Italy in the early 14th century, spread quickly through the West. It originated in liturgical books, not so much as a representation of the Nativity as an illustration of mass texts. To this one must add the authority contributed by the Revelations of St Brigit of Sweden (c. 1303-1373). The saint relates how, during her pilgrimage to the Holy Places in 1370, the Virgin appeared to her in Bethlehem, and, according to the promise she had made to the Virgin in Rome, the latter gave her a vision of how the birth had taken place, which is represented faithfully in the image in the Hours of Joanna of Castile, with the iconographic addition of the adoring angels.

One of the medallions underneath the previous one depicts the stoning of St Stephen in his deacon’s vestments, kneeling with his hands joined, waiting for the stones to be cast. He was one of the first deacons and the first Christian martyr, and his feast is December 26th. In the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen’s name occurs for the first time when the first deacons are appointed (Acts 6: 5). Considering that the distribution of alms from the community’s funds was not satisfactory, the apostles selected and specially ordained seven men to deal with the relief of the poorest community members. Of these seven, Stephen, is the first mentioned and the best known. Virtually nothing is known about Stephen’s life prior to this appointment. His name is Greek and suggests that he was a Hellenist, i.e. one of the Jews born in some foreign land and whose native tongue was Greek. However, according to a fifth-century tradition, the name Stephanos is simply the Greek equivalent of the Armenic Kelil (from the Syrian kelila, crown), which may have been the protomartyr’s original name which was inscribed on a slab found in his tomb. It is not known when or under what circumstances he became a Christian. St Ephanius (Haer. XX: 4) included St Stephen amongst the seventy disciples. Full of qualities such as his faith, logic and oratorical powers, he became the enemy of those who did not believe his message –in such a manner that certain members of the synagogues accused him of blaspheming against God and Moses. Stephen was arrested and dragged before the Sanedrin, where he was accused of saying that Jesus had predicted the destruction of the Temple and of condemning certain traditions that accompanied the Law. When he finally accused the Jews of having betrayed and murdered the Just One whose coming had been foretold by the Prophets, he enraged an audience consisting not of judges but of enemies –who threw themselves upon him and took him out of the city to be stoned.

A scene from the life of St John the Evangelist was chosen for his commemoration. In the centre, the high priest of Diana’s temple in Ephesus, Aristodemus, makes a beseeching gesture whilst John, on the right with the cup in his hand, makes a blessing with his right hand. Lying dead on the floor is one of the condemned who was forced to try the contents of the cup. The totally apocryphal theme told in The Golden Legend relates how, following the death of Emperor Domitian, the favourite disciple was authorised to return to Ephesus, where the high priest of Diana’s temple tested him by giving him poison, made from venomous reptiles, saying that if he survived, he would convert to the faith of Christ. After testing the poison on two men condemned to death, who died immediately, he let St John taste it, who made the sign of the cross and drank it without any discomfort. He immediately brought the condemned men back to life by lying his cloak over them, following which the high priest of the temple was converted. This tale is an extended version of two passages from the Gospels (Mt. 20: 22-24 and Mk. 16: 17). The feast of St John the Baptist is celebrated on December 27th, a day originally shared with St James the Greater. In Rome, from an early date, the feast was reserved for St John alone although both names appear in the Carthage Calendar, the Hieronymian Martyrology and the Gallican liturgical books. The “departure” or “assumption” of the apostle is mentioned in the Menology of Constantinople and in the Calendar of Naples (September 26th), which seems to have been retained as the date of his death.

The first of the medallions in the last row depicts the slaughter of the Innocents. A woman on the far left tries to protect the child on her lap from being struck by the sword wielded by a soldier. Another soldier next to her drives his weapon into the head of a child in its mother’s arms. Mention must be made, as regards the origin of this theme, of the influence of Roman sarcophagi decorated with battle scenes. The slaughter of the Innocents –an image that originated in Gaul and evolved into the primitive, Roman composition – began to be depicted on sarcophagi in the 5th century. The three basic elements of this scene are Herod ordering the male children to be killed (lacking in the image in the Hours of Joanna of Castile), the king’s men killing the children (by either running them through with swords or smashing them against the ground) and the presentation of their bodies to the monarch for inspection, and the mothers trying to protect their sons or weeping for them if they have been torn away. Some of these features were depicted individually, hence, from the 9th century onwards, some works differ from the original composition by depicting the slaughter without the king. The Innocents were deemed to be the first Christian martyrs, and their baptism in blood was considered to be the equivalent of the baptism with water. The exegetes considered their martyrdom to be a prototype of the Christians’ martyrdom or, in the words of St Augustine, “In the children killed by Herod he showed how those who died for him had to be: innocent and humble”.

The last medallion in the calendar depicts the martyrdom of St Thomas of Canterbury or St Thomas Becket. The archbishop of Canterbury in his priestly vestments, kneels with his hands outstretched, whilst the sword is plunged into his back and another executioner holds a weapon aloft. This is not the typical form of representation hence, outside the context of the calendar, it could be mistaken for a copy of similar scenes of other saints. Generally speaking, the traditional method is to show the four murderers, one bearing an axe, in line with a popular legend. The saint is killed in front of an altar with a chalice upon it, sometimes with the Dextera Dei emerging from the clouds to bless him. Thomas Becket was in fact murdered inside a church: one of the armed men cut the top of his skull off. A tremendous response of grief followed this bloody deed. The legend dramatised the event and, to add horror to the sacrilege it was imagined that the archbishop had been assassinated upon the altar steps whilst saying mass: the scene that seems to have been used for the image in the Hours of Joanna of Castile although the way he was murdered is not what the tradition tells. In an extraordinarily short space of time the devotion to the martyred archbishop spread throughout Europe. The pope promulgated the bull of canonisation a little more than two years after his martyrdom, on February 21st 1173. During the rest of the Middle Ages, the sanctuary of St Thomas of Canterbury was one of the most lavish and famous of all Europe. In the diocese of Bruges, this feast is highlighted in red.

Depicted in the bottom section in a slight snowfall is the slaughter, a theme that appears in most illustrated calendars. The slaughter marked the end of the year’s work in the fields. The meat provided the fatty foodstuff necessary to survive the winter and was also the delicacy chosen for the meals at Christmastime. The image in the calendar shows the slaughterman pinning the animal down by kneeling on it and slitting its throat with a knife. This is in keeping with the Carolingian iconographic tradition appearing in certain manuscripts (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, ms. 387; Berlin, Nationalbibliothek, ms. Theol. Lat. 192) and which continued to be seen in Italy more than in France. At the same time, he moves its left foreleg to make the blood – caught in a saucepan by a female peasant (a theme to be found in Italian cycles) – flow rapidly. Behind the pig are a few bundles of hay that will be used to burn its hide and a table, where it will be quartered, flanked by a basket and a bucket to put the pieces of pig in. Inside a shed, a woman lights an oven whilst another works the salt to be used to preserve the animal’s flesh without losing too much flavour. Gaul had been famous for pig breeding and pork production since Antiquity. It is therefore in this region that the earliest representations of the slaughter and quartering of the animal are to be found in the context of the farming calendar, as can be seen in the November frame on the Gate of Mars in Reims: the starting point of an iconographic tradition that was to be perpetuated in medieval calendars.

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