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. 57r, Moses and the burning bush


f. 57r, Moses and the burning bush

The painting depicts a bearded Moses with long hair turned up at the end rather like horns, sitting on the ground. He is removing a shoe, having already removed the other, for, as the voice he hears from the bush tells him, he is in a holy area. Although the staff at his feet and the sheep in the background, which belong to Jethro, his father-in-law, make him look like a shepherd, he is not dressed as such. Before him stands a burning group of five trees with green crowns, from which the radiant bust of God the Father emerges making a blessing. He is depicted with young traits – long hair and a very short beard – and imperial attributes such as his purple vestments, the globe (which is transparent and has a cross set upon it) and a tiara topped by a cross shape. To the rear is a large building whose typology is similar to contemporary, Flemish fortresses, in reference to the Turris Davidica, opposite a lake with two swans gliding across it. Finally, in the background, Gideon can be glimpsed, portrayed in the traditional manner on his knees with his hands joined and wearing the armour of that time, in other words, as a Christian knight. Next to him stands an angel and the fleece spread out on the floor upon which a fine rain falls from a cumulus of clouds.
The theme of Moses before the burning bush may have originated in the eastern Church, as shown by the reference made to it in the Treatise of the Annunciation by St John Crysostom (347-407). The type depicted in the Hours of Joanna of Castile combines elements from the West – such as the representation of the patriarch as an old man, with a beard and long garments – and the East. It belongs to the first of the types enumerated by L. Réau, i.e. God manifesting himself in the burning bush before Moses. Yahweh is an invisible God: the Bible insists that Moses heard his voice but did not see him. Many works in the Middle Ages associated the scene of Moses before the burning bush with the Annunciation to Our Lady, making the relationship between the Old Testament theme and the virginity of the Mother of God, and also her miraculous conception, obvious. This idea was already to be found in tenth-century hymns. The meaning was explained by the theologians of the High Middle Ages. The twelfth-century exegesis usually speaks of this fact as “Rubum quem viderta Moyses incombustum conservatam agnovimus tuam laudabilem virginitatem, Sancta Dei Genitrix”, which appears as a marginal note in the commentaries on the book of the Exodus by Hugh of St Cher (c. 1200-1263) and which subsequently entered the office of the Virgin. Generally speaking, it was thought in the 13th century that the phenomenon of burning without being consumed was a figure of the fire of love that inspired Mary’s virginity. In addition, a parallel was established: God had spoken to Moses to convince him to free his people just as God spoke to Our Lady through the archangel Gabriel so that she could, thanks to her son, free humanity from the yoke of sin. St Bernard believed that the bush could also represent, in relation to the punishment established for women, painless childbirth. Also depicted, as is more usual in this theme, is a symbol of the virginal conception of Mary by the work of the Holy Ghost, who is fervent love represented by the bush that burns without being consumed. God the Father is portrayed in what could be described as papal garb: an image that appeared for the first time in a manuscript of the City of God dated around 1375 (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms. fr. 22913, f. 408v.)The theological concept expressed by the papal figure is totally in line with what St Augustine understands when he speaks of God: the Supreme Being who is the Father, Son and Holy Ghost at one and the same time. It is precisely the papal vestments that identify him as the first Person of the Holy Trinity. Similar to the painting in the Hours of Joanna of Castile is the drawing in a Speculum Humanae Salvationis by Jean of Stavelot, made around 1428 (Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Ms. 9332-9346, f. 128v), appearing after the Annunciation, like the paintings in two copies from the southern Netherlands or northern France, dated around 1460, except that Moses is shown standing (Einsiedeln, Library of the Abbey, Ms. 206, f. 8v and Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, Ms. 23, f. 9v). The same image, but with Moses kneeling, appears in another Speculum Humanae Salvationis, belonging to the Gold Scrolls Group, made in Bruges around 1440 (Copenhagen, Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Ms. GkS 79fº, ff. 26v-27r).
As regards the iconography of Gideon’s fleece, L. Réau distinguished three stages, the first of which is depicted here: Gideon in knight’s armour standing or kneeling before the fleece spread out on the ground begging heaven for a sign. God appears on a cloud and makes dew fall upon the fleece, a detail not shown in the British Library manuscript. In the context of the hours of the Virgin, it is logical for this illustration to refer to the exegetes’ most commonplace interpretation of this happening: a prefiguration of the virginal motherhood of Our Lady in which the moistened fleece is the image of the Mother of God fertilised by the Holy Ghost who caused Jesus to come down, like dew, into her womb. The surrounding dry area symbolises her intact virginity, as in the words of Honorius Augustodunensis, “Dominus sicut pluvia in vellus descendit, matris fecunditatem attulit, virginitatem non abstulit” (PL. 172, col. 841).
The combination of the Annunciation with Moses before the burning bush and Gideon’s fleece appears in a painting in a copy of Speculum Humanae Salvationis, made in Bruges in 1455 (Glasgow, University Library, Ms. Hunter 60, f. 10r), in which the composition of Moses and the appearance of Gideon are similar to those in the Hours of Joanna of Castile. This combination of the three themes is usual in the Speculum group of manuscripts produced in Bruges and in the volumes mentioned earlier from Cologne. Their influence upon books of hours, however, can be seen not only in the Hours of Joanna of Castile, but also in the Spinola Hours (f. 93r), by Gerard Horenbout himself and another book of hours from the south of Holland dated around 1478 (The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, 133 H 30, f. 16v).

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