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. 158v, The legend of the encounter between the three living and the three dead


f. 158v, The legend of the encounter between the three living and the three dead

The illustration depicts three dead persons, at the gates of a cemetery on the outskirts of a city, shown as skeletons partially wrapped in shrouds and armed with spears, attacking a group of falconers fleeing in panic. The falconers are a woman – whose expression is totally impassive – with a hunting bird on her right hand, and two men, one of whom clutches his hat in his hasty escape. The hunting dogs at the horses’ hooves, also flee. In the background are the lords’ servants, one carrying a rod for the bird of prey to perch on and, on the right, a city with a tower. The composition of the miniature is identical to the one in the Hours of Berlin of Mary of Burgundy (f. 220v) except that in the latter, the letter M is repeated on the girth of the horse. The M refers to the patron, which undoubtedly explains her impassive face. This may indicate that both manuscripts, i.e. the Berlin and the British Library codices, were made for a woman since, as demonstrated by the historiated border to appear subsequently in the Spinola Hours (f. 184v), for example, it is unusual for one of the living beings to have a female appearance. The Hours of Joanna of Castile may have been commissioned for a special person in memory of the former duchess of Burgundy, such as her daughter Margaret of Austria (as suggested by J. Backhouse and M. Smeyers), the heir of the Berlin manuscript. In greater likelihood, another possible owner could have been Joanna I of Castile who married Mary’s son, Philip of Burgundy. Judging by the physical and formal characteristics of the manuscript, it could also have been, in a manner similar to the Hours of James IV, a gift on the occasion of the wedding of the Infanta of Castile to the Duke of Burgundy. As we shall see, the illustration in the Hours of Joanna of Castile features elements borrowed from Italian iconography. In the first place, it recreates the setting: a place in the country where, like a wood or somewhere far removed from the city, the marvellous element can manifest itself. Furthermore, as in Italy, the three living beings are hunters and the corpses menace the living. The scene is enhanced, again in keeping with this Italian layout, by the addition of hunting dogs and servants – although they are depicted in the distance and still removed from the action – who accompany the group on the hunt. Another dramatic effect is provided by the falcon with its outstretched wings about to take flight. Some details do, however, stray from the Italian iconography of this theme such as the absence of the hermit in this illustration and the different stages of putrefaction of each corpse. This theme, which arose in the 13th century almost simultaneously in France, England and Italy, was developed to a considerable extent in the late Middle Ages throughout western Europe. Two basic groups can be distinguished – although there are also images featuring a combination of elements from both. Firstly, there is the basically French group known as the Dialogue Encounter, and then the Italian or Meditation Encounter group. The literary formulae coincide with the variations found in the pictorial version of the encounter. Nevertheless, whereas the poems that were to give rise to the French type of iconography were prior to it, quite the opposite occurred in the Italian version. The image dates from well before the earliest extant text, represented by the paintings in Atri, possibly, from the late 13th century. The two types are distinguished by elements in both their composition and ideology. This topic of literature is depicted in the earliest, French examples simply by a line of three corpses standing in front of three gentlemen, whose high social standing is indicated by the presence of a falcon on the hand of one of them: a medieval detail which, as mentioned earlier, denotes nobility. They also sometimes wear crowns. However, in Italy the theme was soon embellished by the presence of a hermit, an element subsequently followed by a description of the atmosphere in which the scene takes place, usually a wood, as the place where the marvellous element occurs. It was also in Italy that the three living beings were transformed into hunters on horseback. The attitude of the corpses changed too: they ceased to be living dead standing upright in an attitude of dialogue and became beings, lying upon their tombs or arising from them, who were clearly hostile to the living. Each corpse usually features a different degree of putrefaction. Other elements enhance the scene: the hermitage where the anchorite lives, the dogs and servants accompanying the group on the hunt and the falcon, first shown on the fist of one of the nobles and then, in more dramatic versions of the encounter, flying. The French group shows the living and the dead in what is defined as the Dialogue Encounter with the two groups in conversation in keeping with the text it is based on. This may be why the living are not depicted frightened by the appearance of the corpses in the earliest, extant copies. The Italian version, however, features no direct dialogue between the two groups but a hermit who addresses the living beings and shows them the horrible spectacle to make them think. The success and popularity it enjoyed in a wide geographic area may have caused other themes that were originally independent to be incorporated into the encounter. Although the earliest French examples followed a rigid model, the Italian ones were far more flexible and willing to include innovative elements. The different versions of the texts often consisted of poetry in the form of dialogues. In such writings, the dead question the living and adopt a clearly active role in the action. The whole scene revolves around the sin of pride of the three young nobles to whom God wishes to show how worthless their life is by the vision of the three corpses. The dead constitute a mirror in which the living can see themselves. The dead now pay for their pride on earth with their suffering in hell. Hence, their sudden appearance is an obvious warning. The first images arising in France appeared in codex illustrations subordinated to the text version. However, in the course of time they became independent and came to constitute a frequent resource for decorating the office of the dead in books of hours. In Italy, however, some of the earliest examples could already be seen on mural decorations incorporated from the start into ambits clearly related to funerals: cemeteries, chapels and even arcosolia were settings in which the theme was developed and enhanced. It was a clear success throughout the peninsula from the northern area to Piemonte and Lombardy during the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. This did not occur in France until the mid 14th century, with the presence of the encounter becoming completely widespread in the 15th century in many of the narrative cycles decorating funeral chapels. Something similar happened in England. In both areas, the theme was often incorporated into ambitious programmes featuring scenes referring to the Redemption, such as the childhood of Jesus, in addition to others – such as, for example, the final judgement or the dance of death in the Hours of Joanna of Castile – which emphasise the eschatological and symbolic meaning of the encounter in addition to the encounter itself. The Redemption depends just as much on divine justice as on the denial of earthly splendour, and materializes in the dance and encounter with death, which make human beings equal when faced with their ultimate destiny. In England, it is not uncommon for this theme to appear in pictorial cycles featuring St Christopher too.

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