The Isabella Breviary

The Isabella Breviary f. 6v, November


f. 6v, November

The text of the calendar, stating the day when the sun enters the constellation of Sagittarius, is in three colours – gold, blue and red – due to the influence of the prayer books linked to the high-ranking nobility and monarchy of France since the 14th century.


A historiated border featuring November’s farm tasks surrounds the text. Sagittarius is depicted at the top as a zoo-anthropomorphic monster with a human body, cloven goat hooves and a horse’s tail, with his head and shoulders turned backwards to shoot an arrow. In this respect, no attempt has been made to portray the constellation according to a scientific model – as shown, amongst many other aspects, by the absence of the stars comprising it – preferring a more picturesque, decorative model. The only intention is to indicate the passage of time and the influence the stars have on humans, but not their personality, since this depends on their will and the grace of God. The tasks and pastimes of the months indicate the passage of time from the perspective of a farming economy in which human life is governed by crop cycles and where the cyclical time that God promised Noah can be seen (Gen. 8:22). Consequently, one must take into account the importance, from an artistic viewpoint, acquired by landscapes from the beginning of the second third of the 14th century. As a result, the earliest, extant manuscript with paintings to combine the occupations of the different months with landscapes is the Belleville Breviary (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, ms. lat. 10483), illuminated by Jean Pucelle in Paris c. 1330 and copied in several later manuscripts. This codex uses the twelve months to show very simply how nature changes as the year goes by, leading to more in-depth and detailed observations in the Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry (Chantilly, Musée Conde, ms. 65), and finally to a more radical concept in the book of hours entitled Voustre Demeure attributed to the Master of the Dresden Prayer Book (Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, ms. Vit. 25-5), in which humans are absent from the folios featuring the zodiac constellations and nature comes to the fore. In the Isabella Breviary , made by a painter of the workshop of the Master of the Dresden Prayer Book following the example of this master in the Dresden Prayer Book (Dresden, Sächsische Landesbibliothek, Ms. A 311), the representations of the months occupy the entire folio. The November scene in particular features several skilfully combined perspectives: a very high spectator viewpoint and figures depicted almost at the same level by a successful juxtaposition of planes. This month features the traditional theme of fattening farm animals. A wide, high landscape in the depths of which a building belonging to a nobleman or upper class person can be seen, with the different parts of the property separated by wickerwork fences and a peasant leading a herd to be fed. Further down is another peasant with a middle class man negotiating the purchase of some pigs. Finally, a swineherd leads another herd whilst trying to guide two oxen in front of him at the same time. The centre of the painting is occupied by a wood – covered partly by the text of the calendar – belonging to the lord’s land and which can be used particularly to provide wood, to feed pigs and as a hunting ground too. In elitist art designed particularly to emphasise class differences, peasants are characterised not only by their clothes but also by their coarse features that contrast with the finer traits of the middle class man buying the herd.


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