THE EAGLE, November 2012
Despite blasting off with the wonderful Feast of All Saints, November is a somber month, at least in the Northern hemisphere. It is dark, often blustery, wet, already cold. A good time to stay indoors – and not necessarily your own doors. I live in a city that is full of young people, always a source of life and astonishment, of museums and galleries and inspiring images.
Shut your eyes and immediately a picture comes into your head. We think in images from the moment we first open our eyes: frightening, vague, or peaceful. Now it is November, it seems appropriate to look at a picture specially painted to go with the month.
Have you come across Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry? It is an early fifteenth-century book of prayers to be said at the canonical hours, the Divine Office. Not exactly the kind of volume you would find as an e-book, although I have found one of its images reproduced on a cellphone case! Thus the 15th century meets the twenty-first. I was given a collection of illustrations from this treasure for my twelfth birthday; magical illuminations of the lunar year in the French Gothic style. Every month has its own detailed picture that tells a story in luminous colors: deep blues, pure reds, brilliant gold. Every painting is crowned with a semi-circle of the month’s astrological chart, complicated to interpret.
For November, the artist has depicted the zodiacal signs Scorpio and Sagittarius, rampant, above a man holding a lamp. He drives a sort of fancy closed cart, drawn by a pair of mythic beasts. I don’t know what is in that cart but probably something of significance, and possibly the chap is of a biblical nature? He is bearded and robed. The background is a gorgeous blue, the whole sprinkled with gold stars.
In the main picture below the astrological semi-circle, we find an idyllic rural scene, thought to be the forest of Fontainebleu, about 35 miles from Paris. In the foreground a peasant is minding a herd of large brown pigs hunting for acorns on the edge of a sparse forest. For a pig-man, he is bizarrely dressed in a rich, pinky-gold coat, and beside him an extremely well-behaved dog sits on its haunches, ready to round up any strays. Behind there is a charming little white castle on the slope of a hill, and in the far beyond, a lake. Fields and verdure stretch into the distance. It is all utterly charming and one could look at it for hours. I’m told it is a representation of the parable of the Prodigal Son, who became a swineherd before he decided to return to his father.
If admiration and astonishment for the artistry of God’s creature, man, tends to prayerfulness, which is what the book is intended for, this little masterpiece does the job; you could look at it for hours.
There is another extraordinary image in Jelling (pronounced “yelling”), Denmark, of an even earlier date than the Book of Hours. This, too, is a thoughtful aid to contemplation. King Harald Bluetooth (so that’s where the name comes from!) erected a huge three-sided piece of granite in 965 A.D. in memory of his parents. It is a rune stone, also known as Denmark’s certificate of Baptism, for the inscription on one of the three sides tells of the conversion from paganism to Christianity.
One of the two “pictures” on the rune stone depicts Christ as the Tree of Life. This is a recurring theme in art, and in my own parish church here in Oxford we have no less than two such pieces on the theme. But the Danish carving is strikingly vivid, for here the tangle of roots and branches is said to represent the stranglehold of paganism through which Christ emerges. It shows conversion to Christianity in the most vivid way and is the oldest representation of Our Lord in Scandinavia.
Just 33 years after the erection of King Harald’s stone, the observance of All Souls Day became universal through the influence of Odilo of Cluny. The custom of writing the names of departed loved ones, placing them in a basket which is then put on, or near, the altar during all Masses during November, is probably much more recent. It is particularly comforting for those of us who may have been remiss in praying for our dear dead ones during the rest of the year.
Lighting candles is part of the everyday life of the Church and has been for centuries, particularly in November. It is interesting that this custom has been adopted by an almost totally secular state like the United Kingdom: the death of Princess Diana, scenes of murders, road crashes, and other disasters are now remembered not only with flowers but with dozens of lighted candles. While there’s light, there’s hope.
On the theme of death and the light of the Resurrection, there is in the chapel of Oxford’s New College a magnificent sculpture by the British/ American artist Jacob Epstein, completed in 1948. It is of Lazarus, raised and upright, about to walk from his tomb still bound in his grave clothes. He struggles, his shoulders and elbows wrestle with the bands, trying to shrug them off and free himself. Oxford is crammed with wonderful things, from the Alfred Jewel to Wren’s Tom Tower; but to that piece of living stone yours truly returns, again and again.