Friday, May 01, 2015

Everywhere they tossed grass and flowers

Jan Wildens, May - Walk in the Avenue, c. 1615

On this first day of the month here is a delightful May painting that I saw a few weeks ago at The Palazzo Rosso in Genoa.  The Italian title of the painting uses the word 'la passeggiata', with its connotations of the customary evening stroll, "a socially sanctioned opportunity for flirting and courting" (Giovanna Delnegro, The Passeggiata).  In the midground a couple is walking very close together, in the foreground a young gentleman appears to be asking a young lady to dance, while another pair converse over a book.  A woman on the left may be concentrating on her dogs but the central figure with his back to us and his leg at a jaunty angle looks as if he might skip over to join her.  Everything is suffused in a silvery-pink light.  The water is a mirror reflecting the pale sky and soft green foliage.  The boat's passengers are no doubt returning to a pleasant evening in the country house half-hidden by the trees.

Jan Wildens (1586 - 1653) painted the other eleven months too, possibly while he was living in Italy.  They seem poised half way between north and south - there is a stepped gable visible in the painting above, but an Italian city in the painting for February.  The museum in Genoa has another painting, a collaboration with Cornelis de Wael, that has exactly the same compositional form as the May painting.  A comparison of the two is almost uncanny: there again music is being played to a group of people sitting in what appears to be the same avenue of trees, but around them the landscape has changed.  Nature is tamed into a formal garden and the avenue ends not in distant trees but at a baroque building.  The central standing figure seems a little bored as he looks over at his companions.  Put together they would resemble those 'before and after' landscapes Humphry Repton deployed to show clients how he would improve an estate.  

Simon Bening, Labours of the Months: May, from a Flemish Book of Hours, 
first half of the 16th century

Wildens' twelve compositions are a late example of a tradition that stretches back to medieval book illumination, stained glass and sculptural cycles for churches.  Although these 'Labours of the Months' generally show agricultural labour, May is the month for hawking, music and courtly love.  In the Da Costa Hours, illustrated by Simon Bening a century before Wilden's painting, a similar boat with four passengers glides towards a moated grange to the strains of recorder and lute.  This boat can also be seen in a Flemish Book of hours (above) and again, in a version by the workshop of Bening, heading under a bridge (it looks like it will be a bit of a squeeze).  There is an excellent Flickr site dedicated to the Labours of the Months where it is possible to look for other earlier echoes of the Jan Wildens paintings (the May boat for example can be seen here and here).  

I have referred here before to Les très riches heures du Duc de Berry, whose May scene shows noblemen and ladies processing at the edge of a forest.  In Michel Pastoureau's recent cultural history of the colour green he discusses the fact that three of the women  are wearing 'the pretty vert gai (light and bright) mentioned in wardrobe inventories and chronicles.'  All sixteen figures in this miniature are wearing the mai in the form of necklaces, crowns, leaves, branches.  This tradition  'consisted of attaching to oneself an element of greenery. ...  To be pris sans verd, that is, not to display on oneself a single element of this colour, neither plant nor textile, led to becoming the object of mockery and harassment.'  In Simon Bening's May the figures in the boat all carry sprigs of foliage.  On the first of May it was traditional for a young lover to plant a single branch in front of his lover's home, 'a linden branch constituted a declaration of love; a rose branch celebrated the young woman's beauty; an elder branch on the other hand discretely denounced her more or less fickle nature.'

 The Limbourg Brothers, May - Les très riches heures du Duc de Berry, c. 1412-16

Jan Wildens' painting really needs to be seen full size, although the small photograph I have included here emphasises the fact that landscape is his true subject.  The figures I have mentioned look insignificant in comparison to the trees' abundant crowns of fresh leaves.  Similar trees are central to Bening's miniature, and in front of them the riders and man on foot all hold leafy sprigs.  The boat party are sitting among sprays that turn their vessel into a floating version of the wooded countryside.  The transformation of the landscape in Spring was celebrated in the ancient practice of decorating houses with leaves and branches on this day in May.  I will conclude here with a passage Pastoureau quotes from the thirteenth century Guillaume de Dole, attributed to the Norman trouvère Jean Renart. 
'At nightfall the inhabitants of the town went to the woods to do their gathering ... In the morning when the day was very bright and when all was decorated with flowers, gladiola and green leafy branches, they brought in their May tree, carried it upstairs and displayed it before the windows, thus embellishing all the balconies.  Onto the floors, onto the cobblestones, everywhere, they tossed grass and flowers to celebrate the solemnity and the joy of this day.'

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