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Works and Days (a hymn, but not to Hesiod)

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

12th century mosaic, Bobbio, depicting the month of March, emphasizing wind (I think)

By the time March arrives, the January 1st resolutions have been consigned to the waste-bins of regrets; Americans are searching frantically for receipts ahead of the April tax deadlines; and here in the North, spring is prising off the grip of the long, hard winter one cold and bitter finger at a time.

In pre-Industrial Revolutionary times, the agricultural calendar called the tune for how people organized their lives, and even our Western modern school calendars still frame themselves according to it.

Most of my life, I've considered my years to start in late August or early September, when fall semester starts, and I meet a new cohort of students. By December, we're all quite tired, and still need to accommodate a spate of holidays, each to their own traditions. January begins another semester, but usually with less energy and excitement than in fall, and by the time the astronomical start of spring in the Northern hemisphere dawns, as Chaucer put it, "Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages." We want out of here. We've lost most of our bandwidth for study. The May-through-August period has long held itself before me with a promise of rest, pleasure, and maybe a little bit of personal research. As I approach retirement this particular summer, I wonder often what it will mean for me to be, for the first time in my adult life, unhitched from the academic calendar. I'm in awe as I find myself feeling both unmoored in time, and, by definition, ever-closer to the expected end of my personal thread of existence.

The medieval church was quite aware of the multiplicity of calendars we measure our lives with. The narratives of Christianity addressed the beginning of time with Genesis, and its end (into eternity) with the book of Revelation. Meshing with the great gyre of the narrative of fall and redemption, there was the calendar of saints' days and feasts. That calendar took into account the lunar calendar--particularly for Easter (and similarly, Judaism used the lunar calendar for Passover, and Muslims used it for beginning Ramadan). Another cog of the Great Clock would be the agricultural calendar, and the smallest cog would be the individual Christian's life, with the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, marriage, and last rites. The art on the exterior and interior of a major church might signify all these circles of time, from the most ephemeral and finite, to the most consequential and infinite. In this blog I've created several entries on Last Judgment art, so I thought I'd take advantage of the growing light to focus on and perhaps cheer you with the trope of the Labors of the Months.

Tympanum of Narthex in Vezelay Basilica, 12th century (19th c. plaster copy in Cite' Museum, Paris)

The stunning tympanum above the entrance to the Basilica of St. Marie-Madeleine in Vezelay was created to frame the preaching of the First Crusade by Pope Urban II, and the church was a staging ground for Crusades 2 and 3, as well. The imagery merges the narratives of Pentecost (where Jesus calls for the Apostles to preach Christianity) with conquering the far corners of the "known" world (in the lintel you can see all manner of members of the Monstrous Races) and the Apocalypse. It's a tour-de-force, to be sure.

What you can see framing the multiple stories in the center of the tympanum is an archivolt with medallions of creatures and workers. While there are some interesting additions (such as a siren at the very top), the carving mostly settles down to alternate zodiacal signs with monthly activities most Western Europeans would recognize.

Close-up of Vezelay tymapanum, 1130. (plaster copy)

You can see at the top in this photo the siren and a couple of naughty acrobats (animal and human), and on the edges of the frame are a carved Scorpio as well as men planting and harvesting. On the left side of Jesus in the image, you can see the cynocephali (dog-headed men) from Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae. There's also quite intentionally a series of strange and fanciful "races," which may have been intended to lead viewers to think that exotic foreigners (like Muslims) should also fall into this category as the Christian church calls for domination. The tympanum is gesturing to the entire world as Jesus's domain, and the crusading armies and their noble leaders who passed under the arch were to understand that their mission was to make this domination happen.

But, back to the labors, let's look at them as a whole in this plaster cast of a 12th c. lintel from the Cite' Museum that I'm ashamed to say I've lost the identifying tag for.

First, we have February through June. February is for sitting by the fire. You can see the flames at the person's feet. March is for pruning trees. April is for planting. May for tending furrows. June is the hay harvest.

July is for reaping wheat, and August is for threshing it. September is the grape harvest.

(As a parenthetical note, when I traveled in Italy and visited the Vendemmia in Bobbio, the growers told me that September was now too late to have the usual grape stomping because climate change had caused the grapes to ripen weeks earlier.)

October is for wine-making, November is for butchering animals for sausage/dried meats. December is for baking. January is for feasting.

What did it mean to the medieval workers to see their labors prominently featured in the grand scheme of Christian time? I've read speculations that some of these depictions were sponsored by guilds, to assert their value in the church, even if they weren't priests or nobles. It may also be an affirmation of the general social order, with all souls visible under God's eye.

Baptistry of Parma, 13th century, with Pisces and hoeing (March). In Italy, the seasons change a bit for local, warmer climates. Below is a bas relief of butchery (November) and planting (April). The seated figure may be February.

A pull back of the Parma baptistry. You can see the Labors in niches above the apses with religious themes. Christ in majesty with the tetramorph is in bas-relief, above a fresco of St. John baptizing Jesus.

Also, in San Colombano, Bobbio, 12th c., is a November showing the beating of trees to shake down nuts (possibly acorns, given the pig eating them at the bottom of the scene) for harvesting. Sagittarius is the centaur archer below.

A real, rare treat here is January, with, yes, a person sitting by the fire, but he's shown with two opposing faces, which means that the monastery was aware of the Classical naming for the month after the god Janus. Still Bobbio.

When you travel to Tornus, in France, to St. Philibert, you can see an exposure of the original floor (12th c), with a striking blond and shirtless June, using a scythe (presumably) to harvest hay.

In the Louvre, you find a 12th c. massive capital from a destroyed church in southern France, with a rather awkward worker both loading grapes into the vat and stomping them. September, presumably.

On the side of the capital, one can see what I assume is October--the wine is being laid into barrels for aging.

Though it's an overzealous "restoration," the rose window in St. Denis, in Paris, brings home how "god's time and man's time" inter-relate. You can see God in the center, with attendant angels, and then the zodiac (with tiny symbols associated with them underneath), and in the out-most ring there are the labors. This one is striking because there are more than twelve, and more women's work is represented. Notable, too, is that in the lower left and right corners you find the fall and expulsion from Paradise anchoring the rose--showing the origins of why we labor at all.

I'll close with a favorite image of mine from the front facade of the Church of St. Lazaire in Avallon, in central France. (Yes, local lore purports that they are the Isle where Arthur rests. Check it out for yourself!) This is a 12th century image of a man (possibly a monk? this is a collegiate church) carrying a bundle of sticks, and then next to him a monk warming himself by the fire (I think the fire is implied). Most likely November is for collecting firewood, and in December one gets to enjoy the resultant warmth.

I particularly love this one because it looks to me to encapsulate metaphorically two key aspects of a scholar's life--gathering and pondering. The men who attended this church would have done a lot of both.

Many of us take comfort in routine, in cycles, in knowing what the work is and when to do it. Modernity is "disrupting" us in multiple ways, as does the passage of time itself. I invite you to share in the comments what your calendar is, and how you would depict it, as I imagine what my new labors and months will be.

For those of you with an earlier, more classical bent, here is Hesiod's hymn: Works and Days.


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