Calendars for the ages
What do a man dining, street musicians and a bullfight have in common with the month of January? That is a very good question. Although Jan van de Velde’s 1616 series The Twelve Months of the Year relies on seasonal landscapes to visually describe each month – for instance, a frozen canal for January – previous examples, such as those engraved in Antwerp around 1585, can certainly appear somewhat enigmatic to 21st-century viewers.
Today’s calendars typically feature an image for each month, although the picture may not necessarily relate to the month itself. At the turn of the 17th century, however, artists were still attempting to understand the world around them through imagery. The desire to bring order to chaos often called for seriality, a mode of organizing and sequencing things or concepts as series or suites. For instance, artists endeavoured to make sense of time by depicting the four times of day (morning, afternoon, evening and night) or the seasons (spring, summer, fall and winter) through series of prints.
The Meakins-McClaran print collection, donated to the National Gallery of Canada in 2022, features fifteen such suites, most of which are, impressively, complete and uniform. In other words, based on state and quality of impression, as well as the paper used and the overall condition, prints that belong to a series have been kept together since they were printed 400 years ago. This speaks to the care and value given to these sets of prints over four centuries.
Three series depicting the months of the year – on view in the touring exhibition The Collectors’ Cosmos: The Meakins-McClaran Print Collection currently at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton – employ diverse representational strategies. The earliest was designed by Hans Bol (1534–93) and engraved by Adriaen Collaert (1560–1618) in Antwerp in 1585. Appropriately titled Emblemata Evangelica, it relies on twelve scenes from the New Testament. Many of them are parables, such as the Parable of the Sower from the Gospel of Saint Matthew for the month of March (the prime time for seeding in Europe during the so-called Little Ice Age) and the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree from the Gospel of Saint Luke for September (when figs were typically ripe for picking).
In the right foreground of the September image, a haloed Saint Luke, with his back to the viewer, explains the scene in front of him. At far left, a landholder stands outside his castle, questioning his gardener about a fig tree planted three years earlier, which has yet to yield fruit, and suggests it be cut down, as the parable recounts. Meanwhile workers are harvesting heaps of fruit from other trees and carrying the fruit away in sacks. In the distance, a tower breaks in half and the top falls down, implying perhaps that in the absence of care, things can fail, like the barren fig tree.
As in the two other sets, a Latin inscription is placed in the bottom margin. In Emblemata Evangelica, the text refers to the parable as “Luc 13.” Libra’s scales, representing one of the zodiac signs associated with the month of September, are depicted in a medallion in the middle of the sky, above the castle’s highest turret. Astrological time is thus signified alongside terrestrial time.
Although the name of the month is not cited, the scales helped 16th-century viewers recognize the month being illustrated, as did the visual reference to fruit picking. This tradition of associating seasonal activities with specific months and the zodiac was long-standing. It derived from the medieval visual tradition known as the Labours of the Months, often seen in sculptural ensembles for churches and in illuminated manuscripts.
Abandoning religious content and extending the idea of the Labours of the Months and the Zodiac, the second set begins with that puzzling representation for the month of January of a man eating, street musicians and a bullfight, set among concomitant interior and exterior scenes. Designed by Joos the Momper (1564–1635) and engraved once again by Adriaen Collaert, the right side of the composition shows a man at a dining table about to savour a poultry leg. Appearing literally enshrined on a throne, the man is in fact sitting with his back to a large fireplace, keeping warm as he prepares to eat his meal, like in an image from a medieval Book of Hours (a Christian book of prayers) in the collection of Trinity College Library.
Given the awkwardly rendered perspective, it takes a moment to understand that the man in the Collaert print is actually inside a dwelling, looking through a large opening at the scenes outside. He is the personification of January’s Labour of the Month: Feasting. Outside, masked troubadours entertain a small crowd, with more stage entertainers performing in the middle ground and a bullfight further down the central axis. As one’s gaze shifts towards the imposing fortress, one notices the skaters frolicking on the frozen moat, signalling the cold of winter.
The artist has once again used the motif of a small circle in the sky – in this case a nude Ganymede, Zeus’ cup bearer, pouring from two jugs in a customary representation of Aquarius, one of two astrological signs associated with January. The Latin verse beneath invokes the two-faced Janus, god of beginnings and transitions, after whom the first month of the new year is named. Like the image, the verse appears to compare the boisterous – albeit frosty – outdoor festivities with the wise and sensible choice of an indoor meal by a cozy fire.
By the time Jan van de Velde II (1593–1641) issued his suite in 1616, some thirty years later, pictorial conventions had changed. In his Twelve Months he devised a completely secular vocabulary to portray the months of the year – one that is much more familiar to 21st-century viewers. The artist had access to the two earlier Collaert suites through his publisher, Claes Jansz. Visscher (1587–1652), who came to own Collaert’s plates from which the Gallery's prints were pulled (or, alternatively, had copies made).
In addition to dropping the carnivalesque imagery previously associated with January, Van de Velde’s skating scene takes place in a quaint village setting – unlike the landed estates of the older Flemish engravings, as art historian Rob Fucci rightly points out. The point of view is now at ground level rather than the near bird’s-eye view of the older prints. In fact, the name of the month in its Latin form (Ianuarius) and a simplified zodiac sign (ripples of water for Aquarius) have swapped places, as if proclaiming that life on earth takes precedence over astrological time.
Lastly, the Latin inscription was composed by one of Van de Velde’s literary collaborators, Reiner Telle (1558/9–1618) and, as Fucci explains in his dissertation on Van de Velde’s landscape print series, it references a classical work: Ovid’s six-book poem Fasti or On the Roman Calendar, as it is known in English. The image, as described by the second part of the verse, nevertheless remains very much of the times:
Meadows frost over, frozen rivers no longer flow,
Where the boat once traveled, behold the playing boy
(translated by Rob Fucci).
Indeed, the two figures playing a Dutch game called kolf could be mistaken for hockey players while the man sitting on the edge of a barge swapping his shoes for ice skates could be confused with a present-day commuter on Ottawa’s very own Rideau Canal.
The touring exhibition The Collectors’ Cosmos: The Meakins-McClaran Print Collection is on view at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton, until 28 January. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.