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Labeur and Paresse - Ideological Representation

Labeur and Paresse: Ideological Representations of Medieval Peasant Labor
Jonathan Alexander
The Art Bulletin, Vol. 72, No. 3 (Sep., 1990), 436-452.
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SunNov 21 17:29:51 2004
2 February,
Tres Riches Heures,
fol. 2v. Chantilly, Musée
As indicated above, it is not possible to consider earlier
Calendar landscapes as "purely descriptive," but neverthe­
less Panofsky offered an important suggestion here. In spite
of this, the ideology behind the representations in Berry's
manuscripts has not yet been thoroughly investigated. Mil­
lard Meiss, for example, chose largely to ignore it by con­
centrating instead on stylistic criticism to define hands and
on iconographical analysis of motifs and details. He traced,
16 Vienna, Óst. Nationalbibl., Cod. s.n. 2644, fol. 55. Tacuinum sanitatis
in medicina, facs. with commentary F. Unterkircher (Codices Selecti, v1,
6*), Graz, 1966-67; Meiss, fig. 691.
17 S. Moralejo Álvarez, "Marcolfo, el espinario, priapo: Un testimonio
iconografico Gallego," Primera Reunion Gallega de Estudios Clasicos,
Santiago de Compostela, 1981, 331-355, esp. p. 355, fig. 3. I am very
grateful to Professor Moralejo for giving me a copy of his article.
The Characters of Theophrastus (Loeb Classical Library), ed. J.M. Ed­
monds, London-New York, 1929. The "agroikos" will sit clown with his
cloak above his knee and thus expose himself, p. 69. Also under Bdeluria,
"Buffonery," the buffoon will lift his shirt in the presence of freeborn
women, p. 49. Panofsky noted that a reproduction of the February min18
for example, sorne of the images in the Calendar to similar
images in Italian art, without exploring the purpose and
meaning of such borrowings and of the modifications and
alterations thereby made to the Northern cycle.
Panofsky's phrase "antithetical characterization of di­
vergent milieus" seems to leave open the possibility that
the artists intended a sympathetic contrast of the toil and
hardship of the peasants, sorne of whom at the same time
are able to relax, even if not in such great splendor as their
lord. However, the explicit nudity of the most distant man
and woman, who reveal their sexual parts, suggests a dif­
ferent interpretation. This depiction should be contrasted
with the more restrained rendering of the woman raising
her skirt to show her petticoat in the foreground, a motif
also found in the northern Italian late fourteenth-century
Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medical health handbook now in Vi­
enna, where the scene represents Winter as one of the four
seasons (Fig. 3). 16 If the Limbourgs' source for this partic­
ular motif was, as seems certain, a similar Italian repre­
sentation, they have first transferred it to a different con­
text and then deliberately altered it.
I would suggest that we interpret the explicit nudity not
as a piece of "Northern realism," as Panofsky does, but as
an ideological representation showing the peasants as un­
cultured, boorish, and vulgar. A similar interpretation of
the miniature has recently been suggested by Serafín Mor­
alejo Álvarez, in a significant analysis of nudity in a range
of images in Romanesque sculpture. 17 Moraleja draws at­
tention to both literary descriptions and sculptural repre­
sentations of Marculf the Fool, the opponent of King Sol­
omon the Wise, in which the size of Marculf's sexual
member is emphasized, and he links these with the topos
in Classical literature, for example, Theophrastus, of the
immodesty of the rustic. 18
Moraleja also draws attention to the sexual implications
of the Spinario figure as used in Romanesque sculpture,
and quotes Classical texts known to the Middle Ages in­
dicating spring as a time of renewed sexual activity. We
should ask, therefore, whether in the relatively private
space of the early fifteenth-century manuscript book, these
figures were subjected to the voyeuristic gaze of the duke. 19
Other images in the duke's manuscripts may confirm such
a suspicion: for example, the erotic emphasis on Eve's nu­
dity after the Fall as shown on folio 25v, or the torture of
the half-naked Saint Catherine in the earlier Be/les Heures,
also illuminated for the duke by the Limbourg Brothers. 20
iature had to be retouched to bowdlerize it when it was used as a Christ­
mas cover of Life Magazine.
19 For the power of the male gaze, see the well-known article by L. Mul­
vey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen, xv1, 3, 1975, 6-18,
repr. in Art after Modemism. Rethinking Representation, ed. B. Wallis
and M. Tucker, New York and Boston, 1984, 361-373.
Cloisters Museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. M.
Meiss and E. Beatson, The Be/les Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry, New
York, 1974, fols. 17r-v. Note also on fol. 191 of the same Hours, the
extraordinary image of the temptation of a Christian by a courtesan who
places her hand under his tunic to arouse him.