The Labours of the Months: January

By an unknown Venetian artist…
The Labours of the Months: January, about 1580, oil on canvas, 13.6 x 10.6 cm, National Gallery, London

Twelve months in a row,  /  Use them well and let them go;  /  Welcome them without a fear,  /  Let them go without a tear—  /  Twelve months in a year;  /  Greet the passing miracle,  /  Spring and summer beautiful,  /  Autumn, winter, gliding on,  /  Glorious seasons quickly gone—  /  God’s treasures in a row,  /  Take them, love them, let them go! I like the simplicity of Annette Wynne verse in Twelve Months in a Row, it reminds me of the simple way the anonymous Venetian Artist of the 16th century depicted the twelve months of the year, in twelve small paintings, now… in the National Gallery, in London. The Labours of the Months: January will start a new journey, exploring and learning… month by month…     and

Depicting the Labours of the Months was a popular artistic theme that was frequently used in the decoration of Cathedrals and Churches, Castles and  Palaces, Psalters, Breviaries and Books of Hours across Europe during the Medieval and Early Renaissance period. Each month, depicting popular activities of peasants and/or the gentry throughout the year, were sometimes paired with the Signs of the Zodiac circle. They would be either simple and small in size or large and elaborate, crafted in stone, wood, stained glass, painted in murals or often enough, painted in parchment. Many great Monuments and Libraries in Europe display fine examples of such artefacts for art lovers to enjoy.

The Labours of the Months had a role in highlighting authority and privilege, hard work and, occasionally, small, everyday pleasures. They are often perceived as a link between the work of man, the seasons of the year and God’s ordering of the Universe. The Trentino Fresco Panels at Torre Aquila, for example, present trained and obedient peasants busy with their seasonal activities, but dominated by the local aristocracy who seem to only care for their idler activities. (I presented the eleven surviving Torre Aquila frescoes in 2020. Please check

For 2021, I want to present something different, unpretentious but rare. In London, at the National Gallery, there are 12 small pictures, “painted on canvas and then each glued to a wooden panel. It is possible that they were made to decorate the recessed panels of a pair of doors. The paintings seem to have been planned in pairs with the figures facing each other and are currently displayed in two frames in groups of six. They show the ‘labours of the months’ – the rural activities that take place each month throughout the year.” This set of painted Doors combines simplicity in execution and extravagance in visual effect! The paintings, very small in size, about 13.6 x 10.6 cm, were achieved in vivid, bright, luxurious colours, like “ultramarine blue for the sky, strong vermilion and red lake for the clothing, with rich greens and yellows in the landscape. The restricted and repeated use of colour gives the group of little pictures a charming, decorative simplicity. All but one of the scenes show a man working outdoors on what appears to be the estate of a large villa, seen in several of the paintings, at the foot of the distant blue mountains.”

By an unknown Venetian artist…
The Labours of the Months: January (detail), about 1580, oil on canvas, 13.6 x 10.6 cm, National Gallery, London

For the Month of January, we have a cosy indoor scene. “An old man sits indoors by the fire with his elbow propped on the fireplace or stove, and his forehead leaning on his hand. He pulls his jacket closer around himself and wears a yellow wrap or blanket against the cold. The interior of his room is bare and simple, and not in good repair – the plaster has fallen from the brick wall beneath the window.” The festivities of the holidays are over and now… young and old, privileged or not, need to recuperate, relax and rest…

Happy New Year… may 2021 be a BETTER, HEALTHIER and HAPPIER YEAR for ALL!!!

For a PowerPoint on The Labours of the Months at the National Gallery in London, please… Check HERE!

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