The Wharncliffe Hours: The Annunciation of the Shepherds, Terce, f.37v, Maitre Francois 1475-1480

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1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
Chapter
1.7 Paintings
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1.7.1

This is both an interesting piece in itself, and also a fine example of much early painting of Nature and our relationship to it.

Books of Hours were beautiful prayer books of medieval times and the Wharncliffe Hours originated in France in the late 15th century, but bears the name of its late owner – the Earl of Wharncliffe.

This plate tells the story of the announcement of the birth of Christ to the shepherds at Terce. Its religious content does not concern us in this section, but its depiction of the natural world does. Overwhelmingly, there is a sense of order in the depiction, of our place in relation to God and Nature. It is hierarchical, with angels above and humans below and Nature confined to the outer margins, but nonetheless, Nature surrounds and this ‘enclosing’ is heightened by the symbolism of the island at the bottom of the picture. Control and structure are heightened by the fact that these are miniatures, only a few centimetres across, and the whole book is meant to be held easily in the hand, as at prayer.

Containment and order are reinforced by the frequent use of geometric shapes both to separate us from Nature – see central rectangle – and to contain Nature’s profusion – see ‘v’ shapes and diagonals in margin used to ‘box’ vegetation.

The book’s very purpose and organising structure serve as a form of confinement, but also of rhythm, as not only were ‘hours’ observed, so were dates, and much of this book is concerned with the yearly calendar of religious events.

Undoubtedly the major theme is one of order, but the miniature is not one-dimensional in its depiction of Nature. This plate is a celebration, and the wonderful, bright colours of the grass, plants and flowers reflect this. Even when boxed in by lines and borders, Nature sneaks out and little pieces of vegetation can be seen overlapping these ‘captors’. Even more transgressive Nature is depicted at the top left where a wild fox is seen making off with a lamb, and at the bottom left where amorous behaviour is breaking out within the wilds of the forest. It appears that even this idyllic pastoral world is only half ‘won’.

I realise it is cheating to include two paintings in one, but Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, by Johann Wenzel Peter, painted probably sometime in the later 1700s, 300 years after Maître François’ Annunciation, provides fascinating similarities and contrasts with the Middle Ages. Again, the painting is very formal and structured: the animals are frequently paired off, as per Noah’s Ark, and arranged in a circle around Adam and Eve. A number of their postures is a little stiff and ‘stagey’. But, look at their sheer profusion! Over 200 animals are depicted in a cornucopia of life. They twist, turn and writhe out of the Tree of Knowledge. They are large and colourful and dominate the painting, not Adam and Eve. Unlike François’ painting, there is no anxiety here as to the natural world, rather a celebration, a very detailed scientific celebration, and all is seen in glorious harmony. This perception was not a marginal one of a well-known animal painter, which Wenzel Peter was, but very much mainstream, the painting being bought by Pope Gregory XVI for the Vatican in 1831. Nature is still ordered, but is now fascinating, diverse and intricate.

(Wenzel Peter, J. Late 1700s. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden)

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1.7.1 The Wharncliffe Hours: The Annunciation of the Shepherds

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1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship 1.1 Articles 1.2 Art Installations 1.3 Books 1.4 Buildings 1.5 Film, Documentaries, Podcasts 1.6 Music 1.7 Paintings 1.8 Photographs 1.9 Poems 1.10 Spiritual Responses
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