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Medieval Illustrations of Labours of the Month, Zodiac Signs, Cardinal Virtues and Sins

 

BRITAIN     SPAIN     FRANCE     ITALY

 

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The archivolts, door jams, facade reliefs and floors of many Romanesque and Gothic churches contained reliefs, mosaics or medallions which represented either or both of the twelve signs of the Zodiac and the twelve typical activities associated with them.  This material is also to be found in misericords and also stained glass, and sometimes there were also other subjects, such as illustrations (reminders ?) of the Cardinal & Christian virtues and sins.  Seasonality was medieval life's in your face reality, and most would have felt lucky surviving to another pig killing time without starving of being killed in someone else's war.

 

Great examples of the genre are to be found in Burgundy in the Cathédrale St-Lazare, Autun and the Basilique Ste-Madeleine, Vézelay.    Chartres Cathedral has a magnificent "Zodiac" stained glass window dating from 1217, plus archivolt sculptures in the west and north portal ensembles, whilst Notre Dame de-Paris has a full array of zodiacs, sins etc in its west rose window and in (mostly replica) sculptures on the door jams of the (west facade) Coronation Portal, and Angers Cathedral has zodiacs in one transept rose window and labours in the facing one.  The main door jams of the Basilique St-Denis near Paris have both Zodiacs and monthly activities dating from Abbot Suger's "first Gothic" abbey (east end) and the theme is also picked up in the south rose - though this only dates from the mid 1800s and in 2007 was hidden for repairs.  Small numbers of surviving Zodiac signs and labours can be found in many French churches, one of the finest examples being St-Lazare in Avallon (North Burgundy).  

 

Right down south in Otranto (Puglia) monthly activities and zodiac signs are to be found in the eastern nave section of the mosaics which cover the entire cathedral floor, and there are several other examples in reliefs in northern Italian churches.  In Perugia, the monthly labours are portrayed in some of the relief panels which ring the bottom tier of the magnificent Fontana Maggiore outside the Duomo.

 

Canterbury Cathedral has a well worn set of very unusual and large round Zodiac, monthly activity, sins, virtues and heraldic beast medallions inset into the east (Trinity Chapel) floor near where the Shrine of Saint Thomas used to be, whilst a bit further south in Kent (at Brooklands in the Romney Marshes) there is a beautiful Norman lead font with reliefs of both zodiac signs and monthly labours (one and two thirds times over).

 

An arch of the Royal Pantheon in the Basilica of San Isidoro in León (Spain) is frescoed with monthly activity roundels, whilst the archivolts of the Doorway of the Lamb have a set of Zodiac signs in bas relief.

 

A listing of the Zodiac / labours we know about in Britain, Spain, France and Italy is below. 

 

 

The Paradoxplace pages on the Zodiac window at Chartres, the Zodiac Roundels at Autun, and the Zodiac Font Reliefs at Brookland have photos and descriptions of all the images of zodiacs and activities, and also the dates of each zodiac period and the four solstices.

 

 

 

Autun - Cathédrale St-Lazare

 

 

 

Brookland - Church of Saint Augustine

 

 

 

Chartres - Cathédrale Notre Dame

 

 

The dates and signs of the Zodiac, and typical labour of the month illustrations

There are many variants and interpretations, both in the labours illustrated and in the month in which they occur - that's part of the fun of discovery!

 

 

Aquarius – January

 

January 21 – February 18

Le Verseau (The Water Carrier)

 

 

A feast or a man (Janus) with 2 (/3) faces - looking to the old and new years.

 

 

Pisces – February

 

February 19 – March 20

Les Poissons (The Fishes)

 

 

A man warming his feet / hands in front of a fire - this is one of the more prolific survivors for some reason.

 

 

Aries – March

 

March 21– April 20

(March 20 is the Spring Equinox)

Le Bélier (The Ram)

 

Pruning vines, digging, etc.

 

though far down south in Otranto, they have a man scrubbing his foot clean!

 

Note that in and before 1751, English New Year's Day was on Lady Day - March 25th.  New Year's Day for 1752 in England was reset to January 1st - so there was no January 1 - March 24 1751 (aka 1751/52).

 

 

Taurus – April

 

April 21 – May 21

Le Taureau (The Bull)

 

 

April flowers / the arrival of Spring.

 

 

Gemini – May

 

May 22 – June 21

Les Gémeaux (The Twins)

 

 

A knight courting, hunting (especially hawking).

 

 

Cancer – June

 

June 22– July 22

(June 21 is the Summer Solstice)

Le Cancer (The Crab)

 

Mowing / cutting hay.

 

 

Leo – July

 

July 23 – August 23

Le Lion (The Lion)

 

 

Scything wheat, sharpening a sickle, etc.

 

 

Virgo – August

 

August 24 – September 22

La Vierge (The Virgin)

 

 

Threshing grain with a hinged threshing rod.

 

 

Libra – September

 

September 23 – October 23

(September 22 is the Autumn Equinox)

Le Balance (The Scales)

 

Picking / treading grapes.

 

 

Scorpio – October

 

October 24 – November 22

Le Scorpion (The Scorpion)

 

 

Pouring wine into a barrel.

 

 

Sagittarius – November

 

November 23 – December 21

Le Sagitaire (The Archer)

 

 

Harvesting acorns for winter feed, collecting wood faggots, etc.

 

 

Capricorn – December

 

December 22 - January 20

(December 21 - Winter Solstice)

La Capricorne (The Sea Goat also the Billy Goat)

 

Killing pigs, feasting.

 

 

Some of these displays also incorporate, or are near, illustrations of

 

Virtues and Sins

 

More the latter, as the hopeless wretchedness of sinners was much more interesting than the happiness of the virtuous.

 

 

Abbaye St-Pierre de Moissac - Avaritia

 

Deathbed purging (or possibly ingesting a leg) - the point is that the money bag of greed and avarice does not seem to be helping much.  Note the elf pennanted hemline on the right.

 

 

Paradoxplace has many photo pages of zodiacs, and there are more photographed and awaiting their turn to be published (see the links below), .  This page also lists other places we have not been to (yet), or went to before we became interested in this subject (and therefore now have to go back!)

 

These pages relate to sculpture, mosaics, misericords and stained glass representations of zodiac signs, monthly activities, virtues and sins.  The book by Henisch on the right has an emphasis on medieval books of hours, many of which had beautiful illustrations of monthly labours.

 

 

    

 

 

    

 

 

 

colour coding

 

 

XXX - Link to Photos in Paradoxplace

 

 

XXX - Photos in paradoxplace photo-library but not yet published

 

 

XXX - Link to External Site;  

 

 

XXX - No links or photos at this stage

 

 

 

 

BRITAIN

roughly north (top) to south

 

Carlisle Cathedral (choir capitals)

 

A full set of monthly activity scenes is incorporated into the choir capitals, but only half are visible because of the subsequently erected ugly dark wood choir panelling (done by the Victorians of course).

 

Church of St Margaret, Walmgate, York

 

Scroll down to "South Doorway" section.  All that remains of the Zodiac / Labours cycle is a weathered brace of fishes, but there are lots of other interesting little merpeople etc.

 

Photographs in the green room ....

 

 

St Peter, Thorpe Salvin

 

 

Font panels include a magnificent Hawking Knight, Foot Warming and a strange jack-in-the-box popped-up

 

Photographs in the green room ....

 

Burnham Deepdale, Norfolk - Saint Mary

 

The square stone font has three relief panels on each side depicting labours of the months.  The font is in outstanding condition, especially considering that it spent several decades in bits in a rockery garden.  The church, which has been rebuilt several times, still has a rare round Saxon stone tower.

 

Photographs from 2011 in the green room .... for too long .....

 

Lincoln Cathedral

 

One of the rescued west facade bas reliefs "the punishment of sodomy" is now on display in the cathedral.

 

 

Some of the surviving wooden roof bosses in their rather dingy cloister are monthly labours, maybe, but don't hold your breath!  On the left below, a medieval power walker carrying something, and on the right almost certainly a December pig about to get whacked and cooked for Christmas dinner.

 

   

 

Church of Saint George, Brinsop, Herefordshire

 

A weathered Pisces and Taurus are to be found sculptured on two of the voussoirs circling the St George tympanum now on the inside north wall of the of the church.  Sagittarius has found his way onto a voussoir now behind a locked door on the north side. 

 

Great Malvern Priory, Worcestershire

 

Misericords.  Link to more photos from Holly Hayes.

 

Photographs in the green room ....

 

Saint Peter, Hook Norton (Oxfordshire)

 

On the font - Eve looking puzzled, Adam being rehabilitated and a magnificent Sagittarius about to shoot an equally magnificent Aquarius to prevent the latter flooding the earth .... well worth a visit!

 

Saint Mary, Fairford

 

This  amazing Cotswolds' "wool church" has the only complete original set of stained glass (c1510) in England, and also a lot of misericords. 

 

Photographs in the green room .... not sure whether there's any Zodiacs / labours there ......

 

Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Iffley, Oxfordshire

 

The Norman portal on the west front of this attractive Romanesque parish church has some zodiac signs in the outer archivolt.

 

Canterbury Cathedral (Trinity Chapel floor medallions)

 

Inset in the floor on either side of where the shrine of St Thomas (Becket) used to be (now called the Trinity Chapel), this elegantly worn set of floor roundels made in the 1200s depict months, labours, vices, virtues and a couple of heroes.

 

 

Canterbury Cathedral medieval floor medallion - Cancer

 

St Nicholas, Barfreston (Kent)

 

Various monthly activity interpretations can be given to some of the outer voussoirs of the south door of the little pilgrimage church of St Nicholas in the hamlet of Barfreston between Canterbury and Dover.  Leave it to you to see, but whatever the interpretations the sculptures around the south door are plentiful, fun, original, fascinating, rare and very old - and there is a nice pub next door for lunch! 

 

Follow this link if you're searching for meaning.

 

 

 

 

Church of Saint Augustine, Brookland (Romney Marshes, Kent)

 

 

A very rare example in Britain of both Zodiacs and Monthly Activities together (almost twice over) is to be found in the wrap around stamped lead of Saint Augustine's 1100s font (see also photo at top of page).

 

 

 

 

SPAIN

 

Link to the Medieval Pilgrimage Roads to Santiago de Compostela

 

 

Basilica de San Isidoro, León

 

 

Bas relief Zodiac signs on the south facade archivolts of the Doorway of the Lamb:

 

 

 

Bas relief Zodiac signs on the archivolts of the doorway of the lamb, Basilica de San Isidoro, León

 

Monthly activitiy roundels frescoed on an arch in the pantheon of the Kings of León.

 

 

Santa Maria de Ripoll (Cistercian)

 

Zodiac roundels amongst the capital imagery of the portal

 

 

 

colour coding

 

 

XXX - Link to Photos in Paradoxplace

 

 

XXX - Photos in paradoxplace photo-library but not yet published

 

 

XXX - Link to External Site;  

 

 

XXX - No links or photos at this stage

 

 

 

 

FRANCE

 

Link to The Medieval Pilgrimage Roads of France

 

 

Amiens Cathedral (Link to some photos)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The photo on the right comes from the book

 

"L'élan des cathédrales" by Alain Erlande-Brandenburg

 

 

 

The lower part of the west portals is faced by a masonry band within which sit two rows of quatrefoil framed bas reliefs.  These include representations of Zodiac signs, monthly labours, vices and virtues and ?  (a quatrefoil has an outline shape similar to a four leaved clover, a trefoil would be like a three leaf clover, etc). The photo link on the left also has images of the last judgement tympanum. 

 

 

Leo, Virgo, Libra

Scything hay, threshing wheat, picking fruit

 

 

Soissons Cathedral (between Amiens and Reims)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The photo on the right comes from a wonderful book

 

"The Rose Window" by Painton Cowen

 

Buy from Amazon USA

 

Buy from Amazon UK

 

 

Zodiac window with panels thought to have come originally from a rose window in Braine Abbey - much of the glass replaced in the late 1800s but no less interesting or beautiful for that.

 

 

 

Basilique St-Denis (near Paris, the first Gothic "cathedral")

 

 

On the jams of the doors of the western facade, an incomplete set of Zodiac signs is by the left door, whilst a full set of monthly activities is by the right door, all dating from the period 1130 - 40 (which is more than can be said for most of the other stuff there) though the activities look younger and a bit more elaborate. 

 

In the north ambulatory pavement is a mosaic of October's activity - winemaking - the only survivor of what would have been a set of 12 activities around the central platform of the St-Fermin Chapel and dating from the 1100s.

 

    

 

Cooking a pig in November                                                        Decanting wine in September

 

Most magnificently, the south transept rose has a set of zodiac signs in a circle of 12 roundels in mid window, and on the circumference are 24 trefoil panels including monthly activities.  In 2007, none of this was visible because of window restoration.  The window, like its northern sister, dates from the 1840s, though the designs are traditional and could be a copy of what was there earlier.

 

 

Paris - Notre Dame Cathedral

 

 

West Rose Window.  The bottom part of the rose is partially obscured by organ pipes (the great disease of the 17 / 1800s in European churches), but there is a full cycle of 12 Zodiacs, 12 monthly activities, 12 vices and 12 virtues ( ? - it's usually 7!) so it's worth having a good look with the binoculars.  The window dates from 1220, though a lot of the glass has had to be replaced over the centuries.

 

 

Door Jams of the (north) west portal (the Coronation Portal or Portal of the Virgin).  Again, these date from the 1200s originally, but is is doubtful that many of those there now have been around for that long.

 

 

Paris - Basilique St-Germain

 

 

 

Paris - Museums - Cluny

 

 

Several Zodiac capitals from the now disappeared Parisian Abbey Church of Ste-Geneviève.

 

 

The Gemini twins aggressively coupled in the Cluny Museum.

 

 

Paris - Museums - Louvre

 

 

 

Reims Cathedral

 

 

There are the remains of what could be monthly labours on the wall next to the famous smiling angel, and presumably more on the other side of the doorway.

 

There are also a few large monthly labours sculptures in the next door Palais du Tau. These were voussure sculptures from the arch outside the north transept rose window, and have been replaced with copies.

 

 

Reims - St-Remi Museum

 

February foot warming capital (1100s), a Sagittarius roundel (1400s) and others.

 

Vézelay - Basilique Ste-Madeleine - archivolt of the main west door

 

 

A complete set of sculpted roundels illustrating both Zodiac signs and labours of the month are in the outer archivolt of the main west door.

 

 

Disrobing after coming in  from a cold February day outside

 

 

Autun - St-Lazare Cathedral

January to May

June to December

 

 

A complete set of sculpted roundels illustrating both Zodiac signs and labours of the month are in the outer archivolt of the main west door, and in these two paradoxplace pages.

 

 

The Gemini Twins, May 22 - June 21 - Cathédrale St-Lazare, Autun (Burgundy)

 

 

In the Chapter House, one of Gislebertus' capitals shows Generosity v Greed (Avarice), and Abstinence v Gluttony.

 

 

St. Philibert in Tournus

 

A few large mosaic roundels have been uncovered in the ambulatory and cleaned.  

 

Avallon - St-Lazare, (North Burgundy)

 

 

The west portal archivolt of this charismatic old Clunaic Priory church has a weathered set of zodiacs and monthly activities.  Although not in very good condition they are more finely sculptured than their cousins at nearby Vézelay and slightly more distant  Autun.

 

 

The Gemini Twins, May 22 - June 21 - Eglise St-Lazare, Avallon, Burgundy

 

 

Saint-Évroult-de-Montfort (Orne, France)

 

A lead font very similar to the one at St Augustine, Brookland (Kent), though closer inspection will reveal that the images / lettering on the blocks used to stamp the lead were different in a number of ways.

 

Chartres - Notre Dame Cathedral

 

 

The 1200s "Zodiac Window" in Chartres cathedral shows all the zodiac signs and monthly labours in magic stained glass panels.  The paradoxplace pages explain the window and show large photos of the individual frames

 

 

Chartres Zodiac Window - Grape treading in September

 

Links to:  Zodiac Window Overview    Individual Frames A: Aquarius to Taurus    Individual Frames B: Cancer to Capricorn  

 

 

The archivolts of the north and south doors of the west portal have a full sculptured Zodiac and monthly labour cycle.

 

 

The archivolts of the east door of the north portal also contain a full sculptured Zodiac and monthly labour cycle.

 

 

Angers, Cathédrale St-Maurice

 

 

Signs of the zodiac are displayed in circular stained glass panels at the end of the "spokes" of the upper half of the south rose window, and labours of the months are shown in a similar way in the north rose window.   And we spent two hours there (partly enjoying organ practice - the acoustic is magnificent) and noticed  neither of them ...... but nonetheless we do have a photo.

 

 

St-Savin-sur-Gartempe

 

 

There was at one stage an arch full of painted zodiacs just inside the abbey church's west door.  Nowadays most have worn off completely, and even what remains is hardly visible.  So, no photos in Paradoxplace, though there are some of the church and its famous frescos (now revealed, but in 2007 mostly boarded up for restoration work).

 

 

St-Nicholas, Civray

 

 

Near the via Turonensis south of Poitiers - a damaged but interesting set of archivolt figures.

 

 

 

St-Pierre, Aulnay

 

 

On the via Turonensis south of Poitiers - a few surviving archivolt figures, including a minimalist Gemini twin.

 

 

 

St-Jean, Bordeaux

 

Archivolt of main facade door has zodiacs and labours of the months.

 

Bazas Cathedral

 

 

On the via Lemovicensis south of Bergerac - a few surviving archivolt figures on the facade of this grand old lady.

 

 

Issoires (South of Clermont-Ferrand)

 

 

 

 

 

colour coding

 

 

XXX - Link to Photos in Paradoxplace

 

 

XXX - Photos in paradoxplace photo-library but not yet published

 

 

XXX - Link to External Site;  

 

 

XXX - No links or photos at this stage

 

 

 

 

ITALY

roughly north (top) to south

 

Many of the Italian examples of this genre are relief panels showing monthly activities, with an small illustrative Zodiac sign shown in a corner.  Interestingly the 4 final "-ber" months in the year are often spelt in English!

 

 

Venice - San Marco

 

The West Door portal of San Marco has a set of elaborately sculptured labours of the month scenes.

 

Verona - San Zeno

 

Reliefs in the portal are well protected and in reasonable condition.

 

Piacenza - San Savino (near the Duomo)

 

 

Ignore San Savino's baroque facade, and go inside where there are two restored polychrome mosaic floors dating from the 1100s.  In the crypt are the signs of the Zodiac and illustrations of monthly labours and also the tomb of San Savino (the second bishop of Piacenza who died c 420).  The Presbytery floor illustrates time forever spinning, the impossibility of holding back the march of time, and the importance of using time to practice the cardinal virtues of Prudence (chess players checking their moves), Fortitude (knights in arms), Temperance (a man refraining from drinking) and Justice (a king abiding by the law).  Also of special note here are the anthropomorphic capitals of the Lombard Romanesque nave columns.

 

 

Piacenza - Duomo

 

 

The rim of the arch in front of the central door has bas-reliefs of zodiac signs set in marble roundels, there are some good narrative lintels and the facade has some interesting beasties.

 

 

Parma, Baptistery

 

 

The lower "band" of the Baptistery exterior has a bas-relief zoophorus running completely round it, with figures of real and imaginary animals, diabolical and sea monsters, centaurs, mermaids, unicorns, signs of the zodiac and activities of the month.

 

 

Ferrara Duomo

 

 

 

Pisa - Baptistery

 

Monthly activity relief panels on a door jam - not very arresting!

Lucca Duomo

 

Panels depicting monthly activities plus small Zodiac signs are on the lower part of the west facade.  An evocative memory for the Dom because this was his first conscious sighting of "labours of the month" art.  If you go there, also cast your eyes up to the "knotted" marble columns at each end of the top level of the facade.

 

 

Basilica of San Miniato, Florence

 

A pretty ordinary circular marble "intarsia" floor panel in the centre of the church depicting the signs of the Zodiac.

 

Arezzo, Santa Maria della Pieve

 

A few (probably very obscure) bas-reliefs.

 

Perugia - Fontana Maggiore

 

Photos in Gino Casagrande's web page There are 12 large double panels - two reliefs illustrating monthly activities for each month.  Small reliefs of the relevant zodiac sign appear in the corner of the first of each of the double panels.

 

Rome - SS Quattro Coronati (west facing church)

 

Frescos illustrating the 12 months of the year were discovered in 2002 in a hall on the north side of the inner courtyard, which was once part of the nave of a much larger Carolingian church.

 

"In 2002 art historian Andreina Draghi discovered an amazing display of frescoes, dating back to 13th century, while restoring the Gothic Hall of the monastery. Most of the scenes were well preserved under a thick layer of plaster, and represented the Twelve Months, the Liberal Arts, the Four Seasons and the Zodiac. The image of King Solomon, a pious and a judge, painted on the northern wall led scholars to argue the room was meant to be a Hall of Justice. Plaster was possibly laid after 1348 Black Death for hygienic reasons, or perhaps in the 15th century, when the Camaldolese left the monastery."

 

Otranto - Mosaic floor of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Annunciata

 

Deep down in the "heel" of Italy, the entire floor of the Cattedrale di Otranto is still covered with the mosaics originally laid in the mid 1100s.  The nave area to the west of the crossing is occupied by three rows of four large mosaic roundels - each one illustrating a monthly labour and with the relevant Zodiac sign as a smaller offset image.  Their large size has allowed their artists to be more inventive and include more detail than any other set in this list (see below).  Because Otranto in winter is tourist free, it is easy to see most of the mosaics at close quarters.

 

 

Otranto Cattedrale - September grape treading - Virgo the virgin.

 

Palermo Cathedral, Sicily

 

Zodiac "Heliometer" inset into the floor of the transept.

 

Monreale, Sicily

 

Several Zodiac Images engraved on the "four marble column set" beside the fountain in the south west corner of the cloisters

 

 

 

 

GERMANY

 

Rheinisches Landesmuseum Bonn, Bonn

 

This bas relief of the Gemini Twins comes from the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Bonn, Bonn - a treasure chest of medieval (and earlier) sculpture and art.  For more follow this link to Holly Hayes' Sacred Destinations.

 

photo © Sacred Destinations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holly Hayes' Sacred Destinations has a well laid out table which brings it all together and some examples from Germany as well as some of those here.

 

Wikipedia has a limited Labours of the Month page which includes references to Books of Hours as well

 

 

 

 

ZODIAC SIGNS IN ISLAM

 

 

 

Buy from Amazon USA

 

 Buy from Amazon UK

 

 

 

 

The Gemini Twins and Sagittarius from the 1200s "Vasco Vescovali" made in Afghanistan or Iran.  Illustrations from the outstanding British Museum book above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For other Paradoxplace links visit the home page

 

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