An "Earthly Paradise"?


Full image.



Attributed to the workshop of Pierre Reymond
French, ca. 1513–after 1584
The Month of January, from a series of twelve plates depicting the
Labors of the Months, ca. 1575
Enamel and gold on copper
Membership Purchase Fund


Although it looks like a dessert plate, this small object evokes the kind of collections amassed by French courtiers. Enamels like this were made in Limoges, in south-central France, by a small group of royally-licensed artisans, the émailleurs du roy. Enameling is the process of coating copper objects with layers of powdered glass, which, when fired, fuses into a hard and lustrous surface. Painted enamels like this one use a technique perfected around 1500 which permitted the application of colored enamels over a previously fired ground color (in this case, white), resulting in a durable and colorfast “painting.”


This plate depicts the month of January, and so we know that it once belonged to a matched set of twelve calendar plates. Since at this time there was no established practice of dining from individual plates—food was taken from communal wooden or pewter trenchers, even in noble houses—this plate and its mates would have adorned an elaborately carved wooden sideboard as part of the owner’s collection of treasures and curiosities.


The so-called Labors of the Months, the tradition of showing the activities commonly associated with the different months of the year, goes back to the middle ages; indeed, the 13th-century stained glass windows of Chartres cathedral include depictions of these monthly labors.  Here we see a proper activity for January—that of feasting indoors, safe from the cold—indicated by a merry company headed by a king who drinks from a goblet. Through the window at left, we can see ice skaters (some falling), while the zodiacal sign for Aquarius, the water carrier, appears in the sky.