Call it poetic license. Yet the Dutch poet Cees Nooteboom conjures up with his pen a poem which gives us a rather factual description of an image – as it were translating a picture into words. I found that image in a splendid edition: the Tres Riches Heures of Jean, Duc de Berry which dates back to the beginning of the 15th century.
Besides in its beauty, I am also interested in that famous ‘Book of Rich Hours’ for the simple reason that my French house is located in the Berry, once the County from which came the King Makers of France. In his days this Jean de Berry had many a finger in the political pie of France.
The pièces de résistance of the book are twelve images of the monthly seasons, with the added attraction of one great picture showing us the entire zodiac.
The zodiac can be seen in the night’s sky, at least by those in the know who can recognize the constellations and who are somewhat interested in astrology. Once astrology was considered a ‘science’, a kind of fantasy knowledge concerning the control of our character and behaviour by ‘the stars’.
Those ‘insights’ were closely interwoven with the doctrine of les humeurs – a system of juices that in different proportions supposedly affect each individual. Someone was called ‘sanguine’ when his blood juice was dominant; he was ‘warm’ and ‘fiery’. Someone who was dominated by the yellow bile was considered ‘excitable’ and ‘malignant’. Dominant black bile made by someone ‘melancholic’. Even today, when in the state service someone is dismissed by his chief, the reason of – incompatibilité des humeurs – reminds us of this past.
Here you see a contemporary picture of the zodiac, based on computer images – therefore interesting to show, however not artistically intriguing. It is merely a three-dimensional astronomical map.
As we saw, Les Tres Riches Heures is a whole different ball game…
Nooteboom’s poem is named Zodiac – Based on the miniature made by Le Duc de Berry. This is not only a wrong statement, it is also very confusing.
Perhaps in front of him the poet had the same wonderful edition I mentioned before. However, if so, he turns out to have been merely a picture viewer and at most a bad reader. Extensively discussed therein is the fact Jean, Duc de Berry, was not the maker of this Book of Hours but its owner, a volume for which he had commissioned several famous artists: The Brothers Limbourg and Jean Colombe.
Jean himself was first of all… a Duke, a man who’d interfered with the monarchy. However, a Duke with great artistic taste.
Not only is Nooteboom missing this point, he also whisks together other things. His poem’s title refers to ‘the miniature’. However, his poetic framing of it – an ekphrasis – must store more than one image.
The poem begins with the following tercet:
silently the stone pond is staring
in the cold eye of the moon
laughter of geese behind the spruce.
After prolonged search I am still unable to trace these references in this image. A good argument, so it seems, for not publishing ekphratic verse without the image that it is supposedly ‘expressing’.
Neither did I succeed in tracing the following passage and ‘read’ it back in the image:
from the black park
he is walking
pale and white, trapped in himself.
Set aside the question whether as to whether it is a good poem by a poet who wrote so many beautiful verse, one may conclude that it is certainly inaccurate. The only ‘black park’ I could find in the Riches Heures is in the plate illustrating November.
Or perhaps in this picture which depicts December:
However, there is no ‘pale and white’ man to be seen ‘walking’ in either image, while also ‘laughing geese behind the spruce’ are rather difficult to trace.
Then again the poet denies the man visible in this picture his manhood, a man whose ‘body is too sweet’ and ‘cannot suffer:
where he might be man
he suffers a scorpion…
Nooteboom’s preference for women will surely make him prefer the suggestion of a beautiful woman in the Zodiac image – the lady with her back against the man’s, only half seen. Art connoisseurs have traced her curves back to the sculptural group The Three Graces, now on display at the Museo dell ‘Opera.
Call it poetic license. However, in ekphrasis this is rather a problem – after all the verse form in which a faithful wording of an image must be found.