Agriculture in the Middle Ages: Technology, Practice, and Representation

By Del Sweeney | Go to book overview

13. The New Image of Peasants in Thirteenth-Century French Stained Glass Jane Wech Williams

Art-historical studies of medieval peasant imagery are scarce and tend to be more concerned with artistic tradition and agricultural practices than with the historical circumstances surrounding the creation of particular images.1 This chapter emphasizes the importance of such historical research to the analysis of medieval peasant imagery by showing how the few depictions of peasants in thirteenth-century French cathedral windows as if they were donors had very different meanings at different times and in different places and contexts.

The traditional venues for medieval peasant imagery prior to the thirteenth century were biblical or astrological. 2 In cycles of the birth of Christ, anonymous shepherds looking like medieval peasants hear the news of Christ's birth and come to see him.3 In cycles of the labors of the months, anonymous peasants perform their yearly round of agricultural work accompanied by astrological signs, typically in church calendars and around the margins of church portals. When artisans painted peasants in stained glass for church windows, they copied these peasant images.

In the thirteenth century, for the first time, peasants appeared as if they were donors in the bottom margin of a few French stained glass windows, traditionally the location of upper-class donor imagery. This is the first public appearance of medieval peasants in a new social position in art. Throughout medieval art, upper class individuals identified by inscriptions or blazons and usually shown kneeling in prayer appeared as donors at the base of the art works they donated to churches. However, the peasants are differentiated in the manner of their representation; unlike the upper classes, peasants are shown laboring. Their customary representation accords with their designation as "those who work" in the ecclesiastical conception of the three orders of medieval society.4

At Chartres Cathedral, in two adjacent ambulatory lancets, vineyard

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