Eight Months of the Year, English (seventeenth century), painted glass in lead, 32.8 x 41.2 cm. Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (accession Number: 541A-D5).

This digital record has been made available on NGV Collection Online through the generous support of Digitisation Champion Ms Carol Grigor through Metal Manufactures Limited.

This leaded glass panel is a record of the flourishing industry of painted glass in seventeenth-century England, centred particularly around Oxford. The original location of the Months is unknown, but it reached Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria in 1963.

Eight months are grouped here from the top left and in order of the calendar year; April, June, August, and December have been lost. For each month, a man and a woman are shown in a shallow and schematic landscape, with a small representation of the appropriate zodiac sign hovering in the sky above them. A box underneath each scene has four lines of text in two rhyming couplets, mentioning the zodiac that ‘ruled’ that month, identifying the region or county of each couple, and commenting on their clothes or temperament or both.

The images are based very precisely on a series by the Englishman Robert Vaughan (c. 1600-c. 1663), The XII Mounthes of the Yeare in the habits of Severall Nations, first published from 1620 to 1623 and reprinted thereafter. As so often with early prints, Vaughan in turn had taken ten of his twelve images from an engraving series of c. 1615-20 by Crispijn van de Passe II. Vaughan usually reversed the earlier prints, sometimes simplifying the setting, and he also replaced the short Latin inscriptions of the originals with longer English verses attributed to the poet Abraham Holland (ob. 1626), who had links to the London print trade through two of his siblings.

The conception of this series drew on antique ideas, adapted to early-modern tastes and needs. The idea of personifying the months of the year through human figures or activities is found in ancient Greece, and representations of the ‘Labours of the Months’ are found all over Europe in the later Middle Ages. Here however the emphasis is on dress, not activities, influenced by the sixteenth-century development of costume books which recorded the dress of different peoples and regions.

A further classical idea is also at work here: the linking of climate to character. According to authors like Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen, the climate of a region had a direct effect on the people born there – just as the stars were imagined to shape everything from destiny to personal health. Aristotle argued for instance that in colder northern regions, people were independent but lacked discipline; southern peoples were lazy though smart – natural slaves in his formulation. Those in the temperate regions between were also the most balanced, combining the strengths of both north and south without the weaknesses of the extremes. The exact location of this temperate zone could vary, and all too often corresponded to the writer’s own region. In the glass, for instance, January and February are represented by northerners, Russians, Icelanders, and Lapps, described as wrapped in furs, while July shows an Ottoman couple, ‘sun tann’d Moores black physiognomy,’ according to the description. The native English are given ‘September’s temperate season,’ which, we are told, suits the ‘the well temper’d English nation.’ Conversely, we are told for that Netherlanders are shown for March, described as the ‘martial month,’ because of their stormy land –and temperament.

Anne Dunlop