The month of January from the "Golf" Book of Hours, Simon Bening, Bruges c. 1540
© the British Library
This beautiful Calendar page comes from a luxury Book of Hours, containing prayers and psalms for private worship, with each month showing the traditional European labours of the month. January usually shows someone warming themselves by the hearth, or vigorously chopping wood, as many country dwellers will be doing even nowadays. This illumination has several other popular images included, such as the windmill, the pigeonloft and farm animals, all in deep snow. The 1500s saw Europe's "little Ice Age" taking hold -- in England the Thames froze in December and January (1536/37) so that King Henry VIII could travel on the ice by sleigh between London and Greenwich.
The Renaissance style borders in this Book of Hours show seasonal sports and pastimes, hence its name as the "Golf Book", and January shows boys happily sledging. This is, of course, a particularly idealised view of ordinary villagers' life in January, with the blue-robed mother and child a reminder of the Nativity. Prosperous, well-wrapped villagers and townsfolk are leaving a church which would not have looked out of place in the miniaturist's home town of Bruges, which can look particularly beautiful in winter when its canals are frozen and the trees are bare.