Antelami’s Cycle of Months: from beginning to beginning
March was the first month Benedetto Antelami sculpted. It was the first month on the calendar of many Italian cities at the time: the month of the Annunciation, of new beginnings after the rigor of winter. Antelami represented it with a young man sounding the olifant – perhaps to awaken nature from hibernation, or to symbolize the rushing, early-spring winds.
Antelami (ca. 1150 – 1230) was a sculptor and architect from Val d’Intelvi (Como); he created the high reliefs of the Cycle of Months to decorate the Baptistery in Parma, a masterpiece of Romanesque-Gothic style, built between the 12th and the 13th century.
He designed innovative images, full of descriptive details representing astrological signs and people at work – especially in the fields, as in the Middle Ages agriculture was so prevalent that the tasks it entailed defined everyone’s calendar, just like daily routines depended on church bells to announce when it was time to worship and when it was time to tackle chores. Saint Benedict’s teaching, ‘Ora et labora’ (“Pray and work”), certainly is a key element in fully understanding Antelami’s artistic choices.
But the cycle also features a king (April, holding a flower in one hand, and a branch in the other), a soldier (May: a man on a horse, holding a sickle), and an old man with two faces (January, the month that marked both the end of one year and the beginning of a new one in the civil calendar). Finally, February is represented as a young man spading the land.
Every year, as the cycle of months comes to an end, the earth is ready to bear its fruit and start again.