11. Four seasons

The seasons

The changing weather conditions in the moderate climate zones north and south of the equator bring about a natural division in time, generally called the seasons. Marker points are the spring-equinox (associated with the first of the twelve signs of the zodiac), the summer solstice (the longest day), the autumn equinox and the winter solstice (the shortest day).

These points (in time) find their origin (in space), because they are related to the changing position of the Sun between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn due to the tilting and rotation of the earth. The practical division of four seasons does also occur in areas where the climatological changes are less obvious. In that situation – towards the equator – period of rain cause a ‘rainy season’ or annual strong winds (trade winds) are used as marker points in time. The ‘canonical’  four-way division of seasons is strongly established in the early Hellenic times of the third century AD. There are very few examples from the classical period (HINKS, 1939).

In the second to first century BC the Greek sun-year was adopted by the Jews (BEHRMANN, 1976). Initially, they only used two times of the year. In the new arrangement four angels were assigned to the seasons: Melekjal, Helemmelek, Melejal en Narel.

On the fourth day of Creation (tetras) the sun and the moon were positioned to mark the time (Genesis 1: 14 – 19). This notion is rather curious since it means that half of the creation took place before the appearance of light. BOBER (1961) has written an interesting article over this phenomenon. The ‘In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram‘ (the creation of heaven and earth) is preceding the creation of day and night (the time). Ambrosius concluded therefore to a ‘double’ creation. In the New Testament (John 1) the ‘In principio‘ returns in the opening-sentence ‘In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum‘ as a fulfillment of the Old Testament.

Victorinus of Pettau (died in the third century AD) used in his ‘Tractatus de fabrica mundi‘, a numerological four-fold method to divide the time, with no relation to the actual seasons. The ‘quattuor tempora‘ of Victorinus fit into a fourfold way of thinking, supported by the four living Things, the four Gospels, the rivers of Paradise and the four Generations (Adam – Noah; Noah – Abraham; Abraham – Moses and Moses to Christ).

The same dividing elements are elaborated by the Church fathers, who wanted to prove, with all possible means, that the Gospels hold the true message of God. Ambrosius (339 – 397), as the most prolific of them as far as numbers are concerned, summarized a tetradic list in his book ‘De Abraham’: four Gospels, four apocalyptic animals, four parts of the world and four ages (pueritia, adolescentia, iuventus, maturitas). He pointed to the tetrad as the base for the decad, which sounds like an echo of classical times (SEARS, 1986).

Johannicius refers, in his ‘Isagoge’, to adolescentia, iuventus, senectus en senium as the four seasons of life. Cassianus (c. 360 – 435) connected, in his ‘Collationes’, the four senses with types of knowledge (ESMEIJER, 1973/1978):

————–          anagoge         –        prophetia

————–          allegoria         –       revelatio

————–          historia           –      doctrina

————–          tropologia      –       scientia

Mosaics of the fourth century in Antioch show the four seasons in a pavement setting (MYERS (Ed.), 1985; p. 223, fig. 33). This period of the declining central power of the Roman Empire is fruitful for writers, who implemented the general division-idea in a religious-historical context.

The ‘Concordia Veteris et Novi Testamenti’ positioned the two Testaments opposite to each other. Ambrosius provided the captions by the paintings in the cathedral of Milan, where eighteen scenes from the Old Covenant are placed opposite ten of the New One. In the ‘Dittochaeon’ of Prudentius (348 – 410) some twenty-four episodes of the two Covenants are compared (TIMMERS, 1978). The Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit were represented in a three-fold division and the (numerological) four-fold emerged in the elements from the Scriptures.

Cyprianus (c. 400 AD.) extended the numerological scheme to twelve. He compared – in the attributed ‘De Pascha computus‘ – the twelve hours of the day and the twelve month with the twelve Apostles and the four seasons were equivalents of the four Evangelists (van RUN, 1989).

The search for analogies between worldly and holy items (regardless of the division-frame) was generated by a desire to find harmony. Augustinus’ work ‘De Musica’ was not primary concerned with music, but with harmony-in-general: ‘Musica est scientia bene modulandi‘. All important is the ‘modus‘ in which the communication takes place.

The numerical approach was two centuries later again favored by Isidore of Seville (c. 560 – 633). His ‘Liber numerorum qui in sanctis scripturis’ was for centuries the ‘Fundgrube‘ for Christian-numerological evidence. The tetradic thought is strongly, but not exclusively, represented and sometimes illustrated with diagrams.

Transcriptions of the encyclopedic ‘Liber de natura rerum’ show seven cosmological diagrams. Six in a circular and one in a square setting. These diagrams, for mnemonic use (to memorize), are subsequently redrawn in manuscripts of the ninth to the thirteenth century (fig. 51). A good example of a time-division is found in the ‘Sacramentarium Fuldense’ (Göttingen) in the so-called Annus-miniature (fol. 250v). Annus is placed as a god amidst four wheel (the remains of the sun-wagon) and surrounded by four elements and the month.


Fig. 51 – These types of tetradic diagrams were used between the ninth and the thirteenth century as guidelines for the quadruple way of thinking. In the centre is the observer (homo), the world (mundus) or the year (annus) in a square or circle. Further circles underline the cyclic nature of different features like elements (ignis, aer, aqua and terra) or qualities (calidus, humida, frigida, sicca). However, also the direction of the wind, temperatures, times of the year and quarters and life periods support the tetradic world view. 1. From John Sacrobosco’s ‘Computus ecclesiasticus’, Ms 69, fol. 38v, New York Public Library; 2. From a compilation of Isidore of Seville. Ms. lat 12999, fol. 7r, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris; 3. Annus-Mundus. Ms 3516, mappe-monde, fol. 179r, Bibliotheque de l’Arsenal, Paris; 4. From the ‘Dragmaticon’ by William of Conches, MS lat. 6415, f. 6r. Bibliotheque nationale, Paris.

The work of the eminent scholar Bede – the Venerable Bede, Beda Venerabilis – living in the Carolingian period (c. 800 AD) – connected the old-European and Celtic thoughts with Christian symbolism. He shaped, from his monastery of Jarrow in England, the different forms of division thinking into a firm base.

This blend of thoughts gained momentum some two hundred years later in the Scholastic movement centered on the ‘Libri Quattuor Sententiarum’ (‘Sententiae‘) by Petrus Lombardus, bishop of Paris. This compilation of excerpts from the Bible, works of the Church fathers, council-decisions and quotations from Abelard and Gratian’s ‘Decretum’, was written around 1150.

The ‘Sententiae’ were composed as a memorial of tetradic thinking. The structure is reflected in its outlay: the first book is concerned with God and his nature, the second book deals with the Creation and the Fall of man, the third book discussed the Incarnation of Christ and the Saviour and finally the fourth book explains the Sacraments and the Last Things (fig. 52).


Fig. 52 – The tetradic division of the ‘Sententiae’ of Petrus Lombardus: God – Creation – Incarnation – Sacraments, reflected the four ‘senses‘ of (religious) life. This book – and its associated tetradic approach – was the most influential document of the Scholastic period. It lost its prominence during  the thirteenth century and never lived up to a ‘revival’ or revaluation.

In the present day, the book is virtually unobtainable. It seems as if the symbiosis between (unconscious) tetradic thinking and a religious experience was broken forever. In stead, the majority of believers followed the narrower margins of dichotomous thinking, resulting in an increased materialism (known as science), rather than a pursuit of higher spiritual values.

Lambert of St. Omer wrote, around 1121 AD, a cosmological compendium, known as the ‘Liber floridus’. The seasons are related to other four-fold partitions in this most interesting encyclopaedic work. However, there are many other numerological connections and a specific form of division thinking is absent. The knowledge was mainly derived from Martianus Capella’s ‘De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii’ (The Marriage of Phylology and Mercurius), dating from the sixth century (fig. 53):

spring  (vera)      – air         –  adolescentia   –  blood            –  risus Iovis  (smile of Juve)

summer (esta)    – fire         –  iuventus          –  red bile        –  vertexVulcani (flame of Vulcan)

autumn (autumn) – earth   –   senectus         – black bile      –  ubera Iunonis (breast of Juno)

 winter(hiemas) – water – etas     – phlegm    – exitium Saturni decrepita                                                                                                               (destruction by Saturn)


Fig. 53 – Human presence (Homo) in a four-fold world, as given in the ‘Liber floribus‘ by Lambert of St. Omer (1121).

Honorius Augustodunensis issued his ‘Imago mundi’ at about the same time (c. 1110), using the same variations (probably with Bede’s ‘De temporum ratione’ as a source):

 spring            –         blood                  –     wet/hot            –        infantes

summer        –          red bile              –    dry/hot             –         iuvenes

autumn         –          black bile          –    melancholy      –         provectiores

winter            –          phlegm             –     old age              –        senes

The ‘Twelfth-century Renaissance’, as proposed by HASKINS (1927), is in many ways a definitive swing of the European culture into visibility and summarizes the thoughts of the previous ages. Most important of all is the shift to the physical aspect of seeing, a realization of presence.

The rose window in the cathedral of Lausanne (Switzerland) is the ‘iconographical statement of four seasons symbolism’ par excellence (HARLEY & WOODWARD, 1987). The windows fitted between 1235 and 1275 and can be seen as the apotheosis of the medieval tetradic thoughts. Ellen Judith BEER (1952; 1956; 1975) studied the imagery of the windows, while previous studies by BACH et al. (1944) covered the changes made by the restorations between 1894 and 1899.

The Lausanne rose window incorporates many numerological aspects of the fourfold division. Circle and square are the basic constituencies. The circle is seen as an abstract entity, while the square is earthly directed. The division in time (eight circles and the complete window) is more prominent than the division in place (two squares).

The year (Annus) is placed in the centre, surrounded by time-indicators like light/ darkness, and day/night, followed by seasons and months. The four rivers of Paradise are situated in the corners of the great square (fig. 54).


Fig. 54 – An explanation of the rose window of the cathedral of Lausanne, Switzerland. The year (Annus) is positioned in the centre (no. 1) of the rose window. The dual entities of sun (Sol, no. 2) and moon (Luna, 3)  and day (Dies, 4) and night (Nox, 5) are also in the central square. The seasons are in the (half) circles directly around this square: spring (Ver, 11), summer (Estas, 7), autumn (Autumpnus, 19) and winter (Hyems, 15). The elements fire (Ignis, 24), earth (Terra, 25), water (Aqua, 26) and air (Aer, 27) are the centres of the outer circles. According to BACH et al. (1944); BEER (1952) and  BEER: in BIAUDET (1975).

The motif of the four seasons revived in the Renaissance. It was expressed by such painters as Botticelli (Primavera), Cosimo Tura, Francesco del Cossa, Matteo Balducci, Giulio Romano and Tintoretto. The actual depth of the four-fold way of thinking is hardly ever touched by the Renaissance artists, and more often than not they place the outward appearances of bygone classical elements in a setting of power and opposites.

Otho van Veen (Vaenius) gave – in his ‘Quinti Horatii Flacci Emblemata’ (Antwerpen, 1612) – an illustration of the symbolism of the four seasons. Four persons of increasing age march away from the observer (fig. 55). The landscape is empty and only a butterfly-like angel is holding a sundial, representing the time (CHEW, 1962). Spring is a young child, sowing; summer is a grown-up man returning from the harvest; autumn is represented by an elderly man enjoying the fruits of life and winter is an old man, trying to keep the pace. In the right-hand corner lies a snake biting in his own tail. This is the so-called ‘uroborus‘, representing the cyclicity of time and rebirth (FISHER, 1984). The ‘uroborus‘ finds its origin in the Egyptian classical period and is closely related to the Alexandrian heritage of tetradic thinking.


Fig. 55 – Time leading the seasons. From the ‘Emblemata‘ of Otho van Veen (Vaenius), published in Antwerp in 1612. The illustration is typical for the rhetorical treatment of tetradic thinking in the seventeenth century.

The woodcuts of Robert Vaughan in Robert Farley’s ‘Kalendarium Humanae Vitae’ (Milan, 1638) represented the seasons with upper- (Latin) and lower (English) captions. Various actions are indicated: the spring is time to bud and sprout, summer is harvest-time, autumn is time to relax and winter invites to enjoy the fruits of life (fig. 56).

The setting of the four seasons in a linear and finite time-span is indicative of a dualistic approach, which generated the presentation of the tetradic motif of the seasons and is fairly typical for the period around the year 1650. Life is visualized as a natural curve, following the environmental changes within a year.


Fig. 56 – The seasons. Woodcut of Robert Vaughan in Robert Farley’s ‘Kalendarium Humanae Vitae’ (Milan, 1638). Vaughan used the same framework to characterize the seasons in pairs: one medallion is a personification of the season and the other one points to the (agricultural) activities in the time of the year.

The land is ploughed with a two-span in springtime. The harvest is reaped and fishing is done in the summer. The autumn gives the opportunity to enjoy the wine, but also make one realize, that the forward movement has turned into a retreat (I shall go backward). In winter one sits near the fire with a small child playing at your feet, pointing to a new cycle of life, just like the seasons.

The seasons figured ‘fairly frequent’ on paintings in the seventeenth century (HALL, 1974). Representations were supported by classical-pagan symbo-lism, which got drawn from the corpus of Roman story telling, in particular Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’:

 Season                           Product/attribute                Instrument                   Pagan god


Spring                                    flowers                             spade/hoe                  Flora/Venus

Summer                         fruits/sheaf of corn                   sickle                            Ceres

Autumn                              grape/vine                            wine-press                   Bacchus

Winter                               thickly clad                                                            Boreas/Vulcanus

Pietro Testa (1612 – 1650) was a draughtsman from Lucca, who produced etchings of the four seasons in an Italian Baroque style (fig. 57), about thirty years after the ‘Emblemata’. CROPPER (1988) gave a comprehensive review of his prints and drawings, released under such light-hearted titles as the ‘Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus‘, ‘The suicide of Cato‘, ‘Achilles Dragging the Body of Hector‘, ‘An Allegory of the Massacre of the Innocents‘ and ‘The Rape of Proserpina‘. He pointed to the interest of Rembrandt in his work in the 1650’s.


Fig. 57 – Sketch for the etching of the ‘Summer‘ by Pietro Testa, part of a series of the four seasons in an allegorical setting. Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. Juno symbolizes, in the final version, the air, Cybele (and the lion) the earth, Vulcanus the fire and the vase/river god the water.

The theme of the seasons and elements was repeated in the ‘Allegory of the Elements of Nature‘ (1644). Four elements descending from the heavens to the earth: ‘Like the drawing of the Elements in the Pierpont Morgan Library, this composition is closely related to the series of ‘The Seasons‘, completed in 1644. Here, as in Summer and Winter, the natural world was characterized as a cyclical elemental struggle between fire, air, water, and earth’ (CROPPER, 1974; 1988).

The etchings of Testa (Autumn and Spring, 1642; Winter and Summer, 1644) are most likely inspired by Michelangelo’s ‘Times of the Day‘ in the Medici Chapel (PANOFSKY, 1939/67; pp. 205 – 208). Elizabeth CROPPER (1974) summarized the spirit as follows: ‘The mortal soul caught in the coil of the elements and their changes, struggling to be free and to rise beyond the reach of Time and the elemental passions.’

A new homage to the seasons was presented by James Thomson, who praised, between 1726 and 1728, nature in a poem called ‘The Seasons’. The complete work was published in 1730 (THOMSON, 1981)(fig. 58).


Fig. 58 – Winter. An illustration of James Thomson’s poem ‘The Seasons’, published in the first complete version in 1730. All four elements together create an atmosphere of disaster in a once Arcadian landscape.

Antonio Vivaldi’s concertos called the ‘Four Seasons‘ (Le quattro stagioni, 1725) expressed the same spirit of the time. They were part of a group of twelve concertos called ‘Il Cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione’ (The struggle between Harmony and Invention). The four seasons were again in the centre of interest at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Haydn’s ‘Die Jahreszeiten‘ (1801) used the text of James Thomson’s ‘The Seasons‘ (fig. 59).

haydnFig. 59 – The original edition of ‘Die Jahreszeiten‘ (The Seasons) by Joseph Haydn was published by Breitkopf & Hartel in Leipzig.

The seasons are cyclic weather-patterns, which influence human behavior. An analogy with various stages in a life can be made in a general way. The seasons are now hardly related to a four-fold way of thinking or seen as a guideline to an understanding of the cyclic forces of nature.


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