There is a season…

In a recent post I pointed out the connection between the poet Geoffrey Chaucer and the painter Hubert van Eyck having both died before they completed projects in hand – The Canterbury Tales and the Ghent Altarpiece; and in another post the Limbourg brothers who all succumbed to an early death in 1416 and whose illuminations in the Trés Riche Heures were a source of inspiration for the Just Judges panel.

The TRH was also work unfinished when the Limbourg brothers died. One of the artists said to have assisted with the manuscript’s completion was Barthélemy d’Eyck, a blood relative of the brothers Jan and Hugh van Eyck.

In his book The Art of Illumination, Timothy B Husband reveals: “He [Barthélemy d’Eck] most likely knew the Limbourg brothers’ work, for in mid-century he in all probability completed the Très Riche Heures Calendar pages for March, June, July, September, October, and December, which the Limbourg brothers had underdrawn and partially painted before their deaths,”

March_400

There are at least four folios from the Très Riche Hours that Jan van Eyck has utilised in the Just Judges. The most significant is the Calendar illumination for March showing a ploughman at work in the foreground and the Châteux Lusignan in the background (right).

If Barthélemy did finalise this folio, then its completion date would be before 1432 when the Ghent Altarpiece was presented.

There is a fourth reference in the Just Judges alluding to incompletion. It relates to Chaucer’s Plowman’s Tale. Although Chaucer described a Plowman in the general prologue of The Canterbury Tales, he never assigned him his own tale. Later, however, two versions of the Plowman’s Tale were added from other sources, not by Chaucer’s hand.

The rationale for Barthélemy’s inclusion in the Just Judges, apart from him being a blood relative, is this: Just as Barthélemy was called upon to complete some of the folios of the TRH after the death of the Limbourgs, so Jan was asked to complete the Ghent Altarpiece following the death of Hubert.

For the incomplete Chaucer work, the two tales added later are also visualised in the Just Judges panel and connect to Barthélemy d’Eyck.

Jan van Eyck has taken and grouped the four ‘incomplete’ references to point to the four-line rhyming scheme found in the incomplete Canterbury Tales, and to mirror the quatrain on the frame of the Ghent Altarpiece. Some of Chaucer’s tales are disguised in the pairings or visual glyphs Jan creates of the riders, a pointer to the pairing of birds in another Chaucer work, the dream poem Parlement of Foules.

The Just Judges can also be considered a “dream poem” of Jan van Eyck, hand-written in a hieroglyphic style, echoing not only the sacredness of the altarpiece but also the hierarchical theme expressed in the panel.

The Narrators… Geoffrey and Hubert

Narrators

In my previous post I named one of the riders in the Just Judges panel as the poet Geoffrey Chaucer. His poems, The Canterbury Tales and Parlement of Foules (also known as The Parliament of Birds) are two sources for the painting’s concept. There is third major literary work, not by Chaucer, which I shall refer to at another time.

The narrator of The Canterbury Tales is generally considered to be its author Geoffrey Chaucer. Parts of the poem are incomplete because Chaucer died before he could finish the work.

This scenario runs parallel with the circumstances of Hubert van Eyck who was first commissioned with the painting of the Ghent Altarpiece sometime during the early 1420’s. Hubert died in 1426 and his brother Jan was requested by Joos Vijd to complete the altarpiece.

So whose idea was it to draw on The Canterbury Tales as inspiration for the line-up of Judges – Hubert’s or Jan’s? If it was Hubert then Jan obviously adapted the panel to take his brother’s death into account, and the later events related to Joan of Arc who arrived on the scene after Hubert had died.

If Hubert had come up with the idea of incorporating Chaucer’s work, did he place himself in the frame as the narrator on the near wing of the group, or was it Jan’s inspiration in recognising that both the poet and the painter died before they could complete their particular masterpiece?

Hubert has long been identified as the rider in front on the white horse. Perhaps he can now be also recognised as the narrator of his own magnum opus. What better judge could there be? Even Jan professed in the quatrain written on the frame of the altarpiece that he was second best in the art to Hubert.

Next post: Birds of a feather…

Judging the Canterbury Tales

Jan van Eyck’s paintings are formed by applying layers of colour with resulting levels of transparency and vividness. He employs a similar technique for unfurling his creative narrative. His method of placing objects is precise and deliberate, and the ‘hidden’ meaning sometimes obvious, other times not so apparent or even visible. And it doesn’t stop there. Jan utilises wordplay in a novel way to surprise and wonder what else might be beneath the surface.

This is most noticeable on the quatrain that appears on the outer frames of the Ghent Altarpiece. The fourth line of the Latin inscription conceals the date when the painting was presented.

The quatrain and its wordplay is a foretaste of what is inside when the frame is opened, particularly with the Just Judges panel. Much has been written about the quatrain by art historians, especially its acknowledgement of Hubert van Eyck being the better painter than his brother Jan. This is the first instance in the work where Jan pays homage to Hubert. It continues inside – and in the form of wordplay and quatrains.

Jan van Eyck’s disposition to ‘paint’ or pun with the written word shows up again in a later work, the Arnolfini Portrait. On it shutters was the name Hernoul-le-fin. A later inventory recorded the name Arnoult fin. Historians didn’t pick up on the word play and settled on the name as Arnolfini, an Italian merchant living in Bruge at the time. My understanding of the name is that Van Eyck was referring to the end of a dynastic line known ast the Arnulfings, and paying homage to Charles Martel who started a new line that became known as the Carolingian dynasty. More about this here.

Three-riders_980

The group of ten riders in the Just Judges panel are strategically placed alongside each other and represent multiple identities, but they also read as chapters in a book, one following on from the other. Each figure is linked in some way to the person next to them, whether it is in front or behind, or even alongside.

To make more sense of this it, let’s look at the figure in front of Joan, the bearded man dressed in red. In the first instance, this is WIlliam de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, and a favourite councillor of the English King, Henry IV. Joan of Arc confronted him when he led the English forces at the seige to Orleans. He retreated as far as Jergeaux pursued by the Maid and eventually surrendered.

There is a conversation alluded to between these two figures which I shall explain at another time, but at this stage it is better to move on to make the next connection and reveal a second identity Van Eyck has designated to the rider in red.

The Earl of Suffolk remained a prisoner of the French king Charles VII for three years and was eventually ransomed in 1431, but before his release he married a woman named Alice Chaucer in November 1430. Alice was the granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer poet, philospher and astronomer, and author of The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer is the second identity. His role as a philospher and astronomer connects to the third identity of the man in red – Claudius Ptolomey, a second century astronomer, mathematician, geographer and poet. A further connection between the second and third identities is that Ptolomey is mentioned in The Canterbury Tales (The Wife of Bath’s Tale).

Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales is the connection to the quatrain attached to four of the outer panels of the Ghent Altarpiece, a quatrain being a type of stanza or poem consisting of four lines.

Moving forward to the next figure ahead of Chaucer. Again it has more than one identity, but for the time being I’ll name one: John, Duke of Berry, and second son of the French king, John II. Here’s how Van Eyck puns the word Canterbury to connect the two figures.

Berry was a region (canton) in France administered by John. Canton and Berry = Canterbury. There is also a second pointer to the word Canton. In heraldy a canton is a charge usually placed in the upper dexter (right) corner of a shield, and so corresponding with the top right corner of the group where Van Eyck has positioned the Duke of Berry.

The fact that Van Eyck has applied more than one identity to each figure creates even more connections that are not always obvious at surface level. It’s a journey of discovery, similar in a way to the pilgrimage theme and shared experience of the travellers outlined in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. There is always more to come…

Double-takes

There are multiple identities applied to the ten riders in the Just Judges panel. Soon after it completion Jan van Eyck ‘layered’ his figures in another major work – The Arnolfini Portrait.

While art historians generally assume that the two people depict the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, no one is really sure.

A couple of years ago I demonstrated on my website that the male figure represented both Jan van Eyck and Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and not Arnolfini.

EyesThe figure of Jan van Eyck in the Just Judges panel supports this as it also doubles up as Philip the Good.

Philip later intimated the genius of his valet de chambre when in March 1435 he informed officers of the Chamber of Accounts in Lille that he would be greatly displeased if they delayed registering his letters patent granting Van Eyck a life pension, as he was about to employ Jan on “certain great works and could not find another painter equally to his taste nor of such excellence in his art and science.”

I sense that the Duke of Burgundy may have had the Ghent Altarpiece in mind when he spoke of Jan’s “excellence in his art and science.”

Double-takes

Hand G… Jan or Hubert van Eyck?

A couple of days ago I made mention of Jan van Eyck paying homage to another artist when he painted the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece. In fact, it may have been one or even three artists known as the Limbourg brothers, famous for the illuminations they produced for the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry manuscript.

The Van Eyck brothers, Jan and Hubert, are also said to have worked on illuminating manuscripts, in particular some of the pages that formed what is is now referred to as the Turin-Milan Hours, although there is no certainty as to which folios belong to which artist. The various artists are categorised as “Hands” A to K. Hand ‘G’ is considered by most art historians to be Jan van Eyck; others say his brother Hubert, while there is also an opinion that Hand G is neither of the brothers.

One of the folios from the TMH is known as The Prayer on the Shore by Hand G. It was destroyed by fire in 1904, but a photographic copy exists and is reproduced below. It is one of the leaves attributed to Hand G. What is interesting is that many of its features are replicated in the Just Judges painting, which suggests that it was produced before the completion of the Ghent Altarpiece in 1432

In a previous post, I posited that the Just Judges was painted by Jan and not his brother, on the basis that one of the riders is Joan of Arc, who did not arrive on the scene until 1429, three years after Hubert had died.

It’s very probable that the Prayer on the Shore was produced by one of the Van Eyck brothers, but which one? I propose the page was painted by Hubert and that Jan has repeated elements to acknowledge and pay homage to his brother in the same way he has adapted features from a leaf attributed to the Limbourg brothers: Christ Led to the Praetorium shown below. In a sense, this tribute, is Jan’s way of identifying his brother’s contribution to this section of the Ghent Altarpiece

There is another illumination attributed to the Limbourg brothers that Jan has referenced in the Just Judges. It also helps identify Hubert van Eyck as the rider depicted in the forefront.

More on this in another post.

Folios

• The Prayer on the Shore, by Hand G, Turin-Milan Hours
• Christ Led to the Praetorium, Limbourg Brothers, Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

Paying homage

A few months back I brought to light how two illustrations in a late 12th century Hungarian manuscript known as the Pray Codex were utilised by Jan van Eyck as a basis for the Arnolfini Portrait in 1434.

This wasn’t the first time Van Eyck had sourced from another artwork to compose a painting. Today I discovered he used a similar method for the Just Judges panel completed in 1432. The repetition is extensive, at least 20 features have been reworked into the Just Judges composition.

This deliberate process can be likened to Petrus Christus repeating elements from Jan van Eyck’s Just Judges for his painting of A Goldsmith in his Shop. I mentioned in a previous post that by doing this Petrus was paying homage to Van Eyck, his mentor – and so, it appears, was Van Eyck in his composition of the Just Judges, honouring the memory and talent of another artist in the same way.

More on this in my next post.

Maid by Jan van Eyck

Two-Joans

There are several pointers to the identity of Joan of Arc as one of the riders in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

• Of the ten featured riders Joan is is the only figure with her head uncovered.
• Her hair is cut short. It was cropped in May 1428, at the same time when she was made to dress in men’s clothes to disguise her femininity before journeying to Chinon to meet with the dauphin Charles.
• Her blue mantle is symbolic of heaven and holiness. Other figures in the frame wearing the colour blue also have a religious significance.
• The figure of Joan is fashioned to represent her family’s coat of arms, “Azure, a bow or in fess, thereon three arrows crossed …, on a chief argent a lion passant gules.”

Azure is the blue coat, on which is a bow-or – the gold chain shaped as a bow. The three arrows are the three pointed segments of her collar, the fess. The chief is a charge that runs across the top edge of the shield, in this case the white, argent, fur trim of the blue mantle, while the lion passant gules refers to Joan’s shorn red mane. “En passant” (in passing) is also a pawn capture move in the game of chess and points to Joan’s capture at Compiègne on May 23, 1430. The pawn reference also connects to another figure elsewhere in the painting.

There are more refernces in the painting that point to Joan. Her inclusion is down to Jan van Eyck and not his brother Hubert who died in 1426, and at least two years before Joan set out on her misssion to have the dauphin Charles crowned as King of France.

So what prompted or inspired Jan to profile Joan in this way so soon after her death? Was he making a point of some kind about her trial conducted by an ecclesiatical court. Is this one of the reasons for the latin title of the panel “Iusti Iudices” (Just Judges), and could it refer to Psalm 94 (The Justice of God), in particular, verse 20-21?

You never consent to that corrupt tribunal
that imposes disorder as law,
that takes the life of the virtuous
and condems the innocent to death.

More details that connect to the identity of Joan of Arc in a future post.

references: history.com and heraldica.org

Disguising Joan of Arc

Goldsmith-in-his-Shop
A Goldsmith in his Shop, Petrus Christus 1449, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975,
on view at The Met Fifth Avenue

So why in 1449 did Petrus Christus choose to ‘disguise’ Joan of Arc and the reference to the siege of Orleans in his painting, A Goldsmith in his Shop, apart from the historical fact that the “Maid” dressed in male attire to conceal her identity?

It wasn’t until seven years later in 1456 and 25 years after being burned at the stake that a posthumous retrial declared Joan innocent of the charges brought against her. Before then, the official line was that Joan was guilty, not only of heresy, but of cross-dressing.

So producing a painting gloryfying the deeds of Joan before her posthumous trial carried risks. Hence the reason for the surreptitious approach taken by Petrus Christus in 1449.

But Petrus was not the first painter to “immortalise” Joan in this way. Jan van Eyck did so shortly after her execution in May, 1431. In fact, just 12 month’s after the Maid was put to death at Rouen, Jan unveiled her image to the public on May 6, 1432.

Joan-of-ArcIt’s unlikely that many who came to admire the Ghent Altarpiece would have recognised Joan in her male attire and featured as one of the riders in the Just Judges panel. She is the hatless figure wearing the blue mantle.

Pterus Christus knew this, as was likely did other contemporaries of Jan. Petrus reworked the Just Judges concept for his Goldsmith presentation. Much of the iconography created by Jan is repeated and adapted for the Petrus painting and explains just why Petrus was inspired to include Joan of Arc in his work. He is paying homage to a predecessor and mentor, Jan van Eyck.

The iconography in the Just Judges panel is heavily woven into several themes and there is a multi-level of identities. Most of the figures represent three different people and each is connected to an identity alongside.

The much researched Quatrain featured on the closed section of the altarpiece is a major clue to unravelling the principal narrative in the Judges panel which links to other panels in the altarpiece.

More to come on this.

The Christ-bearer

pilgrims_980

This is a section from the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece painted by Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert. It represents a group of pilgrims queueing behind St Christopher, patron saint of travellers, waiting to be assisted across dangerous waters.

It was St Christopher who once carried a child on his shoulders across a swollen river and discovered afterwards that the boy was Jesus. It’s likely that the youth in red is intended to represent that child.

However, there is an unusual aspect about this group of pilgrims. Only the youth in red is shown with an ear exposed. All the other figures, including St Christopher, have their ears covered.

So what could be the possible explanation for this seemingly intentional peculiarity?

And the grinning woman at the back of the group, who could she be? Is there a connection between her and the boy?

Lamentation restoration project

The Mauritshuis Museum in the Haag has embarked on a public restoration of Weyden’s another piece The Lamentation of Christ (c.1460-1464). It is being restored in a temporary specially-built studio in the exhibition space so that all visitors have a chance to learn all about the scientific and art historical research into the work. More deatils at Daily Art Magazine.

RVDWRogier van der Weyden, Lamentation of Christ, 1460-1464, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Cavalry and foot soldiers

Four-panels_980

Ever noticed that the two panels left of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb panel, the Just Judges and Knights of Christ, feature riders on horses, while the two frames on the right side of the central panel, the Hermits and the Pilgrims, there isn’t a horse in sight? Every figure is on foot.

This small detail is not as trivial as first seems, for nothing that Jan van Eyck paints is without reason or purpose. It’s a pointer and measured part of the rationale governing the construction and creative process of the Ghent Altarpiece.

I intend to present details on the Just Judges panel, possibly also the Knights of Christ panel connected to it, sometime later this year. The study is still a work in progress and always likely to be when it comes to the artistry of Jan van Eyck.