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.


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…