Tell Jan what you hear and see

There’s a likeness between these two portraits, the left being Henry Beaufort painted by Jan van Eyck, and the right being “A Goldsmith in his Shop”, aka a self-portrait of painter Petrus Christus.

A Goldsmith in His Shop painting is based on some of the panels from the Ghent Altarpiece completed by Van Eyck in 1432 and, just as his mentor, Petrus has applied multiple identities to his figures. Not only is the man in the berry hat a reference to John, Duke of Berry, but also a pointer to Henry Beaufort, the man with the golden touch; so rich he was considered the Midas of his time. The portrait also represents St Eligius and, as already mentioned, the artist himself, Petrus Christus.

But for this presentation the focus is on Henry Beaufort and one aspect in particular – his ear. In Jan’s portrait which precedes the completion date of the Ghent Altarpiece, the Lord Chancellor of England, whose fortune bankrolled kings and princes of Europe, is portrayed with a sharp razored hair style trimmed above his temple. The trim line runs down to his rather large ear.

Christus makes the same point in his portrayal except it is the sharp rim of the cap which extends down along the temple and over the top of the ear which is also rather large.

 There is an explanation for this. Van Eyck was, as usual, playing word games and providing clues to anyone who wanted to play along. He was combining two words “temple” and “ear”, But first a trim is necessary – the last letter of the first word, and the first letter of the second word, the letter ‘e’ in both (and shaped as an ear!) – before the new word is formed: TEMPL-AR. (a new look, as the hairstyle!)

So did Van Eyck have knowledge of a connection between Beaufort and the Knights Templar? The organisation was disolved in 1312 and its assets transferred to another Christian military order, the Knights Hospitaller. Could Beaufort have stumbled on some of the Templar fortune possibly hidden at some time?

One of the many legends associated with the Templars is the Holy Grail chalice and connection to Jesus. The Templars were also said to have been keepers of Christ’s burial cloth, now referred to as the Turin Shroud.

Seemingly Van Eyck makes no reference to the Grail Cup, unlike Petrus who places it directly behind the ear in his portrait, but Jan does create a subtle reference to Christ’s tomb and eventual resurrection in Beaufort’s ear, often closed to the appeals of many and possibly even Van Eyck himself. Within the tomb is the shroud-covered corpse awaiting resurrection.

Supporting this point, Van Eyck makes a further reference to the Shroud and the tomb – Beaufort’s red garment, considered by many to be a cardinal’s robe. It isn’t, it represents a woolsack, symbolic of the tomb-shaped seat that the Lord Chancellor sat on in the House of Lords. The seat, without arm rests, was filled with sheep wool, hence the white wool trim. The white wool and its blood-colour cover symbolizes the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) and was considered a Templar symbol.

The ear reference appears several times in the Ghent Altarpiece which is centred on the Lamb of God. For instance, Henry Beaufort appears as the front rider in the group featured in the Just Judges panel and it is not without significance that his ear has been well and truly covered.

Again, there are other narratives relating to this symbolism, Here is one example: The deep-red crown of Beaufort’s fur hat in the image above points to the red cloak worn by another rider in the background. One of the identities of this particular rider is Humphrey Villersexel, Count de la Roche, and a guardian of the Shroud from 1418 until his death in 1438. Close inspection of the red cloak shows that Van Eyck has shaped the form of a shrouded face within the folds.

It’s not without reason that Van Eyck has connected the Shroud to the two outward riders in the group. They represent the two elements of the Pisces constellation that I pointed out in a previous post, Riders in the Sky. As always with Van Eyck he applies more than one level of meaning and understanding, but in this instance has specifically connected the two riders in this way to link to the Shroud.

It has been suggested that the Shroud may have been in England for safekeeping at some time in its history. Could it be that Beaufort, as bishop of Winchester and Lord Chamberlain of England, may have had some role in protecting or housing the Shroud? 

More on this at another time, along with further references to the Shroud found in the Ghent Altarpiece.

Images: metmuseum, closertovaneyck, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wikimedia Commons,

“A bit of the dog in all of us”

A priest was once heard to say to a group of pilgrims: “There’s a bit of the dog in all of us”. He was referring to the times when people break out from their ordered and obedient nature.

There is sense of disorder in the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece – a giant of a man leading a group of rough but seemingly ready-to-follow pilgrims, all men with the exception of the woman at the back of the group identified in the previous post as the Wife of Bath and one of the travellers featured in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Could it be that Jan van Eyck is hinting at “long and tall tales”, or even “shaggy dog” stories told by ‘shaggy’ pilgrims? The clue comes through the leader of the group, St Christopher. His collared hair and flowing beard has a hairy-dog appearance. Van Eyck has even given the saint’s nose a shine. Closer inspection of others in the pack with their squinting eyes suggests they too have a-bit-of-the-dog about them.

An Orthodox Christopher portrayed as a dog-headed saint.

The explanation is that in Eastern Orthodox iconography St Christopher is represented with the head of a dog. Apparently it came about from a mistranslation of the latin word Cananeus which means Canaanite (Cana in Galilee is where Christopher, who was originally named Reprobus, is said to have come from). Along the way Cananeus became misinterpreted as Canineus (canine). There was also a belief that a race of people with a head of a dog really did exist at one time! In The Canterbury Tales the Wife of Bath, seen at the rear of the group, also made mention of Cana in Galilee where Jesus miraculouly turned water into wine.

Reputed to stand over seven feet tall, St Christopher is also depicted here as a Colossus, possibly mirroring the smaller version portrayed by Jankyn, the youth behind him wearing a red tunic and representing a young Constantine. So in this instance Van Eyck is pointing to St Christopher as the Roman Emperor Constantine who moved the imperial capital to Byzantium and renamed it Nova Roma (later known as Constantinople) straddling the Bosphorus.

This East to West connection links to another panel in the altarpiece, so too does the straddling stance taken up by the “Colossus”. It is meant to mirror the straddling theme applied to Henry Beaufort in the Just Judges panel.

 Notice also how St Christopher’s feet are set wide apart, ready to take “one giant leap” across the Bosphorus for Christianity! And the man standing next to the clossus portrayed as Constantine the Great? Possibly St Paul, “called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.” (Romans 1:1) And if Van Eyck intended the white-haired figure to represent Paul, he may also have had in mind the missionary’s warning to the Philippians: “Beware of dogs!” (3:2) 

“Set apart” may also be Van Eyck referencing the East-West Schism of the Church and Constantine’s move to Byzantium, a move seen by some as rash and reckless, and so echoing the the metaphor from Proverbs 26:11: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool reverts to his folly.” But with this metaphor Van Eyck also points to the indiscretion of his mentor Roger Campin, and an adulterous liaison which initially resulted in him being banished from Burgundy and having to set up his ‘business’ elsewhere before he was pardoned and allowed to return. As mentioned in the previous post, Van Eyck has used Campin’s likeness to depict St Christopher.

Images: russianicons.wordpress.com and closertovaneyck

Jankyn van Eyck

A couple of months ago I posted this clip from the Pilgrim’s panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, and wondered who the smiling woman at the back of the group might represent.

Could she be the Wife of Bath, one of the pilgrims featured in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales? Could she also be Margaret van Eyck, the woman Jan married in 1431, just a year before the Ghent Altarpiece went on display?

The Wife of Bath married five times. Her fifth husband was a young apprenticed clerk named Jankyn, a religious and studious man according to the tale she told to the other pilgrims in the group on their way to Canterbury. After a turbulent start the marriage settled into a happy and loving relationship.

The young Jankyn is the beardless youth with the bowl-shaped hair style, and wearing a red cloak. He stands out among the crowd of hairy, elderly men, but not above the colossus of a man leading the group of pilgrims. He is St Christopher – the Christ Bearer – who carried Jesus on his back across a raging river.

Jesus is depicted as the young man on St Christopher’s shoulder, with curled hair and looking straight ahead with his Father’s words in mind: “Let your eyes be fixed ahead, your gaze be straight before you.” (Proverbs 4 : 28)

Jesus represents the New Adam. The Original Adam (mankind) is the man on his right with eyes cast downward. (Compare this likeness to the panel dedicated to Adam in the top register of the altarpiece.) The face of the grey-haired head alongside is covered by the martyr’s red cloak and is symbolic of Christ’s saving grace for the world through his own death and resurrection.

Jan van Eyck’s two versions of Adam

St Christopher is known as the patron saint of travellers. The Wife of Bath was a pligrim. She says in her account she made visitations – to religious feasts and processions, to listen to preachers and to plays about miracles. St Christopher is also the patron saint of batchelors, which may explain why the Wife of Bath with her track record in finding husbands is featured as the only woman among the group of ageing men, and also the reference to Van Eyck’s recent marriage.

While Jesus heeds the words of his Father and fixes his eyes firmly ahead, the eyes of the young Jankyn, the apprenticed clerk, look upwards to the towering giant in front, but not in the guise of St Christopher. In this instance Jankyn is presented as Jan van Eyck himself, in awe of and apprenticed to a painter with a giant reputation who led the way before him – Roger Campin.

The colossus Campin and the smaller Jankyn (notice the rhyming association pun) are paired in another way. While Van Eyck’s reputation is renowned, – he is depicted as the Colossus of Constantine with his fringed forhead and visible ear – his stature is not as great as his teacher and a probable father-figure.

The young Jankyn matched with the Colossus Constantine displayed in Rome

However, Campin also had a reputation other than as a painter. He was a convicted adulterer. Perhaps Van Eyck is hinting that Campin, just as the Wife of Bath confessed, also had ‘a colt’s tooth’ (a euphemism for having youthful and lustful desires) – although he is not portrayed “with teeth set wide apart” that “becomes the woman so well”.

Campin is often portrayed with a turban or, in the case of the St Christopher image, just with a Bourrelet, as shown in the images below.

• More about the Pilgrims panel in my next post.

Brothers by half

Here’s another profile of Henry Beaufort that can be found in the Ghent Altarpiece. Again it’s based on the original drawing of the cardinal by Jan van Eyck, although this version presents him as a younger man with a full head of hair – and there is a reason for it being so.

This image is part of the right-hand-side group of men on the central panel. Beaufort appears distracted. His head is turned towards the edge of the frame, perhaps wistfully looking back on his past, or could his gaze be directed at the man on his left – possibly Hubert van Eyck or even another brother, Barthélemy?

If the figure in the fur hat is one of the Van Eyck family it’s likely to be Barthélemy. Here’s why.

The red hat worn by Beaufort and loose strands of hair beneath is a reference to the figure in the red coat placed on the extreme left of the group of riders in the Just Judges panel. In this instance the faceless figure is of Henry IV (Henry Bolingbroke), half-brother to Henry Beaufort through their father John of Gaunt. In his later life the English king was said to have suffered severe disfigurement, hence his hidden face as one of the judges. This would explain why Van Eyck has shown what appears to be a younger version of Beaufort in the group above. He is saying “this isn’t the cardinal but the King of England (before his disfigurement), Beaufort’s half-brother Henry Bolingbroke… see the family resemblance on his father’s side!”

This also explains why Jan Van Eyck has turned the Bolingbroke head to face the edge of the frame. He is referring to a section of the Just Judges group at the edge of the frame and the man in the fur hat inbetween the figure of Jan himself and the rider at the point of the group, John, Duke of Berry, who commissioned the Limbourg brothers to illuminate the Très Riche Heures. They were never able to complete the work, having all died with the plague in 1406. Nevertheless, work on the book continued and art historians attribute some of the pages to Barthélemy van Eyck. His relationship to Jan and Hubert van Eyck has never been established, but in this central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece Jan has possibly clarified this uncertainty in his usual cryptic style by creating this half-brother analogy.

As for the half-brother connection between Beaufort and Hubert van Eyck, the men are two of the four identities given to the figure on the white horse in the forefront of the Just Judges panel.

Could the central figure in this group from the Just Judges panel be Barthélemy van Eyck,
half-brother to Jan and Hubert van Eyck? The figure in the top right corner is a familiar  and shared profile of the Limbourg brothers in the Très Riche Heures.  Another manuscript produced for the Duke of Berry is the Turin-Milan Hours, for which some leaves are attributed to Jan and Hubert van Eyck. So is Barthélemy the ‘bridge’ between between the two manuscripts. Is Jan also saying that just as Bartélemy worked on completing the TRH following the death of the Limbourg brothers, so also he was commissioned to complete the Ghent Altarpiece following the death of his brother Hubert?

More at this link: Not Niccolò Albergati but Henry Beaufort

Images: closer to van eyck


When Van Eyck went to Winchester

Wry-smiles_900

When Jan van Eyck produced his silverpoint drawing of Henry Beaufort as preparatory work for painting the Cardinal’s portrait at a later date, did he travel to England and Winchester to do this?

It seems highly likely on the basis of several clues Jan ‘planted’ in his great work, the Ghent Altarpiece.

And was the wry smile of Henry Beaufort’s face featured in the Just Judges panel inspired by the falconer’s smile carved in this spandrel from a choir stall in Winchester Cathedral?

All the details at this link

Images: John Crook and RKD

Just Judges decide it’s Henry Beaufort, not Cardinal Niccolò Albergati

Henry-Beaufort

The sitter for this portrait painted by Jan van Eyck was identified in 1904 by the art historian James Weale as Italian cardinal Niccolò Albergati (1375 – 1443).

In more recent times there has been scholarly doubt cast on Weale’s identification, and in 1963 the Dutch art historian Josua Bruyn presented a case for identifying the portrait as Henry Beaufort (c1375-1447), Lord Chancellor of England, bishop of Winchester, and later a cardinal.

Now it can be confirmed that the man in the red gown is Henry Beaufort, and the clues are provided by Jan van Eyck himself.

Go here for details.

 

Riders in the sky

Pisces-riders_580

In my previous post I proposed that the the key to understanding the role and identities of the ten riders was to relate to them as “figures of speech”. I also mentioned Jan van Eyck’s fondness for word games.

Take the word ‘rider’. Jan implies four different meanings. The number four has a significant role in the painting and also the altarpiece as a whole – the quatrain on the outside panels is an example, as are the references to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Each rider in the Just Judges is given four identies. In The Canterbury Tales each pilgrim was requested to present four narratives.

Gold-rider-300Firstly, ‘rider’ is viewed and applied in a literal sense – someone on horseback. This links to its second meaning, the colloquial term Rider or Rijder given to the Cavalier d’or, a Flemish gold monetary unification coin issued by Philip the Good around the time the painting was produced. This extends to ‘rider’ applied in a legislative sense, as in law-making; and the fourth use sees a slight change of spelling to create the word ‘rudder’ as a steering component.

The legislative sense also references the Ten Commandments brought down from the Mount Sinai by Moses. Ten commandments to steer the people on their pilgrimage through life to the Promised Land. Ten legislative riders or ten “figures of speech’. Moses is also represented in the paintng by the French king Charles VI, the man wearing the white collar and red hat in the centre of the group. Mount Sinai is also a ‘sign’ to reference other uses of the word ‘mount’ in the painting.

The rudder or steering reference also applies to the end riders on the two wings. Not only do they flank the column but they also represent two elements of the constellation Pisces (see montage above). They are the tail (rudder) part of the two symbolic fish that form the Pisces symbol, repeating the knot symbol mentioned in the previous post. The knot is represented by the rider wearing the green hat at the point of the cavalcade. He is John, Duke of Berry, seen as a peacemaker setting out to steer and unite two cadet branches of the French royal family engaged in the conflict known as the Armagnac-Burgundian Civil War.

Pisces-graphic_980

From this we can begin to see a unification theme developing, finally manifesting in the central panel of the altarpiece; friend and foe making a “triumphant entry” towards a new Jerusalem.

This is but a brief analysis of just one narrative from Jan’s montage of many woven into the painting. There are 40 identities in total and nearly all of them inter-relate or are cross referenced.

Petrus Christus has picked up on the four meanings for the word ‘rider’ in his painting, A Goldsmith in his Shop. The tower of coins pictured above is one example. It shows a Rider or Cavalier d’or propped against the stack.

Coins-PC

Images: Closer to Van Eyck, The Met New York, London Coins, Urania’s Mirror, All the Sky

Just Judges… a slanted view

JJ-frame

Ever wondered why the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece is so named? Ever asked the question why the ten riders are considered just judges and who they may be? Ever thought that Jan van Eyck was being his usual cryptic self and playing word games – again?

Over the past couple of months I’ve spent time researching the identities of the riders, trying to understand their complex arrangement and how they connect to each other, as well as the various narratives they present and link to. There’s no doubt that Jan van Eyck has mined Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales as well as literary gems by other writers – painters, sculptors and jewellers, too.

So how does the title Just Judges fit into all of this? Is it to be understood in a literal sense? Could Jan van Eyck be making his own judgment in some way that is related to events or people featured in the painting?

A key to understanding the role and identities of the ten riders is to view them as “figures of speech”. In this way the title can be considered simply as a “figure of speech” in an ironic sense and not taken literally.

This would also suggest that Van Eyck is expressing a sense of injustice, that justice was not served correctly.

There’s a clue in the latin title painted on the frame. Compare the upright letter ‘S’ in the word JUST to the same but slanted letter in JUDGES.

Upright, as in righteous… Slant, as to maliciously or dishonestly distort or falsify.

So who is Van Eyck referring to in the painting when he points to injustice? The most obvious person is Joan of Arc, who Jan parallels with the false judgment against Christ and as a lamb led to slaughter.

Joan was condemned to death and burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. The Ghent Altarpiece had its public presentation less than a year later on May 6, 1432. Considering the painting was presented so soon after her execution, Joan’s portrayal as a lamb led to slaughter was a remarkable risk on Jan’s part, especially as the Catholic Church didn’t overturn the trial verdict and pronounce her innocence until 1456.

The slanted ‘S’ also resembles the formation of an open-ended knot. It begs the question: which is its beginning and which is its end, and a conclusion that there is no beginning and no end. It was always this way.

This motif is replicated in the Petrus Christus painting, A Goldsmith in his Shop, as is much of the iconography from the Just Judges. And, as for Van Eyck’s painting, the same question can be asked: Which is the beginning and which is the end of the knot?

It’s not wihout reason that Petrus has placed the red knot emblem on the wood counter. It serves to echo the frame where the knot is placed on the Just Judges panel. Notice also the knot clue next to the ribbon.

More insights on the Just Judges in my next post.

Petrus-knot

images: RKD and The Met, New York