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.