Riders in the sky


In my previous post I proposed that 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 is 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 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.


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 below is one example. It shows a Rider or Cavalier d’or propped against the stack.


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