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.
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.
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.