This is an update to an earlier post of the same name and a follow-on to the post I made a few days ago about the identity of the Pearl Poet.
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’s a 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.
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.
The ‘Jankyn’ figure of the youth in red introduces another theme in the panel – that of family. Firstly it points to the head above him as being Van Eyck’s brother, Hubert (a similar motif of the brothers appears on the centre panel of the altarpiece), echoing the dedication Jan recorded on the frame of the painting, that his brother Hugh was greater than himself. It was Hugh who was first commissioned to produce the altarpiece. Jan completed the work following his brother’s death in 1426.
Another family pairing is is that of Jesus and “the Lord’s brother” James (the Just). Jesus is also matched in appearance with his cousin John the Baptist, and placed at St Christopher’s shoulder with James beside him.