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,

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