Because he can

Andrea Ravo Mattoni and his mural art display in Brussels

His work has been appreciated in France, Britain and Spain, and now the Italian urban artist Andrea Ravo Mattoni is exhibiting his mural art in Belgium. It’s part of a project named “Recovery of Classicism in the Contemporary” which reproduces masterpieces from art history as mural art.

Andrea’s latest choice of great works are the Two Satyrs (1619) by Peter Paul Reubens, Portrait of Man with a Red Turban (1433) by Jan van Eyck, and the Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562) by Bruegel the Elder.

The large mural was spray-painted on a wall of the Strokar, the museum of street art in Brussels. It took eight days to complete and more than 120 cans of spray paint.

source

Jan van Eyck was here!

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, by Steve Crisp

This view of Shaftesbury’s famous Gold Hill was painted by artist Steve Crisp. It’s one of the ‘postcard’ scenes used in a wide range of jigsaws produced by Gibson Games.

It can also be said that “Jan van Eyck was here!” as he made telling references to the hill and Shaftesbury itself in the Ghent Altarpiece.

Not only that, the elevated view from Gold Hill is a pointer to the high persective position Van Eyck adopted for the five inner panels in the lower register of the Ghent Atarpiece.

Is it possible that the expansive panorama from the height of Shaftesbury inspired these viewpoints?

The elevation theme also points to Henry Beaufort, one of four identities designated by Jan to the rider on the white horse in the Just Judges panel. A second identity is Jan’s brother Hubert who died in 1426, coincidently, the same year Henry Beaufort was elevated to the rank of Cardinal by Pope Martin V.

Could it be that Jan van Eyck was in England that same year, commissioned to paint the Cardinal’s portrait?

Canterbury, Cirencester and Wells are other English towns referenced in the Ghent Altarpiece. All were popular pilgrimage destinations at the time. It is known that Jan was sent on pilgrimage on behalf of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good. The ducal accounts show in August 1426 that Jan was paid for a pilgrimage he made in lieu of the duke, but the destination is not recorded.

Earlier that year, on March 12, Henry Beaufort was forced to resign as Lord Chancellor of England. Two months later he was created Cardinal on May 24. The Ghent Altarpiece reveals that Van Eyck was in Shaftesbury the same month. Could it be that it was around this time that Van Eyck painted Beaufort’s portrait, not in his cardinal’s robes which were presented to him in Calais the following year, but in a red ‘woolsack’, a sort of symbolic ‘sackcloth’ to acknowledge his faults while Lord Chancellor?

It’s interesting to note that the sleeves of the robe are shaped as donkey’s ears, the humble donkey on which Jesus entered Jerusalem. It was around this time that Beaufort had expressed a desire to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But the ‘ears’ also probably point to Beaufort’s reputation of stubbornness and refusal to always listen. It’s not without reason that Van Eyck depicted Beaufort as one of the Just Judges with his ears covered! In the portrait painting he is shown with his hair razored and shorn – a sign of repentance – and prepared to listen with his ear uncovered. The donkey’s ears also show up in the pattern of the gown of St Cecilia depicted in the Musical Angels panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

Image: Steve Crisp

A jigsaw for Christmas

It’s the time of year when jigsaw puzzles, in a variety of subjects, sizes and complexity are popular gifts among families.

Engraver and cartographer John Spilsbury is credited with making the first jigsaw puzzles in 1760. He mounted maps of Europe on a wood backing, cut around the national boundaries and called them “Dissected Maps”.

The Ghent Altarpiece can be likened to a “disected map”. It has 24 pieces which fit together front and back, akin to a double-sided “jigsaw”. Simple enough. What is more testing, and has been for six centuries, is piecing together the iconography in each panel.

The Just Judges panel is probably the most complex, but if viewed as individual jigsaw pieces it starts to make sense. Each piece (or rider) has four interlocking attributes to allow four other pieces to fit. If only one attribute fits and not the others, then a wrong identification is the result. It’s Van Eyck’s way of confirming the identity of the riders. The puzzle can also be likened to a visual crossword. The clues are cryptic and often a play on words.

Coincidently, the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly the Just Judges panel, also highlights locations and national boundaries. Then there are the more obvious boundary references: heaven and earth, life and death.

The marriage of Cardinal Henry Beaufort’s illegitimate daughter

A Goldsmith in his Shop, Petrus Christus 1449, Oil on oak panel
Robert Lehman Collection, 1975, Met Museum, New York

Further investigation of The Goldsmith in his Shop by Petrus Christus leads me to advocate a new scenario for this painting, and one which relates to Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. It introduces three new identities not mentioned in my earlier presentation.

The first is Jan van Eyck, the gentleman central in the frame; the second is Joan/Jean Beaufort, illegitimate daughter of Henry Beaufort; the third is Edward Stradling, the man chosen by Henry Beaufort (represented by the goldsmith) as a husband for his daughter. Stradling is represented in the guise of Jan van Eyck who referred to the marriage in the Ghent Altarpiece.

Just as van Eyck used several identies for each rider in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, so Petrus has done likewise.

Genealogists identify Jean’s mother as Alice Fitzalan, whose husband John Cherleton died in 1401. But Jan van Eyck knew different and both the Ghent Altarpiece and the Petrus painting identify the mother as someone other than Alice.

Hope to reveal all in the New Year!

Loving angels

The logo created by the Oval Office for the campaign OMG! VAN EYCK WAS HERE

It is said that “every picture tells a story”. The profile image for the “OMG Van Eyck was here” campaign, features one of the “Singing Angels” from the Ghent Altarpiece. The campaign was conceived and developed by The Oval Office, a Belgian live communication agency.

There is a remarkable story associated with this particular “angel”, the lead singer in the choir of eight angels. At one level it represents Gabriel, the angel of the Annunciation. But this is an angel without wings – on an earthly level, a female chorister who perhaps had the voice of an angel? She is portrayed with an expression of innocence, wide-eyed and with a wide-open mouth – a look of amazement, perhaps? For sure, she stands out from the other angels in the group.

This lead chorister also has a place in the “Musical Angels” panel, but her expression is quite different. She’s the “angel” holding the viola, but no longer singing and wide-eyed. Instead, her lips are sealed; she seems downcast; her glow and freshness has disappeared. Is she blind, as the seated angel is, and as the other “angels” appear to be?

She is also portrayed as one of the women in the Hermits panel. This is not without significance as very little is known about the woman’s life in the wake of the tragic events which occured early in her marriage.

It is also quite possible that this “angel” met with Jan van Eyck on one of his visits to England. She may even have proclaimed at the time: “OMG! Van Eyck is here.”

More on this and the “angel’s” identity in a future post.

Ghent prepares to honour Van Eyck

In 2020, Ghent is honouring its great Flemish Master with the prestigious and innovative exhibition ‘Van Eyck. An optical revolution’ at the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK), which will allow you to admire not only the restored outer panels of the Ghent Altarpiece in more detail than ever before, but also many other works by Van Eyck that will be travelling to Ghent for the first time. What’s more, the entire Ghent Altarpiece will be displayed at the brand-new visitors’ centre at St Bavo’s Cathedral from June 2020 onwards, where you can travel through its history by means of virtual reality.

Full details HERE

Jan van Eyck… another sighting

The 13th Station of the Cross, Jesus is taken down from his Cross. Frans de Vriendt

Frans de Vriendt (1829-1919) was a sculptor who lived and worked in Borgerhout, Belgium, making monumental statues in stone, bronze or wood. He also produced bas reliefs. The example above is one of a set of 14 Stations of the Cross he produced for churches in Belgium, England, France and Holland. He also taught at the Acadamy of Fine Arts in Antwerp.

There is no doubt it was the series of Stations in the Antwerp Cathedral of Our Lady that inspired De Vriendt to create his own set as he copied some of the features. The Antwerp stations were painted by Louis Hendrix and Frans Vinck between 1864 and 1868. It wasn’t long after that De Vriendt began producing his own bas-relief versions.

Below is the 13th Station – Jesus is taken down from his Cross – attributed to Louis Hendrix. The general scene and composition of the central figures is typical. However, there are a couple of figures in the Hendrix version, one of which is repeated in de Vriendt’s panel, that command closer inspection.

Antwerp Cathedral, 13th Station, Jesus is taken down from his Cross, Louis Hendrix

In the Hendrix panel, the figure on the right edge of the frame clasping the jar of oil is meant to be Jan van Eyck, an early master of oil painting. In the bas-relief the figure of Jan is transferred to the left edge and the jar of oil passed to the man alongside. Nicodemus is portrayed with his head is turned towards Jan in acknowledgement.

If there is any uncertainty that the Hendrix figure isn’t Jan, then compare it to the Sybil in red and black, portrayed at the right edge of the frame in Van Eyck’s Crucifixion painting and its deposition scene.

Jan van Eyck, The Crucifixion, Met Museum, New York

The other figure in the Hendrix panel referred to earlier is the man on the left of the frame holding the Crown of Thorns. This is likely to be Jan’s brother Hubert. His yellow cape and grip on the thorns define him as a goldfinch, a sign of Christ’s passion and Resurrection. It may also link to the quatrain on the Ghent Altarpiece in which Jan acknowledged his brother as greater than himself, and therefore deserving of Christ’s crown.

Across the divide

Mantegna’s two panels reunited at London’s National Gallery… Image by Accademia Carrara, Bergamo… read the review by BBC’s art Editor Will Gompertz

The tip of a cross was a clue that recently helped bring together two Mantegna paintings. It appears at the base of The Resurrection of Christ and matches the cross cropped at the top of the frame in The Descent of Christ into Limbo. Both panels were reunited this week as part of the Mantegna and Bellini exhibition at the National Gallery in London.

A similar “crossover” occurs in the Ghent Altarpiece and also provides an important clue in uniting two paintings and, in particular, contesting an attribution to the main subject in one of them.

In previous posts I pointed out that the Just Judges panel and other parts of the Ghent Altarpiece form the basis of the painting A Goldsmith in his Shop, produced by Petrus Christus in 1449 and now exhibted in the Met Museum, New York.

The goldsmith was long considered to be St Eligius, patron saint of goldsmiths, partly because of a halo placed behind the seated figure in red. However, in 1998 the Dutch art historian Hugo van der Velden wrote:

Petrus Christus’s goldsmith used to be haloed, but in 1993, his aura was removed as a later addition at the museum’s conservation department, its authenticity had been doubted for decades. With his halo, the main protagonist of the painting was robbed of the only attribute that characterised him as a saint. Despite this desanctafication, the traditional identification of St Eloy has been challenged in only one of the publications that have since appeared. Lorne Campbell, in his review of the New York Petrus Christus exhibition, concluded that “there is no compelling reason to believe that the goldsmith is Eligius.”

Defrocking St Eloy: Petrus Christus’s Vocational portrait of a goldsmith

Two years ago, I demonstrated that the figure was indeed meant to be St Eligius – Resurrecting St Eligius. In fact, Petrus had given the man more than one identity, similar to the way Jan van Eyck had done with the ten riders in the Just Judges panel.

The ‘severed’ horse’s leg… a reference to both St Eligius and the biblical prophet Elijah.

One of the more distinct attributes associated with Eligius, often featured in paintings of the saint, is the legend of shoeing a reluctant horse said to have been possessed by demons. To solve the problem Eligius cut off one of the horse’s legs and left the animal standing on three. After Eligius had re-shod the hoof on the amputated leg he proceeded to miraculously attach it back on the horse!

So where in the Ghent Altarpiece does Petrus pick up on the severed leg and and make the connection to St Eligius (Elijah)? It appears in the bottom right corner of the Just Judges panel. Van Eyck also used this motif to make a connection to the prophet Elijah who is featured elsewhere in the altarpiece.

Two become one

Two panels of a single painting by the Renaissance master Andrea Mantegna are reunited for the first time in as much as 500 years at the National Gallery in London this week. The pair was unveiled together to the public on 6 December in the exhibition Mantegna and Bellini (until 27 January 2019).

Full story at The Art Newspaper

Andrea Mantegna’s painting The Resurrection of Christ above The Descent of Christ into Limbo (both around 1492) © The National Gallery, London

The three kings

Each rider in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece has four identities. In this instance Jan van Eyck has grouped three English kings – Henry IV, Henry V and Richard II – to reference the Epiphany and link to a life-changing event featured in the Singing Angels panel.

Look to Henry V and his single-hump hat for the camel or dromedary reference. This also links to the rider on his left in the guise of René, Count of Piedmont, who kept a camel in his menagerie.

Lookalike riders

John Lydgate and the Canterbury pilgrims leaving Canterbury… miniature from a manuscript containing The Troy Book and The Siege of Thebes, c. 1455–62. © The British Library Board.

Can’t help but sense that the artist who produced this illustration for John Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes (with references to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales) was probably inspired by Jan van Eyck’s Just Judges panel.

The two central riders, the bearded rider on the right, and the white horse, are all modelled on figures from the Just Judges.

The British LIbrary attributes the illustration to probably Lucas Horenbout, son of the Ghent artist Gerard Horenbout (c 1465 – c 1541), who later moved with his family to work in England.

Just Judges, Ghent Altarpiece, source: closertovaneyck

Matching numbers

There are 24 panels in the Ghent Altarpiece. There are 24 stories in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, some of which are alluded to in the altarpiece.

Coincidence, or intended at the planning stage when Hubert van Eyck was commissioned by the Ghent mayor Jodocus Vijd to produce the work?

The number four is the common denominator for most of the numeric references in the Ghent Altarpiece.

Underground music

There was a news item published last week about scientists in Wales looking at how slag heaps can be used to remove CO2 from the air in the fight against climate change.

It caught my attention – but not for the most obvious reason. Slag, the waste left over from old ironworks, features in one of the panels in the Ghent Altarpiece, the Musical Angels (Praise with Strings and Organ).

It’s represented in the black blooms featured on the organist’s gown. The organ doubles up for a bloomery, an early type of furnace used for smeting iron, a by-product of which would be steel, hence the shiny steel organ pipes.

A close look at the left edge of the picture frame reveals a fiery figure and what appears to be a set of bellows, pumping air into the furnace and at the same time into the organ. The furnance dust and smoke has seemingly dulled the garments of the other ‘angels’ when, compared to the vivid colours of the ‘angels’ in the opposite panel.

Van Eyck makes another point by weaving the black blooms with expensive gold cloth. So from bloom he rhymes to ‘loom’ and the steel pipes now become the warp while the angel wefts her way across the keyboard, the outcome being the dark and shiny garment ‘drop’ from the loom onto the tiled floor.

As part of the musical narrative Van Eyck switches focus to mythology and the competition between Pan and Apollo as to who was the best musician, Pan on his pipes or Apollo on his lyre. The mountain god Tmolus was the judge. Also present was King Midas, now a follower of Pan. Tmolus judged Apollo the winner. He can be recognised in the painting as the angel holding the lyre and touching Apollo on the shoulder. Notice also the bovine shape of the lyre and its two horns – pointers to the death suffered by Tmolu after being gored by a bull.

King Midas disagreed with Tmolu’s decision and questioned the judgment. Apollo responded by declaring that Midas “must have the ears of an ass!” and with that the king’s ears turned into those of a donkey. The donkey’s ears are featured in gold below the organist’s shoulder. Everything that Midas touched, even his ears, turned to gold. But why did Van Eyck depict Tmolus holding the lyre and not Apollo? What made him want to switch the instruments in this way? He had his reasons, which I shall explain in another post.

At surface level the organ-playing ‘angel’ represents St Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. Jan has also portrayed her as being blind. This is a pointer to another chapter from Chaucer’s The Canterbury TalesThe Second Nun’s Tale – which relates the story of St Cecilia and how she was able, with faith in God, to see beyond the ‘material’ world.

Much more on the Musical Angels panel and identifying the angels in a future post.

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Images: closertovaneyck