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.

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