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