Of Duchys, Kingdoms and Empires

This clip from the Monforte Altarpiece shows Maximilian I, husband of Mary of Burgundy. They were married in 1477. Maximillian was later crowned King of the Romans (1486), became Archduke of Austria in 1493, and proclaimed Holy Roman Emperor in 1508.

He is depicted kneeling at the side of Casper, one of the three adoring Magi painted by Hugo van der Goes. The figure of Casper is also assigned four other identities: the artist himself; St Jerome; St James the Greater; and Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor and father of Maximilian I.

Hugo has deliberately created uncertainty as to which of the two figures is receiving the chalice. Both have a hand on the vessel. Is it the son Maximilian serving his father Frederick, or is it symbolic of a transference of power, which can also be employed in a religious sense, from Father to Son?

Furthermore, the transaction relates to the time when Hugo van der Goes was a lay brother at the Rood Klooster, an Augustinian priory, where he was allowed to continue his work as a painter. Many notable personages would visit the priory in Brabant, one being Maximilian I who, in 1478, met with Hugo and presented him with a gift of expensive wine (perhaps for one of his paintings). So in this scenario the standing figure receiving the “wine mixed with myrrh” from Maximilian is Hugo van der Goes. The mix of wine with myrrh is a biblical refrence to when Jesus was offered the drink while he was on the cross (Mark 20:23), and probably a reference to the mental anguish suffered by Hugo in his later life.

It’s at this point that a third identity for Casper is introduced – that of St James the Greater, a son of Zebedee and brother to John “the beloved disciple”. St James is the patron saint of Compostella, the pilgrimage shrine in Spain. Monforte de Lemos was once a base for the Order of Hospitallers of St John that served and accommodated pilgrims on their way to Santiago Compostella.

It was Salome, the mother of James and John, who requested Jesus to grant her two sons seats either side of him in heaven. Jesus responded: “Can they drink the cup that I am going to drink”, that is the bitter cup of “wine mixed with myrrh”. The brother’s responded that they could but Jesus explained that the places were not his to give but for those his Father had prepared them for. A close inspection of the stem of the chalice shows two cartouches in the style of Egyptian hieroglyphics. There are several other Egyptian references made in the painting. Oval cartouches with a line underneath are symbols inscribed with the names of royal kings. In this instance, there are no inscriptions to reveal any identity. The containers or places have been prepared but have yet to be filled.

Another reference to the Father and Son relationship is the sculpted profile formed by the four-finger grip in the chalice stem. It is meant to suggest a reflection of Maximilian’s profile, like father, like son, or in biblical terms, the repsonse given by Jesus to Philip: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

Image courtesy of The Knight Shop

The profile and Maximilian gazing at the chalice combine to make another point, the Archduke of Austria’s fascination with suited armour. The “fluting” on the stem of the chalice is associated with a style of plating favoured by Maximilian that later became known as “Maximilian armour”. While the fluted armour was designed as a feature to deflect pointed weapons, helmets were equiped with visors shaped as bellows, similar to the finger formation gripping the chalice. Visor as in visage echoes the earlier reference to seeing the Father in Jesus as well as facing up to death – and drinking from the cup of salvation.

The fourth identity given to Casper is St Jerome, one of the Four Doctors of the Church. An attribute depicted in paintings of St Jerome is a lion. In this showing a lion features in the fur trim of the black coat. However, Maximilian is also portrayed as a lion. He has a gold mane and his profile is meant to depict a golden lion – the heraldic symbol of the Duchy of Brabant.

There is more iconography that connects to the four identities but links to other features in the painting.

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