A very rich duke and his bear

The above image is detail from the January folio of the Calendar section that forms part of the Très Riche Heures manuscript. It shows John duke of Berry hosting a New Year banquet where gifts are exchanged between the host and his guests.

This particular panel of the folio was probably painted by Pol Limbourg, one of three brothers the duke commissioned in 1410 to produce the manuscript. The artist has cleverly embedded features that serve several narratives and themes. The duke of Berry figure is an example.

He is portrayed seated at a banquet table, wrapped in a fur-lined blue gown, wearing a large fur hat and a chain around his neck. Fifteenth century castles and mansions could be cold places in winter time, even when sat in front of a blazing fire.

The colour of the duke’s gown is said to emphasise his connection to the French court. In his time John was a son of a French king, a brother to another, and an uncle to a third. But close inspection of his gown shows that the gold pattern is not the fleur-de-lys, but represents something more personal in his life – a bear. The motif is a pawprint.

The duke of Berry kept several bears in his menagerie but was attracted to one in particular; a small bear became his companion in his later years and is even depicted chained and resting at the feet of the duke on his tomb effigy.

Along with the swan, the bear was also adopted by John as one of his heraldic devices or emblems.

Pol Limbourg has also portrayed the duke of Berry with claws as hands, resting on the banquet table, and to his left there’s a bear placed on the bridge of the gold, boat-shaped, serving dish. There’s an interesting contrast on the duke’s tomb sculpted by Jean de Cambrai where one of the bear’s paws is depicted as a human hand (see image below).

Notice the bear’s human-like front paw… a nod by the sculptor to Pol Limbourg’s miniature.

Back to the minature and between the duke’s hands (claws) is a glove. It also has a bear connection but not to the one associated with the duke, which I will explain in a future post.

Another bear reference is the pole behind the duke’s back which, in this instance, can be considered as a “scratch-pole”. It also has other connotations, notably as a reference to Pol Limbourg, the figure portrayed behind the duke of Berry. The scratch-pole, or “back-scratcher”, is symbolic of mutual benefit, but conditional, even extending to the custom of exchanging gifts at the New Year banquet. It also points to the biblical passage in Luke’s gospel and the advice given when inviting guests to dinner (14 : 12-14).

The pole may also be a pointer to the banquet’s venue – the Hôtel de Pol in Paris, one of many residences belonging to the duke, and one where he died in 1416.

Earlier, I mentioned the exchange of gifts. In the past the Duke of Berry had been given a special gift by his brother, the French king Charles V. It was a thorn from the crown of thorns associated with the passion of Jesus and which Charles had obtained and kept in the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. A reliquary was made to house and display the Holy Thorn mounted upright on a sapphire stone. The reliquary and thorn is now in the British Museum. The duke’s blue gown represents the sapphire, and his hat is portrayed not as fur, but as a crown of thorns.

The Holy Thorn Requilary and a close-up of the thorn and sapphire. © British Museum

Finally, the artist Pol Limbourg may also have had in mind one of Aesop’s Fables when he linked references to the thorn and the bear – The Hermit and the Bear.

The Hermit had extracted a thorn from the bear’s foot. The animal was more than grateful and offered to serve the Hermit from thereon. The Hermit accept the Bear’s offer and they passed the time in friendship. Then one day as the Hermit slept the Bear noticed a fly had settled on the man’s nose. In his effort to swat the fly the bear came down heavy with his paw and crushed the Hermit’s nose in the process. The Hermit concluded he would rather have a dozen flies settle on his nose that to suffer the pain and discomfort of the Bear attempting to protect him in this way.

How this applies to John duke of Berry may refer to his role as Regent, first when Charles VI was a minor, and again at the time when the king began to suffer attacks of insanity. Could it be said the duke may have been over-protective at times during his role as Regent?

A more visual connection is that John did not share the sharp or long nose featues of his father John, or three brothers, Charles, Louis and Philip. His nose was rather fleshy and stubby in comparison, as shown on his tomb effigy. No flies on Pol Limbourg!

The head of Jean duke of Berry from his tomb at Bourges Cathedral

The Pearl Poet… another sighting

Jan van Eyck was not the first artist to point out the name of the Pearl Poet when he painted the Ghent Altarpiece completed in 1432. An earlier work exists where the poet is referenced and identified. Sir Hugh Stafford, earl of Stafford, is illuminated front of stage in a manuscript attributed to the Limbourg brothers.

Detail from the month of January, Très Riche Heures de Duc de Berry, Condé Museum, Oise.

The folio forms part of the Calendar section in the Très Riche Heures, a ‘book of hours’ commissioned by John, duke of Berry, and produced in part by the Limbourg brothers between 1412 and 1416. The three brothers and the duke, possible victims of the plague, all died in in the same year of 1416. The Très Riche Heures was added to and completed by other artists at later stages during the 15th century.

The above illustration shows detail from the folio depicting the month of January, where a gathering of nobles are said to be celebrating New Year and exchanging gifts. The duke of Berry is the man seated at the table wearing a fur hat. However the scene is not as simple as its seems. In fact, it’s detail was the basis for Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, particularly the Just Judges panel. There is no doubt that Jan was inspired by this minature and adopted many of its references, particularly to the Pearl Poet, and perhaps as a tribute to the Limbourg brothers.

Sir Hugh Stafford, aka the Pearl Poet, is the figure standing in the forefront alongside the man in green who is carving the meat.

I shall publish more details on this at another time.

More on the Pearl Poet’s identity

So what else is there that can help identify Sir Hugh, the earl of Stafford, as the Pearl Poet? His title for starters.

In Old English the thorn letter þ was used for the digram th. The thorn resembles a letter p. Placed ahead of the word earl we arrive at a new ‘title’ for Sir Hugh Stafford – Pearl (Poet)

Van Eyck made use of this visual pun in the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece when he pointed to the lead figure in the group as Sir Hugh. He placed a thorn bush above the man’s head – a representation of Christ’s crown of thorns – “on his head a helmet of salvation” (Isaiah 59:17), and also a pointer to the holly or holy twig carried by the Green Knight who was described as having “a beard as big as a bush”.

The knight was also described as having his arms covered “in the manner of a king’s hood” (capados). Here an oversized red cape cover’s the man’s arms – arms in the sense of a shield of protection and another pointer to the apocalypse passage by Isaiah: “He put vengeance on lke a tunic and wrapped himself in ardour like a cloak” – red being the colour of ardour or passion – passion in the sense of love and purity being put to the test, as in Lady Bertilak’s amorous approaches to Gawain represented by the pearl white berries which can be interpreted as mistletoe, collected and hung over doorways and in houses at Christmas time. Here Van Eyck is pointing to the Christmas tradition of kissing under the mistletoe and the three kisses Lady Bertilek gave to Gawain. Mistletoe can also be recognised as a forbidden fruit, its toxcity is posionous and known to cause death. Alternatively, the white berries can be viewed as those from a myrtle tree replacing the ‘crown of thorns’ as prophesied by Isaiah (55:13) in the conclusion of the Book of Consolation: “Cypress will grow instead of thorns, myrtle instead of briars, and this will make Yaweh famous, a sign forever, ineffaceable.”

Speaking of death, the head ‘attached’ to the right shoulder of the figure in red is John the Baptist, decapitated on the orders of Herod Antipas. John once sent disciples to ask Jesus if he was the true Messiah (Christ). In the detail above John is shown “staring hard” at the right hand of the cloaked figure. The composition is a reference to the sweat cloth (sudarium) that shows a true image (vera icon) of Christ’s face and which “was made without hand” – Acheiropoietaand ineffaceable. Notice the sweat band on the man’s head. Notice also the forefinger of the figure’s left hand pointing to his covered hand. The index and long fingers are crossed – a variation of the first letter of the Greek alphabet Alpha. The index finger and thumb form the last letter of the Greek alphabet Omega. The combination of three digits also points to the Book of Revelation when Jesus proclaimed three times that he is the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. The number three forms part of the numerology theme in the Pearl Poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And it was on the third day of his entombment that Jesus was resurrected. The Resurrection theme is one of the links to the next panel and the Patience poem which highlights the story of Jonah being in the belly of a whale for three days.

The Terminus boundary marker and the buried head in the sand, possibly of John the Baptist.

Another ‘transition’ feature in the Pilgrims panel that marks out Hugh Stafford is the weathered stone placed at the edge of the frame by his right foot. I explained in a previous post, The Great and the Small, that this was a boundary marker associated with Roman times and dedicated to the deity Terminus. The earl of Stafford died on the island of Rhodes, some say while on his way to Jerusalem, other sources say he died on his return journey. Whatever direction he was facing, the Terminus stone is there to indicate his end of life as he was about to make his crossing from the island of Rhodes, either to his home in England or on his onward journey to Jerusalem. Either way, his continued journey would take him to a ‘New Jerusalem’. During his illness at Rhodes Sir Hugh was taken care of by the Knights Hospitaller (Order of Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem). Was Hugh himself a knight of the Order? Possibly. Van Eyck has clothed him in the colour of the Order’s flag, which was predominately red, bearing a white cross.

Although Hugh’s life ended in Rhodes, his squire brought the body (or at least the bones) back to England to be entombed alongside his wife Philippa Beauchamp who had died a few months earlier. Both Hugh and his wife were entombed at STONE Priory in Staffordshire less than ten miles from Hugh’s castle outside the town of Stafford. Hence another reason why Van Eyck placed a Terminus, a headstone, at the feet of Sir Hugh. After dying at Rhodes his body was translated to a tomb ‘carved out of Stone’. See how the giant figure of Hugh is about to step out of the frame (his box) to the next panel which features the hermits stepping out from their desert cave and the figurative ‘belly of the whale’ as explained by the Pearl Poet in his poem titled Patience.

Yet another visual pointer and pun by Van Eyck to Sir Hugh’s presence makes a direct reference to his name: Hugh (Huge) Staff (or stave) Ford (as in crossing to the other side), and woven into another identity Van Eyck has given the figure – St Christopher.

More on this panel and how it directly links with a specific passage of text in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight in my next post.

A poet (and painter) of great value

Detail from the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece

Gawain gazed on the gallant that goodly him greet,
and thought him a brave baron that the burg owned,
a huge man in truth, and mature in his years;
broad, bright was his beard and all beaver-hued,
stern, striding strongly on stalwart shanks
,
face fell as the fire, and free of his speech;
and well he seemed to suit, as the knight thought,
the leading a lordship, along of lords full good.

Poetry in Translation

The Gawain Poet, author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and three other poems: Pearl, Patience and Cleanness, had been in his tomb about 45 years before his ghostly presence showed up in the Ghent Altarpiece painted by Jan and Hubert van Eyck. Neither brother had ever set eyes on the mysterious poet, but Jan was certainly acquainted with his work and his name, as he was with the names and poems of the two other contemporary poets referred to in the altarpiece.

Detail from the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece

Whlle researchers have never conclusively agreed on the identity of the Gawain Poet, Jan van Eyck has threaded cryptic clues in the altarpiece which keep pointing to one name in particular. Follow the trail and it keeps leading back to the start – an endless knot, so to speak.

In the Just Judges panel each of the ten riders has four identities. This also happens with some of the other figures in the narrow panels of the lower register. For example, the St Christopher figure (above) in the red cloak is draped with three more identities, one of whom is the so-called Pearl Poet. The other two are Constantine the Great and the artist Robert Campin, considered the first ‘great’ master of Flemish and early Netherlandish painting.

The Pearl Poet also shows up in two other panels of the Ghent Altarpiece but in different guises, and there are references to his work in all of the panels on the lower register when opened and in the closed section of the altarpiece.

The Pearl or Gawain Poet was indeed a man from the West Midlands, UK –
HUGH STAFFORD, 2nd earl of Stafford, KG, c 1342 – October 13, 1386

My next post will start to illustrate some of the iconography in the Ghent Altarpiece that identifies with the Pearl Poet and Van Eyck revealing him as Hugh Stafford.

The Pearl / Gawain Poet in Ghent

Detail from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. British Library.

I mentioned in my previous post that I’ve been taking a fresh look at the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly the five lower register panels when opened.

The four outer panels on the lower register – Just Judges, Knight of Christ, Hermits and Pilgrims – depict four groups of society making their way through life (pilgrimage) towards a New Jerusalem, the focus of the centre panel, Adoration of the Lamb of God.

The four panels also point to four poems written annonymously and who medievalist scholars refer to as the Pearl Poet, or Gawain Poet.

Four lower-register panels of the Ghent Altarpiece… lambic links to the Lamb of God

Without going into any detail at this stage we can rename the panels with the poem titles:

PEARL – for Just Judges
SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT – for Knights of Christ
PATIENCE – for Hermits
CLEANNESS – for Pilgrims

Some of the connections will seem pretty. obvious, but I’ll explain at another time the iconography that links to the titles, probably a post for each panel.

And, yes, I now know the name of the elusive Pearl Poet according to Jan van Eyck, and his reason for revealing him in the Ghent Altarpiece – which was not just solely to connect to the poetry narrative embedded in the painting.

Two other poets of the period, Geoffrey Chaucer and Thomas Hoccleve, are also referenced in the altarpiece.

The great and the small

Lately, I’ve been taking a fresh look at the Ghent Altarpiece (or the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) and have discovered three versions of John the Baptist. He is depicted on the top register as John the Baptist Enthroned (left) and also as one of the Hermits in the lower register (centre), standing alongside St Anthony the Great. His third appearance is next to the colossus figure of St Christopher on the adjacent Pilgrims panel (right).

John the Baptist enthroned in glory… in certainty… and in doubt.

It was John the Baptist who pointed out Jesus as the Lamb of God. He stared hard at him as he passed and said to two of his disciples: “Look, there is the lamb of God.” (John 1 : 36).

The left foot points to temptation – the right foot to the Lamb of God and saving grace.

On the Hermits panel at the feet of the Baptist and his companion Anthony the Great alongside him there is a representation of a sacrificial lamb outlined on the stony ground. St Anthony’s right foot steps on it. Poets out there should consider this symbolism as a ”lambic foot”. On the chest of St Anthony is the outline of a Tau cross, symbol of the Hospital Brothers of St Anthony, a congregation founded late in the 11th century.

Anthony’s comfortable-looking footwear is something special. Are the uppers made of lambskin? Their soft, silvery appearance, along with Anthony’s ‘pruned’ walking stick, point to a folded clip of silver lying on the ground. This is a variation on the story associated with the saint when he went into the desert and the devil attempted to distract him by placing silver in his path. The placing of the Baptist a step back from St Anthony the Great is a pointer to John’s discussion with his followers when he said: “He [Jesus] must grow greater, I must grow smaller.” (John 3 : 30).

St Christopher assisting pilgrims (and Christ) in making the crossing to the New Jerusalem.

The great and the small theme carries through to the next panel. The colossal figure is probably better recognised as St Christopher, patron saint of travellers. Looking somewhat uncertain, John the Baptist is the man again positioned a step behind the leader – Christopher, which means Christ-bearer, and so named because of the legend that he carried a child on his back across a river who revealed himself to be Christ (Annointed One). When John was in prison he became uncertain about Jesus and so sent two of his disciples to question him and ask, “Are you the one who is to come?” ( the Christ).

The Terminus boundary marker and the buried head in the sand, possibly of John the Baptist.

The weather-worn headstone at St Christopher’s right foot can be viewed as a boundary marker, a crossing point, particularly in its position at the edge of the frame. It can also be understood as the separation point between the Old and the New Testaments represented by John the Baptist as the last OT prophet and Jesus as the NT prophet. In Roman times boundary markers were dedicated to the god Terminus. The headstone also points to the decollation of John the Baptist on the orders of the pagan ruler Herod Antipas. Could that be the outline of the Baptist’s head buried in the sand – a motif similar to the lamb outline on the ground seen in the Hermits panel? For certain the stone is meant to connect to the huge sculpted head of Constantine the Great who converted to Christianity on his deathbed – his terminus). The stone is still on display in Rome today. The head of the young man at the rear of the group is based on the Constantine sculpture. One of the identities given to this figure by Jan van Eyck is himself!

Three heads… Terminus, Constantine the Great, and a young but growing Jan van Eyck.

The Pilgrims scene has figures that represent the major pilgrimage sites of the day: Rome, Canterbury, Santiago Compostella and Jerusalem.

Ligatures and letters

Last year, I posted information on my website explaining how Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait relates to the linen burial cloth known as the Turin Shroud, and two illustrations depicting the deposition and resurrection of Jesus that appear in the Pray Codex, a Hungarian manuscript produced between 1192 and 1195.

In the section Ligatures and Letters, I pointed to two blood flows on the forehead of the figure on the Shroud, one above the right eye, usually described as a reversed number three or the Greek epsilon (e); the other on the left temple shaped as the Greek lamda (l) (λ). Van Eyck, noted for his word play and the visual puns in his paintings, would not have unnoticed the connection between these two letters and its significance to the claim that the Shroud is the burial cloth of Jesus. Brought together as a typographical ligature, the letters become EL the biblical word meaning GOD. I pointed out that this ligature also appeared in the Pray Codex but at the time didn’t pick up on how Van Eyck had embedded the ligature in the Arnolfini Portrait. Now I can reveal this.

The lamda is the pair of pattens pointing to the edge of the left frame; the epsilon is the white edging of the woman’s green gown (but not the white hem part on the floor –that’s another story!). Brought together they form the word LE – Spanish for ‘the’ and a pointer to the woman in the painting, Isabella of Portugal. However, Van Eyck invites the viewer to take one step further and use the mirror placed prominently on the back wall of the room to reflect the scene. Now the letters form the word EL as seen on the Shroud.

And if we are still not sure, then Van Eyck provides a further link to the Shroud. See how the patten shoes or clogs in the bottom corner of the painting conform to the shape of a ‘shrouded’ body, as if wooden dolls or even idols, the straps and buckle representing folded arms and pierced hands. A closer inspection of the clog’s heel nearest the corner of the frame reveals an image representing the face of Jesus. It is a biblical reference pointing to the verse found in the Book of Genesis (3 :15) where Yahweh tells the serpent that the woman’s offspring (Jesus) would crush its head and the serpent would strike (bruise) the offspring’s heel, a prophecy foretelling the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Notice also the dog – an early breed of the Smouje – is also brought to heel. Art historians generally view the dog as a symbol of faithfulness and obedience.

I sense the Shroud’s EL feature had a big impact on Jan can Eyck because he refers to this in some of his other paintings. More on this in a future post.