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.