This detail from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures has an end-of-the-year significance. It features Jean, duke of Berry hosting a New Year’s Eve banquet. Already mentioned in a previous post, it highlights the duke and his association with bears – his hands are portrayed as bear claws and his robe is impressed with a bear-paw pattern.
But the artist has alluded to another representation of the duke – as Janus, the Roman god of transitions and time. Janus (from which the word January derives) is usually depicted with back-to-back heads, looking to the past and to the future. But in this instance we see only one, the duke’s head looking left.
The Janus clue comes from one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – the Franklin’s Tale – line 1252 which reads: “Janus sits by the fire with a double beard”. The artist is using a play on the word ‘beard’. He has shortened ‘beard’ to mean ‘bear’. The second bear is the one seen on the gold ‘nef’ on the duke’s left and looking in the opposite direction to the ‘franklin’ sat in front of a firescreen.
Why the line from Chaucer? Because it connects to the poet and other writers featured elsewhere in the picture.
In this detail from the January foilo of the calendar section in the Très Riche Heures, I identified the two seated men in an earlier post as bishop William Wykeham and John duke of Berry.
The two men serving at the table are Sir Hugh Stafford, 2nd earl of Stafford (left) and John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster. The figure positioned immediaately above John of Gaunt is Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford. The approaching man with his face turned is Edward of Woodstock, known as the Black Prince.
The artist (Pol Limbourg) has linked the four figures in a unique way, referencing their association with boar-hunting.
Robert de Vere, an advisor and companion to Richard II, died of injuries suffered during a boar hunt. Edward, the Black Prince, was described by the French soldier and writer Philippe de Mézières as the greatest of the “black boars” because of his reputation for brutality. Sir Hugh Stafford, alias the ‘Pearl Poet’ and author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight provides a vivid description of a Christmastide hunt in which the Green Knight presents Sir Gawain (Stafford) with a boar, hence the animal skin draped on Stafford’s shoulder. The name of the Green Knight, Bertilak de Hautdesert, can be possibly understood as a play on words and a reference to John of Gaunt whose green tabard points to Bertilak’s appellation.
The duke of Lancaster is also shown carving meat, a duty he was honoured with at Richard ll’s coronation. The role of meat-carver is also meant to depict the slur made against John as being the son of a Ghent butcher.
A subtle transition is made by the artist to link to John duke of Berry – from boar to bear, the bear being a favourite animal of the duke. Notice his bear-claw hands and the bear-paw pattern in his gown.
The boar connection is only one of several instances of cross-referencing figures made by Pol Limbourg in the January folio.
Opinion differs among researchers as to whose head this painting represents – Jesus Christ or his forerunner John the Baptist.
Most of the speculation has centred on the hypothesis that the head depicts Jesus Christ and is associated with the image which appears on the burial cloth known as the Turin Shroud, believed by many to be the shroud that wrapped Christ in his tomb.
The panel painting, rediscovered in 1945 under the roof of a Somerset outhouse in Templecombe, is also considered by many to have a connection to the Knights Templar.
My own research leads me to believe the face on the panel is a depiction of John the Baptist, not Jesus, and its connection is to the Order of St John (Knights Hospitaller), that took over the assets of the Knights Templar when it was supressed and then disolved in 1312 by Pope Clement V.
The evidence to support my claim can be found in three early 15th century paintings:
January folio of the Calendar section in the Très Riche Heures du duc de Berry.
It’s almost three months since I last posted on the January folio of the Très Riche Heures calendar section. Here’s a little more information which ties in with yesterday’s post on the update to the restoration work carried out on the Ghent Altarpiece.
Some of the features in the Altarpiece relate to the January folio produced by Pol Limbourg. It was not unknown for Jan to incorporate elements from other paintings and reconstruct a fresh presentation.
In my previous post I made mention of the Holy Face feature in the sleeve of Henry Beaufort, one of the riders in the Ghent Altarpiece Knights of Christ panel, and how it had been almost obliterated in the recent restoration.
Beaufort’s predecessor as bishop of Winchester is the prelate seated at the end of the table, shown above in the detail from the January folio. Standing alongside William of Wykeham is Sir Thomas Blount who served as napperer (having charge of the table linen and which he would be allowed to keep) at Richard II’s coronation. He is seen carefully folding a napkin or face cloth. The square cloth is folded down twice to form a triangle pointing to Wykeham. The table is laid out in a way to represent an altar cloth, but more precisely the burial cloth of Jesus, now referred to as the Shroud of Turin. The meat dish of lamb cuts is composed to represent the face of Christ that appears on the Shroud; the napkin represents the sudarium used to cover his face.
What Pol Limbourg is implying is the napkin and possibly even the table cloth (or Shroud) found its way into the possesion of bishop Wykeham, considered one the richest men in England.
Thomas Blount was a loyal servant to Richard II. He took part in what is known as the “Epiphany Rising” in January 1400, a failed attempt to restore Richard to the throne after the king was usurped by Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV). For this he was hung, drawn and quartered. The quartering is represented by the folded napkin, the hanging by the cloth draped around his wrist. Some of his internal organs were cut out and he was made to watch them burn in a fire before him. He was also beheaded when quartered.
The red dagging pattern represents both the cutting and the flames. Notice also the facial image in the black part of his left sleeve, a feature Van Eyck mirrored in Beaufort’s red sleeve seen in the Knights of Christ. The black sections also suggest that the quartering – cutting the body into four parts – was done by removing Blount’s two arms and his head.
Blount’s execution took place at the Green Ditch outside Oxford. This is indicated by the man standing behind Blount, wearing a green gown. There’s a familiar look about him. He resembles Jan van Eyck, or d’Eyck – dyke being the dutch translation of ditch. But it’s not. However, some seventeen years after Pol Limbourg had died in 1416, Jan van Eyck painted a self-portrait of the Man in a Red Turban, taking his inspiration from the detail and narrative revealed in this section of the January folio.
News from Belgium this week is that the second stage of restoring the Ghent Altarpiece (the five lower panels when opened) is finished. Before and after examples have been distributed to the media worldwide. Some of these can be seen at the-low-countries website.
However, I did note with some disappointment that one particular area in the Knights of Christ panel has been very poorly treated (if the published reproduction is accurate). In fact the subtle detail devised by Jan van Eyck and which refers to an important narrative in the altarpiece has been practically obliterated.
The figure in question is the central knight leading the group of other knights and royals in the crusade against the Hussites in 1427. He is Cardinal Henry Beaufort. Beaufort also features in the Just Judges panel and the main panel depicting the Adoration of the Lamb. He was in fact present in Ghent for the installation of the altarpiece in 1432.
The area where detail has been lost in restoration is the red upper section of Beaufort’s right arm. Previously the folds in this are had been highlighted for a particular reason. Now they have disappeared. The folds were meant to define a Holy Face cloth associated with Christ’s passion, and Van Eyck was stressing the fact that Beaufort had at some time possession of this relic, possibly the cloth known as the Manoppello Image. He also refers to this in the Just Judges panel and in at least two of his other paintings. Van Eyck also produced a painting of the Holy Face, the orginal version likely to be the Portrait of Christ housed in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.
But now, seemingly, this subtle connection Van Eyck made in the Knights of Christ panel is lost unless the overpaint is rectified. There is other iconography close to the sleeve that is associated with the Holy Face image, but without the detail the composite and connection falls apart.
It’s somewhat ironic that the project to restore the painting to new life has in fact killed off an important pointer to a main theme in the altarpiece, the Resurection of Christ from the dead.
In my previous post I pointed out that the four satyrs in the Venus and Mars painting who are tormenting the sleeping figure of Mars represented Botticelli and his three brothers. A similar scene appears on a freize in another and earlier painitng by Sandro Botticelli, the Calumny of Apelles (1494). It depicts three winged cherubs tormenting a lion.
Below the panel is an alcove, one of many in the painting designed to display various statues. In this instance the niche is like a sentry box that houses a soldier in armour with his sword and shield. He keeps watch over the unfurling scene. The panel above the alcove can be understood in two ways – the lion as representing Leonardo, and also the Marzocco, the heraldic lion that is the symbol of Florence. These are characterised as the sentry statue representing the mythological figure of Mars, no longer naked as in Botticelli’s earlier painting.
Botticelli has linked the two paintings in this way to point to the identity of Mars and the sentry being one and the same person – Leonardo da Vinci.
Notice also the proximity of the shell features in the backgrounds serving as another link.
But why would Botticelli want to reference Leonardo in the Calumny of Apelles? The reason is this and points to another artist, the figure on the ground being dragged by his hair by Calumny. She is laying claim to Domenico Ghirlandaio and presenting him for judgement before the king, except that the man on the throne (Midas) is also a representation of Ghirlandaio, as is the other man, Rancour (Envy).
Ghirlandaio was only 45 when he died in January 1494 of ‘pestilential fever’, probably a form of the ‘sweating sickness’ that gripped parts of Europe in the latter part of the 15th century. Ghirlandaio’s passion came sudden and lasted five days before he died.
Botticelli’s Calumny of Apelles, painted in 1494, is a pointer to Ghirlandaio’s death earlier that year and hints that Domenico was the person who annonymously notified the Florentine authorities in 1476, accusing Leonardo and three other men of sodomy (hinted at in the freize panel). But Botticelli suggests the reason for the slander was jealousy on the part of Ghirlandaio, hence his depiction as Rancour. Note also that the naked figure at the start of the line of events in the painting represents Truth. And so Ghirlandaio, shown naked in his passion except for his loin cloth, is exposed for his calumny against Leonardo.
This panel painting known as Venus and Mars was produced by Sandro Botticelli about 1485. It’s housed at the National Gallery in London. A contemporary of Botticelli, Andrea Mantegna, was very familiar with the underlying narrative in the painting and used it as a basis for the satirical composition in the Parnassus picture he produced for Isabella d’Este, now housed in the Louvre, Paris.
The satirical slant is obvious in Botticelli’s version of Venus and Mars, the antics of the four satyrs are are all pointers to the painting being meant to poke fun, for whatever reason, at the two lovers.
Sandro Botticelli portrays himself as the satyr tucked inside the barrel-shaped cuirass in the bottom right corner of the painting. the name Botticelli meaning “little barrel”. The three other satyrs represent Botticelli’s brothers. Sandro was the youngest of the four boys. Mantegna picks up on the cuirass connection by portraying Botticelli on the breastplate of Mars in the Parnassus painting.
Mantegna’s Mars is based on Piero de’ Medici, eldest son of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Piero led Florence after his father’s death in 1492 until his own exile in just two years later in 1494. Venus is repesented by Isabella d’Este. However, the pairing also references Leonardo da Vinci’s lost painting, Leda and the Swan. More on this in a future post.
The two images above are by the hand of the Italian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini. On the left is detail from his small panel painting St Jerome in the Wilderness now housed at the Barber Institute, Birmingham. On the right is detail from a folio that forms part of the Albi Strabo manuscript gifted in 1459 to René d’Anjou by the Venetian nobleman Jacopo Antonio Marcello. “Good King René” is shown seated on his throne receiving his gift from the kneeling Marcello.
The Jerome painting is dated about 1460, close to the time Marcello despatched his gift to René in 1459. However the folio from the Albi Strabo makes intentional comparisons to Bellini’s St Jerome panel and therefore suggests an earlier date than 1460 for its completion.
More on this and the connection between the two paintings at this link – Albi Strabo – on my website. Scroll to the section “A Golden Mirror”.
Pareidolia: the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern. (Merriam-Webster dictionary)
Here’s an example of Sandro Botticelli putting into practice some advice Leonardo da Vinci gave in one of his notebooks on the subject of Pareidolia. It’s a sample of several references Botticelli makes to Leonardo in his painting. More details at this link.
This is what Leonardo wrote in his notebook on the subject:
A Way of Development and Arousing the Mind to Various Inventions: “I cannot forbear to mention among these precepts a new device for study which, although it may seem but trivial and almost ludicrous, is nevertheless extremely useful in arousing the mind to various inventions. And this is, when you look at a wall spotted with stains, or with a mixture of stones, if you have to devise some scene, you may discover a resemblance to various landscapes, beautified with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and hills in varied arrangement; or again you may see battles and figures in action; or strange faces and costumes, and an endless variety of objects, which you could reduce to complete and well drawn forms. And these appear on such walls confusedly, like the sound of bells in whose jangle you may find any name or word you choose to imagine.”
The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Chapter IX, The Practice of Painting