The Pearl Poet… a third sighting

Some months ago I discovered that Jan van Eyck had embedded in the Ghent Altarpiece the identity of the Pearl Poet, author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Jan wasn’t the first artist to do so. Pol Limbourg included him as one of the figures in the January folio from the book of hours known as the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry.

Detail from the Panel of the Friars and the Panel of the Relic in the St Vincent Panels

Recently I came across another painting that features the Pearl Poet – the St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese artist Nuno Gonçalves.

In all of the three paintings the iconography attached to the figure of the Pearl Poet confirm his identity as Hugh Stafford, 2nd earl of Stafford, KG, c1342 – October 13, 1386.

The St Vincent Panels was an attempt to emulate the lower register of the Ghent Altarpiece, It includes several references to the work of the Van Eyck brothers and even a portrat of Jan in one of the panels, as there are of other Netherlandish artists.

The Pearl Poet appears in the first frame titled the Panel of the Friars. He is the figure with long hair and a straggling beard. His right hand is placed on a plank of wood. He wears a similar habit to the other two friars but a darker shade. On his head is a fez-type hat marked on the front with a cross amid what appear to be flames of fire.

Like Van Eyck in the Ghent Altarpiece, the artist has applied more than one identity to each figure – in this instance, three. The iconography that points to the name of the Pearl Poet is less detailed than that created by Van Eyck but, like Jan, the artist has split the name into three syllables: Hugh-Staf-ford.

Why the darker shade of the man’s habit? For this, read HUE. The staff is the STAVE or plank of wood he his holding. The FORD is the crossover he is about to make to the water reference in the panel alongside and also the mirror panel on the far side, referred to as the Panel of the Relic. In this scenario the plank is seen as the lid of the coffin placed behind the figure of Jan van Eyck who is presented as a poor pilgrim.

Sir Hugh died at Rhodes while returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. His bones were translated back to England by his squire and entombed at Stone Priory alongside his wife Philippa Beauchamp who had died a few months earlier. The translation of bones and relics supports the painting’s subject of St Vincent’s bones being recovered from what is now known as Cape St Vincent and taken by boat to Lisbon.

Van Eyck also pointed to Sir Hugh by referencing text from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. So has Gonçlaves, and from the same passage: “Face fell as the fire, and free of his speech.” The fire reference is the symbolic flames at the end of his beard – a kind of singeing of the beard which also refers to another narrative in the painting.

The second identity given to the figure is the artist Robert Campin, considered the first great master of Flemish painting. He is one of several Flemish artists featured in the St Vincent Panels. He can be identified in three ways.

Firstly, In other Flemish paintings he is generally portrayed with a beard and as the third king or wise man that followed a star to Bethlehem to pay homage to Jesus, the new-born king of the Jews, hence the celestial motif on his hat.

Jean Jouffroy, painted by Roger Campin and (right) as he appears in the St Vincent Panels.

The second connection to Campin is the ‘mirror’ image in the far-right frame – the Panel of the Relic. The man wearing the black habit is Jean Jouffroy, almoner to Philip the Good duke of Burgundy. The image is adapated from Roger Campin’s painting, Portrait of a Stout Man. The motif on the front of the habit represents the Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem.

Detail from the Merode Altarpiece showing a self portrait
of Roger Campin. Could the horse-rider be Jan van Eyck?

A third connection to Campin is his placement alongside the plank. In this scenario it represents a door to to a sanctuary and is borrowed from a feature in Campin’s painting of the Merode Altarpiece where he has portrayed himself standing next to an open door that leads into a garden and the scene of the Annunciation.

I shall reveal the figure’s third identity in a future post.

Translating hidden relics

In my previous post I explained how the iconography relating to the pages of the mysterious script in the Panel of the Relic translated into a passage from Isaiah (40 : 3-5), and is echoed in John’s gospel (1 : 23) by John the Baptist. But the artist also used another source to translate from: a section of the Knights of Christ panel that forms part of the Ghent Altarpiece.

The translation is focused on the central knight leading two other knights and a group of kings and princes. In this particular narrative the knight is a depiction of two people of a young age, Jan van Eyck and Henry Beaufort. Both men are also placed in the Panel of the Relic. Beaufort, as a Cardinal in later life, is on his knees holding the relic.

In the Knights of Christ panel the group is making a “straight way” to the Holy Land or the “New Jerusalem”.

So how is the passage from the Book of Isaiah, referenced by John the Baptist in John’s Gospel, identified in the iconography surrounding the knight? At this stage it is worth repeating Isaiah’s words:

A voice cries, “Prepare in the wilderness a way for Yaweh. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill laid low, let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley; then the glory of Yaweh will be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of Yaweh has spoken.”

The “straight way” is the red cross on the knight’s shield, similar to the vertical and horizontal spaces between the written words on the pages displayed by Jean Jouffroy in the Panel of the Relic. The valleys, mountains, hills and cliffs are the various shapes formed from the shields. The ridges are the highlight’s on the knight’s breastplate but “made plain” on the front of the knight to his right.

Another “straight way” is the straight strap across the knight’s breastplate. It’s stems from a descending, scrolling pattern of light, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, and ends in shadow at the point of the cross on the shield, and also at the elbow of the knight alongside the central knight. “Elbow” translates as EL-BOW, God’s bow (a rainbow) symbolising his Covenant promise (Genesis 9 : 12-13).

Amidst the shadow area is a red triangular shape intended to represent the head of Christ as he hangs on his Cross. The upward sweep of the strap represents one of his arms, while his back is connected to another arm, that of the red cross on the shield. This represents God’s New Testament or New Covenant fulfilled by Christ’s death and resurrection.

Below this motif is a galaxy of “stars’ on a blue background. However, one star has risen to appear in the groove of the shield. Not only is symbolic of the Resurrection but it also represents the rising star the wise men saw and followed and which led them to Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant king. So the three knights can also be viewed as “wise men” making a straight way to Bethlehem. A similar motif is seen in the composition of the Panel of the Relic (and other panels) – the three front men are arranged as three wise men bearing gifts and paying homage.

The straight strap is also present in the Panel of the Relic. It falls across the chest of Van Eyck the pilgrim and ends at the elbow of Jean Jouffroy. While the prelate’s hand turns the pages in the book, the star is settled above another passage from Isaiah that prophesied “the coming of the virtuous king” (Isaiah 11 : 1-2).

In the previous post I mentioned what appears to be a head under the camel coat of Van Eyck, portrayed also as John the Baptist in the Panel of the Relic. The shape represents the head of the Baptist who while imprisoned was beheaded on the orders of Herod because the king had promised Salome anything she wanted after dancing for him. She requested the head of John on a dish.

The bloody head of John appears on the right arm of the knight from the Ghent Altarpiece, mounted on a green cushion. The curved piece of armour supporting his head is the dish.

This piece of iconography relates to the latter part of Isaiah’s prophecy: “… then the glory of Yaweh will be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of Yaweh has spoken” – the mouth of Yaweh being both Isaiah and John the Baptist.

Unfortunately, since the recent restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece the face depicted on the arm is now hardly noticeable. The version shown here is before the altarpiece was “restored”.

The fact that the knight is a double image – Jan van Eyck and Henry Beaufort – is interesting. A connection is being made between the two men and the head of John the Baptist. Nuno Gonçlaves also connects the two men and the head in the Panel of the Relic, the relic beign a part of John’s skull. Both paintings also point to a location in England – Templecombe in Somerset – where a painting of John the Baptist was discovered in the roof of an outhouse that had a connection with a Templar priory and later the Knights Hospitaller (Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem), John being John the Baptist.

A case of déjà vu

This section of the St Vincent Panels is known as the Panel of the Relic, so called because of the kneeling prelate holding the fragment of a skull. Some say the relic belongs to St Vincent of Zaragoza, the saint who is the focus of the two panels in the centre of the altarpiece, while others suggest it belongs to Ferdinand the Holy Prince, the youngest son of John l of Portugal who was taken as a hostage following the Siege of Tangier and eventually died in captivity.

The panels are attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves and one of the main narratives is the translation to Lisbon of the relics belonging to St Vincent and Ferdinand. But what makes the Panel of the Relic notably different from the rest is that there are no Portuguese representatives. The kneeling prelate is English whose father was Flemish, and the four other men represent the House of Valois-Burgundy. So why should any of them be associated with a relic of St Vincent or Ferdinand the Holy Prince?

If the relic belonged to neither of these two saintly men then what relic could link the Portuguese House of Aviz with Cardinal Henry Beaufort, son of John of Gaunt, and the rest of the group of Flemings? The clue lies is in ‘translating’ the open pages of the book held by the prelate dressed in black. He is Jean Jouffroy, one time almoner of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. The two men standing in the back row are assistants to Jouffroy, but unnamed. The figure portrayed as a humble pilgrim is Jan van Eyck.

Gonçlaves has sourced two of Van Eyck’s paintings and the work of another Flemish painter, Rogier van der Weyden, to build on the ‘translate’ narrative found in the altarpiece. Van der Weyden is portrayed as one of four artists featured in the Panel of the Knights.

The two works of Van Eyck are the Knights of Christ panel in the Ghent Altarpiece, and the portrait of Henry Beaufort, currently mistitled, Portrait of Cardinal Niccolò Albergati. The Van der Weyden paintings are: The Seven Sacraments, the Altarpiece of the Virgin and Child with Saints (now fragmented with some parts lost) and the Exhumation of St Hubert.

By using some of the iconography created by other artists in their paintings and translating it to a new location, Gonçlaves is, in a sense, paying homage to the particular artist and their work. This echoes the foremost theme of the St Vincent panels – paying homage and celebrating the translation of St Vincent’s lost relics to Lisbon, and so establishing a new creation and a spiritual rebirth for the city, commemorated annually.

The translation of Jan van Eyck

There is a reference by the art historian James Weale in his book on the life and works of Hubert and John van Eyck, that in March 1442, at the request of Lambert van Eyck, the Chapter of St Donatian, Bruges, “grants permission for the body of his brother John, buried in the precincts, to be, with the bishop’s licence, translated into the church and buried near the font, on condition of the foundation of an anniversary and of compliance with the rights of fabric.”
 
In his Seven Sacraments painting, Van der Weyden depicts this translation of Van Eyck’s remains as the raised stone covering the grave and supporting the baptismal font. Hence the ‘raised’ coffin also signifying the upright baptismal font. The child in the baptism scene is Van Eyck’s own, and the Sacrament signifies being raised to new life in Christ. And so in death Van Eyck is resurrected to new life through the Sacrament. Close inspection of the priest performing the baptism reveals the same priest that stands next to the coffin Van Eyck is placed in front of in the Panel of the Relic.

But there is another reason why Jan is portrayed standing in front of the coffin, and it connects to another painting by Rogier van der Weyden. It’s part of the cut-down altarpiece referred to as the Virgin and Child with Saints. The figure of Joseph is represented by Jan van Eyck, frail and seemingly approaching the end of life. The head and upper part of his body is now a portrait presentation housed at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon.

The building in the background shows an empty tabernacle or aedicula. The pedestal and canopy are there but the statue is missing. This may be seen as Van der Weyden preparing to elevate his humble friend Jan to kingly or even saintly status. “King of Painters” was an epithet awarded to Jan.

So the empty coffin is also symbolic of the empty tabernacle. However the surplice worn by the priest alongside the coffin also depicts a tabernacle, but not vacant. It contains the presence of the Holy spirit, symbolised by the flames shown within the veil.

The Holy Flame is reflected in the Panel of the Friars, under the figure with the long beard. The figure also has his right hand placed on what is said to be the lid of the coffin behind Van Eyck. But the plank has other meanings as well.

The figure of Jean Jouffroy, who later became an influential ‘Prince of the Church’ – a Cardinal – is shown holding open a book of Scripture. The text is unreadable (although it has been claimed that some Hebrew words can be identified) but its message can be understood when read as a piece of iconography. It relates to the passage from Isaiah (40:3-5), echoed in John’s gospel (1-23) by John the Baptist:

A voice cries, “Prepare in the wilderness a way for Yaweh. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill laid low, let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley; then the glory of Yaweh will be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of Yaweh has spoken.”

Close inspection of the book’s pages reveals the straight highways between columns and verses, and the ridges and valleys on the turning pages. The wise men who came from the East to pay homage to the new-born King had to travel across the desert, and were led straight to Bethlehem by following a star. That’s the red star seen on the front of Jouffroy. It also represents a military order of that time known as the Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem.

A second connection to John the Baptist is the Jan van Eyck figure dressed in a camelskin coat. The hind legs of the camel are shaped in the folds below his belt. His coat is opened at the front and beneath the belt is a suggestion of a head in profile. The profile is facing the head of Henry Beaufort, and in his hands he holds part of the skull of John the Baptist. How the relic came into the possession of Van Eyck and eventually Beaufort is another story, but for the artist to link this feature to a painting that is primarily about St Vincent and the Portuguese House of Aviz is a pointer to where the skull relic was translated from to arrive in England.

The connection also links to what is known as the Templecombe Head, a painting on wooden boards of a head discovered in 1945 in the roof of an outhouse in Templecombe. The painting is of the beheaded John the Baptist.

More on the Panel of the Relic in a future post.

See, hear, speak no evil

Detail from the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece – mouth covered, and uncovered.

In October 2018 I posted an item titled Brim of Extinction, pointing out that the repainted verson of the Just Judges panel in the Ghent Altarpiece was missing an important detail that was present in the stolen original.

Recently, I discovered that the missing detail represents part of the maxim: “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”, an appropriate expression for the Just Judges.

The detail is a hat brim which coverered the mouth of one of the central riders, the French king Charles Vl who, at times, was inclined to shout his mouth off, so to speak, during his frequent bouts of psychosis. It’s there on the original version but missing on the copy painted in 1945 by the Belgian art restorer Jef Van der Veken.

More detail from the Just Judges panel meant to portray the maxim, “hear, see, speak no evil”.

“Hear no evil” is depicted by the front rider’s hat covering his ears, and “see no evil” is the self portrait of Jan van Eyck looking out from the picture directly at the viewer. Was Van Eyck saying he saw no evil in anyone, or was this just another “mirror” technique like that in his famous Arnolfini Portrait?

A painter very much influenced by the work of Jan van Eyck was Hugo van der Goes. He lived in Ghent and would no doubt have studied the Ghent Altarpiece in detail. Both Van Eck and Van der Goes are featured in a six-panel altarpiece known as the St Vincent Panels. Like the Ghent Altarpiece there is mystery about some of the detail in the painting and who the sixty figures are or represent.

The six St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves.

The St Vincent panels are attributed to the Portugues artist Nuno Gonçalves but there is also some speculation that Van der Goes may have had a hand in the work or contributed to it in some way. It so happens that the “hear, see, speak no evil” maxim also appears in the first frame of the St Vincent Panels (referred to as he Friars Panel), as it does in the first panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

Detail from the Friars panel of the St Vincent Panels, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga , Lisbon.

The three men standing at the top of the panel, depict the maxim in the order of: “hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil”. The latter is easy to recognise, his mouth, like the French king, is covered by a hat. Next to him is the man who sees no evil, because he does not see the plank held by the the bearded man. The plank also represents part of a crucifixion analogy.

The third man is Pontius Pilate who does not want to hear the cries of the crowd chanting for Christ’s crucifixion. Close inspection of his ear reveals it is shaped as the lower half of Christ’s body on the cross and the overlap of white hair represents his Spirit he offered to the Father. And the reason for Pilate being placed in the corner is that he cannot escape the crowd’s will to have Jesus crucified because of their threat to report him to Ceasar.

This three-part maxim can be applied as an attribute of Pilate’s judgement. He didn’t want to HEAR the demands of the people; he didn’t SEE anything wrong in what Jesus had done; and he didn’t SPEAK evil of him.

This three-man motif is mirrored on the far right panel of the altarpiece, except that only two men appear in the back row lineup. The third place is occupied by an empty coffin.

Detail from the Relic Panel of the St Vincent Panels, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga , Lisbon

Like Pilate, the man in the corner has no choice. His windswept hair is symbolic of the Holy Spirit coming down and resting on him – “Do not be surprised when I say you must be born from above. The wind blows wherever it pleases; you hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from of where it is going” (John 3 : 7-8). This is the man who hears the good and not evil.

The windswept hair representing the resting of the Holy Spirit.

Next to him is the man who sees no evil. Like the Van Eyck self portrait he is staring out directly to the viewer. Is he blind?

Finally, the third place ocupied by the coffin represents the maxim of not speaking evil of the dead. Simple as that!

Another Lisbon portrait of Van Eyck

Here’s another Flemish artist to add to the three I pointed out last month who appear in the painting known as the St Vincent Panels, produced by the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves.

Jan van Eyck appears in the section referred to as the Relic Panel. Gonçalves has intentionally ‘mirrored’ the ‘Joseph’ profile which formed part of an altarpiece painted by Rogier van der Weyden that depicted the Virgin and Child with saints.

Three sections of Rogier’s altarpiece are known to survive: the portraits of Joseph (Jan Van Eyck) and a female saint (St Catherine?) are housed at the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, while a third piece, The Magdalen Reading, is kept at the National Gallery, London. The Magdalen figure is a portrait of Jan van Eyck’s daughter Livina.

Below are two examples of Van Eyck’s profile painted by Van der Weyden. Left, the profile which Gonçalves has mirrored and, right, a similar profile from Van der Weyden’s Saint Columba Altarpiece (Alte Pinakothek).

More on this and the Flemish connection to the St Vincent Panels in a future post.

All is well

Detail from ADORATION OF THE SHEPHERDS (c1480), Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Staying with Hugo van der Goes and his self portrait in the Adoration of the Shepherds.

On visiting Ghent in 1495, some years after Hugo’s death in 1482(?), the humanist Hieronymus Münzer wrote that the Ghent Altarpiece had no rivals and “another great painter” who had attempted to equal the Ghent Altarpiece in his own work had been “driven mad and melancholy”. Art historians assume that Münzer was writing about Hugo van der Goes.

Whatever pressures Hugo put himself under which may have affected his mental state, it appears that he came through his crisis and all was well at the end. So well that he was able to recognise and accept the reasons for his affliction and record his ordeal and recovery in his latter paintings – the Adoration of the Shepherds being one of them.

It would be surprising that living in Ghent and able to admire the Ghent Altarpiece at any time, Hugo would not be influenced by the exceptional creativity of Jan van Eyck and, like oter artists of the time, he incorporated and acknowledged Jan’s influence in his own work – a hat-tip, so to speak. He did so in the Adoration of the Shepherds. The Joseph figure represents Jan van Eyck, but the motif is borrowed from the work of Rogier van der Weyden, another admirer of Van Eyck.

Top row: Hugo van der Goes. Bottom row: Jan van Eyck and Philip lll, Duke of Burgundy.

The self-portrait of the well-again Hugo looking upwards to heaven is borrowed from Van Eyck’s self portrait of himself as a young man that appears in the centre panel (Adoration of the Lamb) of the Ghent Altarpiece. Jan is also looking up. As Augustine heard the voice of a child saying “Take and read” (the bible), so Hugo is listening to the voice of the young Van Eyck to take and read his paintings. And that’s why, like Van Eyck, Hugo’s paintings encompass so many Scripture references.

Another self-portratit of Hugo is found the Vienna DiptychThe Fall and Rise of Man, mournful and repentant as the crucified Christ is taken down form his cross. Hugo has matched this pose with the so-called Mr Arnolfini from Van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini Portrait. In fact the man has a dual personality (notice the cleft chin): Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, as a repentant sinner, combined with the features of Jan van Eyck who sometimes acted as the duke’s proxy, especially when making pilgrimage. Notice also how Hugo has featured the fur trim and the hand that seems to be making a blessing.

Finally, Hugo’s red skull cap, is a match for the ‘skull’ portrait of Philip the Good, a traditional symbol usually featured at the foot of the cross to remind the viewer that life is short, but the red strap of Hugo’s cap also indicates his despair when he declared himself unworthy and damned while returning from visiting Cologne – a pilgrimage – with members of his community. The hand sign is the action of a cut across his throat. Such is Hugo’s self-loathing and lack of peace that he looks down towards the place he is convinced he is heading for.

Fortunately for Hugo he was brought through his crisis of faith and self-doubt, as witnessed by his transformation depicted in the Adoration of the Shepherds.

More on Hugo’s Adoration of the Shepherds in a future post.

Angelic inspiration

CONVERSION OF ST AUGUSTINE (c1430-35) by Fr Angelico, Musée Thomas Henry, Cherbourg

In an item posted here in January about Fra Angelico’s painting, Conversion of St Augustine, I mentioned that Hugo van der Goes had referenced the work in his Monforte Altarpiece. At that time I wasn’t aware that Hugo had done the same in two other paintings he produced following his ‘breakdown’, thought to have been after 1480.

In yesterday’s post I pointed out the crib connection to St Augustine in Hugo’s painting of the Adoration of the Shepherds and the link to Fra Angelico’s painting of Augustine’s conversion. But there’s more. Hugo’s composition is actually based on the scene painted by Fra Angelico – a conversion process in itself.

ADORATION OF THE SHEPHERDS (c1480), Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Sometimes described as Old Testament prophets, the two men either side of the frame pulling back the green curtain are Hugo van der Goes (left) and Thomas Vessem, Prior of the Rood Klooster, who helped care for Hugo following his breakdown.

Hugo has depicted himself as the peacock, a symbol of pride, while Thomas Vessem represents the humble ‘desert father’, standing at the entrance of his cave – a ‘“little nook” – in Fra Angelico’s scene. Augustine and his friend Alipius (two converts) are matched by the two shepherds entering the cave where Jesus is born, symbolising two conversos entering the Rood Klooster monastery.

As for Hugo being seen as a figure of pride, he can also be viewed at the Prodigal Son whose father welcomed him and instructed his servants to bring out the best robe and put it on his son.

Notice also that Hugo and Thomas Vessem are each embedded in the lower corners of the picture – another example of Hugo’s fascination for the words of Thomas à Kempis: ““I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not, save in nooks and in books.”

More on this in my next post.

More on Rembrant’s ‘turnaround’ etching

Detail from The Deathbed of Mary, Rembrandt van Rijn, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

To enable to see and recognise some of the iconography in Rembrandt’s etching shown above, the viewer has to adopt a different view and turn the work 90 degrees clockwise. Was this Rembrandt’s own idea or did he take his lead from elsewhere? As the etching is primarily focused on the work of Hugo van der Goes, so is the answer. Rembrandt has imitated a feature from Hugo’s painting titled Adoration of the Shepherds, which he produced after recovering from his ‘breakdown’ and attempt to self-harm.

Adoration of the Shepherds (c1480), Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

The painting records the Nativity of Jesus – the occasion when Christ became incarnate, the Word made flesh. The scene also became a life-changing occasion for the magi and shepherds who were called to witness, pay homage and proclaim the birth of Christ. The magi returned home a different way (conversion) and the shepherds repeated all they had seen and heard to everyone they could.

Another conversion narrative Hugo has blended into the scene is that of St Augustine. Like Hugo, he wrestled with God at times until one day he heard a child’s voice singing and repeating the words, “Pick it up and read it”. This prompted Augustine to pick up a Bible and open it. The first passage his eyes settled on was part of Paul’s letter to the Romans, urging them to be Children of the Light:

“Let us live decently as people do in the daytime: no drunken orgies, no promiscuity, or licentiousness, and no wrangling or jealousy. Let your armour be the Lord Jesus Christ; forget about satisfying your bodies with all their cravings” (Romans 13:13-14).

Augustine’s heart was flooded with light and he changed his ways. He was baptised a Christian and later became bishop of Hippo.

The painting not only represents the Nativity of Jesus and the conversion of Augustine but also the rebirth and “turnaround” of Hugo van der Goes after his breakdown.

This experience of being overcome by heavenly light can been seen in the top right corner of Hugo’s painting. So powerful is the light and the angel’s message that one of the shepherds is bowled over. Another is brought to his knees. This is mirrored in the main scene. One shepherd is depicted on his knees while the other is almost bowled over.

So where is the clue that Hugo has referred to Augustine’s moment of conversion? It’s within the crib, but the crib and all it holds requires to be turned 90 degrees anti-clockwise (going back in time, so to speak), as Rembrandt did with his etching.

When turned round the cloth on which the infant is placed takes on the outline form of Augustine, sitting on the ground and reading his bible. The open pages of the book are seperated by the child’s right arm, resting on the spine as a bookmark. This is the reference to the child (the Word) instructing Augustine to pick up the book and read it – the word of God. The pointed corner fold on the cloth above the infant’s left hand represents a bishop’s mitre. The other end of the cloth overlapping the edge of the crib and pointing downwards represents the descent into darkness and imprisonment, hence the crib’s cage-like features.

Left: St Augustine by Fra Angelico, matched with Hugo van der Goes’ self-portrait.

Hugo has adapted the shape of the Augustine symbol from the painting by Fra Angelico, Conversion of St Augustine. He also repeats the posture in his painting Death of the Virgin, portraying himself seated on the floor in the same way. Notice as well the similarity in colours of the garments, and the extended ‘tail’ feature which is repeated in the crib detail.

Finally, the turnaround feature can be linked to the Thomas à Kempis quote: “I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not, save in nooks and in books.” – often adapted to a shorter version: “In a little corner with a little book”.

Rembrandt’s rhyming riddle

The painter Hugo van der Goes, seen here in Rembrandt’s etching being nursed back to health, suffered from depression, not helped by his fondness for alcohol. When returning from a visit to Cologne with a group of brothers from the Rood Klooster monastery, Hugo suffered a breakdown and made an attempt to self-harm, claing he was damned. Was it a suicide bid? Possibly. But he was prevented from killing himself by the men he was travelling with.

While art historians provide no further information about the attempt on his life, or the method used, Hugo does – as does Rembrandt.

Hugo used a bill-hook or sickle to slash himself on the left side of his head and neck (which suggests he was right-handed). Was this an attempt to cut off his ear and eradicate any ‘voices’ he might have heard in his head; or in his confused state did he associate himself with Malchus, the servant of the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas, whose ear was cut off by Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane?

There is evidence in Hugo’s painting of Death of the Virgin, to suggest this, and in Rembrandt’s etching and his painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son. Hugo also referred to his breakdown in at least four of his other paintings.

So how did Rembrandt concoct the name of Hugo van der Goes in the details from his etching shown below? He created a rhyming riddle – rhyme as in his name Rijn.

Hugo’s last name, Goes, is pronounced “Hoose”, hence being rhymed with Goose, the shape of the pillow Hugo’s head rests on. The “hand” on the pillow is rhymed with “van der” (on the). So now we have “hand on the Goose” – van der Goes. His first name is matched to Hugo’s Portuguese ancestry and the word “jugo”, meaning “yoke”. The yoke is the pillow beneath Hugo’s head and refers to the passage from Matthew’s gospel (11:28-30):

Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

At the time of Hugo’s breakdown he was burdened by the weight of having so many paintings to complete, a heavy load. The soft goose-down pillow is the light and easy yoke.

To see and understand the riddle more clearly, Rembrandt invites the viewer to look at the scene in another way, to turn the sheet around and see things from a different perspective. The turnaround represents not only Hugo’s recovery after his attempt at mutilation and self-destruction, but also an occasion of conversion for his soul, a return of the Prodigal Son to hs father’s arms, the father in this instance being God working through the prior Thomas Vessem who took charge of Hugo’s care when he was brought back to the Rood Klooster .

Detail from an early 18th century image of the Rood Klooster (Red Cloister).

The yellow stripe along the goose’s neck not only represents the lacing on the pillow but also symbolises the stitching applied on Hugo’s neck by the hand of the Prior. The snake-like stitching also represents a goose horn – both symbolising deceit – and also the horn of a beast and its yoke,

The green strip also has more that one meaning. It serves as a coupling or washer between the goose-shaped yolk and the father figure sharing Hugo’s burden. It also represents a swan’s neck and serves as a reference to the Rood Kloster which was located at Soingnes – pronounced Swanyay. Another identity is that of a serpent meant to symbolise the temptation to self-doubt and self-harm Hugo succumbed to.

The orange cowl with its liripipe represents the choristers and musicians at the monastery called on by Prior Thomas to help calm Hugo’s anxiety and revive him from his slumber. It also connects to the swan feature and points to Hugo’s last painting – Death of the Virgin – as his swansong.

Finally the shape of the monk’s cowl also takes on the appearance of a sickle, the tool or weapon of a reaper that Hugo utilised to slash his own neck.

My next post will reveal what prompted or inspired Rembrandt to want the viewer to turn the etching on its side and be able to see and understand the iconography more clearly.

Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?

Detail from The Deathbed of Mary, Rembrandt van Rijn, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

In my previous post I pointed out that the title applied to Rembrandt’s signed and dated etching, Death of a Virgin (1639), is a misnomer, and it isn’t the Virgin Mary who is depicted dying in her bed.

In fact, the person is actually recovering from a near death experience, both in a physical and spiritual sense, thanks to the intercession and tender care of those in attendance.

So who is the sick person in the bed being cared for if not the Virgin Mary? Are they a woman or a man, perhaps a mother or a brother, saint or a sinner, or, more likely, both?

For Rembrandt, the person lived a common life some two centuries beforehand and, like Rembrandt, their name, reputation and achievements live on.

He is HUGO VAN DER GOES.

Rembrant has carved out Hugo’s name in section of the etching, not in normal handwriting like his own name, which can be found in the bottom left corner of the print, but in a symbolic way.

The references to Hugo go further, and there are at least thirty that Rembrandt has taken from what is considered the last painting produced by Van der Goes, Death of a Virgin, in which he portrays himself as the Prodigal Son, the same subject Rembrandt has presented with this etching and in the acclaimed Return of the Prodigal Son, painted before his own death in 1669. This work also pays tribute to Hugo van der Goes whose features are portrayed in the elder brother. Like the etching, there are several references that can be matched to Hugo’s Death of the Virgin, as many as fifty.

My next post will explain the iconography that reveals the name of Hugo van der Goes in Rembrandt’s etching.

Death of the Virgin: a misnomer

The Death of the Virgin, 1439, Rembrandt van Rijn, etching and drypoint.

Yesterday, I looked to find paintings by other artists depicting the death of the Virgin Mary and came across this etching with the same title, produced by Rembrandt in 1439.

Many prints from the engraving are in circulation, owned privately and in museum and gallery collections. However, the title is a misnomer. The etching doesn’t depict the death of the Virgin. She is shown elsewhere in the illustration, on her knees alongside John the Evangelist.

The etching was a precursor for Rembrandt’s painting that followed some thirty years later: The Return of the Prodigal Son. It is the wayward son – once lost, but now found – who rests in the bed with his father’s arm around him. Rembrandt is the figure peering through the curtain. John is to his right.

Seeing humility in a mirror

Difficult to decide which direction to take after revealing the identity of Thomas à Kempis in the Hugo van der Goes painting Death of the Virgin in my previous post. There are options to go a clockwise route, direct south, or go west. Kempis connects in all ways.

I mentioned in the last post that the painting had a bookish theme. Another theme is that of reflection, both in the sense of meditation and mirroring. The mirror theme may be another instance of Hugo expanding on the Kempis book, The Imitation, where the author states: “Learn to see yourself as God sees you and not as you see yourself in the distorted mirror of your own self-importance.” Or, perhaps, Hugo may have just been imitating or paying tribute to Jan van Eyck and his famous mirror featured in the Arnolfini Portrait.

But there is another painting from which he has taken his mirror theme, one very similar in content to his own as it also features the twelve apostles: The Last Supper panel by Dieric Bouts. Both works show the apostles placed in two ‘camps’, so to speak, and the gap clearly visible nearest the viewer.

Detail from the Last Supper panel from the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament by Dieric Bouts.

Let’s go west! Before taking the straight road along the top of the headboard that starts from the figure of the two Thomases, remember that the apostle Thomas was a man of doubt and uncertainty. When Jesus told the apostles that they knew the way to the place he was going, Thomas responded: “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5).

Detail from Death of the Virgin by Hugo van der Goes, Groeninge Museum, Bruges

The reference to John’s gospel is important. Not only is John the apostle placed at the other end of the headboard, but his namesake, John the Baptist, figures prominently in the opening chapter of John’s gospel, along with the calling of the first disciples. In fact, Hugo makes several references in the painting to events in the first four chapters of John’s gospel.

In this particular instance Hugo is referencing the Baptist’s words of the prophet Isaiah: “Make a straight way for the Lord” (1:23) – the straight way being the straight and level path along the top of the headboard.

As to Thomas à Kempis, the feature showing his hands on the corrner of the headboard – its shoulder – refers to an experience recorded by Thomas in his biography of Florent Radewijns, a founder of the monastery at Windesheim and a major influence on the development and expansion of the Brethren of the Common Life.

When Thomas was twelve years old he left home to attend a Latin school in Deventer in the Netherlands. His brother Johan was already a student there. Radewijns was the senior canon and despite ill health would occasionally sing with the choir. Thomas wrote: “At that time I used to go into the Choir with the other scholars… and as often as I saw my Master Florent standing there – though he did not look around – I was careful not to chatter, for I was awed by his presence because of the reverence of his posture. One time it when I was standing near to him in the Choir he turned to share our book for the chanting, and he, standing behind me, put his hands on my shoulder –but I stood still, hardly daring to move, bewildered with gratification at so great an honour.”

Versions of Thomas à Kempis portrayed as a youth and an old man.

The young Kempis is reflected in the features of John the evangelist and youngest of the disciples called by Jesus; his pronounced lift of the head, sharp nose and strong chin with a faint beard. This is meant to be Kempis portrayed as a young man. The figure behind is “Master Florent” who is also portrayed as Andrew, one of the Baptist’s two disciples who were first to become followers of Jesus, the same Andrew who said to Jesus, “There is a small boy here with five barley loaves and two fish; but what is that between so many? (John 6:9).

It could be interpreted that the five fingers extending from John’s shoulder represent the five loaves, while John’s two hands represent the fish. However, the two hands with the extended thumb are symbolic of the Holy Spirit, while the hand extending from from the sde of the evangelist’s shoulder represents a spear-shaped lily, mirroring the lily motif on Peter’s collar. But also note that the hand is placed in the valley made by John’s arm. Combined they represent the flower known as the Lily of the Valley, sometimes referred to as Mary’s Tears.

But that’s not all, it also refers to the incident of Thomas á Kempis and “Master Florent” sharing the chant book in the Choir, The book motif that appears on the right side of the headboard is repeated or mirrored as a ‘shared’ book in the panel next to John and above the praying hands of the Florent figure. The hands representing a lily and the valley made in John’s arm now combines to represent another book written by Thomas à Kempis: The Valley of Lillies. Kempis explains that many lilies of exceeding whiteness are planted in the valley of humility.

The hands representing the lily and the Holy Spirit are motifs which Hugo has mirrored from the Last Supper painting by Dieric Bouts.

Finally, there is a third identity that can be applied to the figure representing both Andrew and “Master Florent”, that of Johann (John) Hammerlein, the elder brother of Thomas à Kempis by fifteen years. It was Johann who first sent Thomas to the care of Florent Radewijns. After his schooling Thomas made a “straight way” to join the monastery of Mount St Agnes where his brother was prior. The name Agnes is taken from the latin Agnus, meaning Lamb, and another reference to John’s gospel and the text where John the Baptist points out the “Lamb of God”. (John 1:29)

More revelations about the Dormition painting in a future post.

In a little corner with a little book

Sometime in the mid-1470s Hugo van der Goes left Ghent and moved to the Roode Klooster (Red Cloister) near Brussels to become a lay brother in a religious community known as the Brethren of the Common Life, founded in the latter part of the 14th century by Gerard Groote. The priory contained an impressive library as well as a workshop for producing and illuminating books, and Hugo was allowed to continue with his painting there.

Books and their influence is one of the themes in Hugo’s painting of The Dormition (or Death) of the Virgin, while the group of Apostles reflect the pious way of life adopted by the brothers of the community, and referred to as Devotio Moderna (the Modern Devotion).

An early follower of the Modern Devotion was Thomas á Kempis, who wrote the popular book on Christian meditation, The Imitation of Christ. He is portrayed in The Dormition as Thomas the Apostle.

One of the quotes attributed to Thomas is: “I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not, save in nooks and in books.” – often adapted to a shorter version: “In a little corner with a little book”. This quotation is a key to locating his place and confirming his identity in the painting. The figure of Thomas à Kempis also serves as the figure of the apostle Thomas who doubted the resurrection of Jesus.

Detail from Death of the Virgin, revealing Thomas à Kempes twinned with Thomas the Apostle.

Hugo connects the two identities in this way. The family name of Thomas à Kempis was ‘Hammerlein’ meaning “little hammer” and appertained to his father’s profession as a blacksmith. Kempen was the town where his family lived. Hugo has portrayed Thomas’s hood or ‘cowl’ uncovering his ‘unkempt’ hair in the shape of a ‘little hammer’.

Switching identities to the other Thomas who refused to believe his companions had witnessed Jesus alive after being crucified, the doubting disciple said he would only believe if he could see and put his finger into the holes made by the nails that crucified Christ to his cross, and his hand into the wound in his side made by a soldier’s lance. Thomas is shown gripping the side of the headboard and his other hand resting on its beam. The beam is representative of the cross, a path to salvation, and referring to the words of John the Baptist taken from John’s gospel: “Make a straight way for the Lord” (John 1:23)

Like Jan van Eyck, Hugo was not adverse to including word-play in his paintings. For ‘straight way’ read ‘straight line’ – ‘line’ as in the German pronunciation for ‘lein’ taken from Hammerlein.

So in all of this where are the nails? They can be seen in the decorative crown embroidered on Peter’s green collar – ªthe green wood” (Luke 23:51). The four nails are shaped as fleur-de-lys, stylized lilies, and symbolic of the Virgin Mary. The sword-shaped petal is a reminder of Simeon’s prophecy to Mary: “And a sword will pierce your soul too – so that the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare” (Luke 2:35). However, Hugo has implied another meaning to the four fleur-de-lys and their spear-shaped petals. In the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, the apostle was described as being martyred by four soldiers who each speared him. And the lance that pierced the side of Jesus is symbolised by combining the ‘hammer’ feature of Thomas’s cowl with the white triangle inside Peter’s collar. A cowl or ‘yoke’ serves as a cover or ‘protector’ for head, neck and shoulders, and so connects to the collar or ‘yoke’ worn by Peter in his priestly role as a pastor protecting his flock, hence his stance shielding the Thomas figure behind him.

Thomas the apostle was also known as ‘the Twin’ and this explains why Hugo has ‘twinned’ the two men. But there is a third identity given to the figure by Hugo – Simeon, the “upright and devout man” on whom the Holy Spirit rested and prophesied to Mary. This explains the ‘unkempt’ hair of the man – “the wind blows wherever it pleases” (John 3:8) – and why he is gripping the headboard to stay upright. Like Thomas à Kempes, who was at least 90 when he died, Simeon was well on in years and reaching the end of his life when his eyes had seen the salvation promised to him by God, the same sight of salvation witnessed by Thomas à Kempes above him.

Returning to the Thomas à Kempis quotation mentioned earlier: “In a little corner with a little book”, note the panel in the corner of the headboard next to Thomas’s left hand. It’s design is shaped to represent an open book and one of many references in the painting to the “Imitation of Christ”.

Thomas à Kempis and a late 17th century printing of his book: The Imitation of Christ.

• More on revealing The Dormition’s many identities in my next post.