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.