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.