Confession of a ‘conversus’

According to the chronicle of Gaspar Ofhuys, he joined the Red Cloister monastery at the same time as Hugo Van der Goes, sometime in 1475. In later years he became prior of the monastery and wrote in The Chronicle of the Red Cloister about an event in Hugo’s life when the artist suffered a breakdown and made an attempt to take his own life.

Although Ofhuys states that this occurred “perhaps five or six years after his [Hugo’s] profession” (1480-81), historians date the actual recording in the chronicle between 1509-1513, possibly as much as three decades after Hugo’s traumatic experience. Ofhuys also wrote in the chronicle: “In the year of the Lord 1482, Brother Hugo the conversus, who made his profession in this house, died.”

Ofhuys didn’t elaborate on how Hugo attempted to self harm, but the artist has shown the method and weapon he used in at least four of his extant paintings. The St Vincent Panels also gives witness to the steps taken by Hugo to injure himself. This is located in the section known as the Panel of the Prince where Hugo van der Goes is placed in a very prominent position of honour, immediately behind King João 1 of Portugal.

Hugo uses a ‘jigsaw’ technique to build relationships with surrounding figures, so parts of the Hugo ‘piece’ will have a connection to parts of the figures around him. The cheek-to-cheek arrangement with the man on his right works in two ways: as a connection to his spiritual ‘father’ or director, Thomas Vessem, and also pointing to the source for the arrangement and narrative, the double-head relationship from the Monsaraz fresco of The Good and Bad Judge, where the devil and temptation lurk in the background.

For whatever reason, Hugo’s half-brother Nicholas may have been a thorn in Hugo’s side. He was also a brother at the Red Cloister, a donatus, and a step up from Hugo who was classed as a conversus. He was with Hugo and other fellow monks returning from a visit to Cologne when Hugo is said to have attempted to kill himself. Ironically, it was Nicholas who was the source for Gaspar Ofhuys’ report in the chronicle. Offhuys confirmed the this when he wrote: “As I learned from the account of brother Nicholas […] he [Hugo] even tried to do himself bodily harm and to kill himself had he not been forcibly restrained with the help of bystanders.”

So here’s how Hugo reveals his version of the incident– a kind of confession – and placing his account on record long before the Ofhuys chronicle report of what had happened.

Firstly, Hugo has confirmed he suffered with depression. The circled depression in his hat is an analogy of Hugo’s state of mind.

Hugo is also portrayed as a male falcon, a tercel (from the Latin tertius) a pointer to his “third order” status as a lay member of a religious order. There are also two other reasons why he is depicted as a falcon, one which links to the Dieric Bouts’ Altarpiece of the Blessed Sacrament, and the other to the genus term for birds of prey (including the falcon), Falco, derived from the Latin falcis, a sickle, and referring to the claws of the bird.

The claws reference is a pointer to the devil’s hand on the shoulder of the Good Judge in the mentioned fresco, while the sickle is the weapon Hugo used to self-harm.

The falcon portrayal is enhanced by the habit’s hood or cowl, just as a hood is used to cover the head of the bird to keep it in a calm state.

I’ve also colourised part of Hugo’s cowl to emphasis its curved shape as a sickle, the tool Hugo used to cut his neck. Although the necks of the other heads show wrinkles, the white line on the left side of Hugo’s neck is a sign of a healed scar.

The part of the hood resting on Hugo’s left shoulder, colourised orange, replaces the devil’s claw and represents a pelican at rest. “In medieval Euope, the pelican was thought to be particularly attentive to her young, to the point of providing her own blood by wounding her own breast when no other food was available. As a result, the pelican became a symbol of the Passion [and atoning sacrfice] of Jesus since about the 12th century” (Wikipedia).

Did Hugo plan his own passion? If so, where did he keep the sickle hidden? Could it have been in the hood, symbolic of the pelican’s pouch?

Hugo’s pelican is positioned as resting, crouched facing the collar and chest of the man on his left. Close inspection of the white collar suggests it represents a shrouded figure in its tomb, and so the pelican now symbolises a sphinx-like tomb guard.

Could this piece of iconography refer to the man on Hugo’s left as being dead and buried, someone very close to Hugo? Another painter, perhaps?

Probably the most telling painting of Hugo’s attempt at self harm and recovery is the Adoration of the Shepherds dated at 1480. I shall post a presentation on the iconography in this painting at another time, but for now I show one significant feature in the painting that points to Hugo cutting his neck. The gangling shepherd arriving on the scene on one leg is Hugo. In his right hand he draws back the sickle-shaped cowl to reveal blood marks around his neck. The blood has also dripped onto the shepherd kneeling below him.

Unfortunately, during the process of the painting’s recent restoration, the blood marks have been completely removed from Hugo’s neck and the kneeling shepherd. Thankfully there is a digital copy of the painting published online before its recent restoration, and so preserving Hugo’s own ‘confession’ and account of his breakdown.