Rembrandt’s fifth and final matchup to paintings by Hugo van der Goes

This is another painting by Hugo van der Goes – The Trinity Altarpiece – that Rembrandt sourced for his etching Death of the Virgin.

Trinity Altarpiece, Royal Collection Trust, on loan to the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh.

He incorporated some of it features in the left corner of the etching, the section he later adapted for one of his final paintings, the Return of the Prodigal Son, details of which I presented in an earlier post, as seen below.

So that makes a total of five paintings by Hugo that Rembrandt utilised to pay tribute to Van der Goes – the figure depicted on his deathbed and not, as presumed, the Virgin Mary.

All the paintings were produced in the latter years of Hugo’s life: The Panel of the Relic from the St Vincent Panels; Adoration of the Shepherds; Death of the Virgin; The Vienna Diptych; and the Trinity Altarpiece.

Rembrandt and the Vienna Diptych

Here’s how Rembrandt matched a third painting by Hugo van der Goes, the Vienna Diptych, to a section of his etching referred to as Death of the Virgin. Again, I’ve numbered the figures to make identification easier, but some of the match-ups need explanation.

The left panel of the Vienna Diptych – the Fall of Man – shows the serpent tempting Eve to take the fruit from the tree and share it with Adam. Eve reminded the serpent that God had said they must not eat the fruit, or touch it, under pain of death. But the serpent responded with a lie saying: “You will not die”. (Genesis 3 : 4)

Adam (1) is portrayed as Hugo van der Goes, and as the man on his deathbed (1) in Rembrandt’s etching. Rembrandt has also matched Hugo to the Redeemer (1) portrayed in the Lamentation panel.

Where Hugo has portrayed himself (6) as the man wearing the red cap, looking downcast, with his left arm raised and his right hand connected to Christ’s wrist, Rembrandt has placed himself in the role of the artist taking the pulse of the bed-ridden figure, his left arm raised, and looking downwards.

The figure of Eve, the first woman (3), is shown as the first in a group of three women In Rembrandt’s etching – all portrayed as temptresses. The woman next to Eve represents Mary Magdalen (4) in the Lamentation panel. Both heads are tilted and hands clasped. Completing the trio is the old woman (5), the serpent in disguise. The clue to recognition is the striped hat, meant to match the bold, combed lines depicted in the serpent’s hair. That the serpent is present at the time of Hugo’s death is a biblical reference to the time Jesus was tempted in the wilderness when “having exhausted all ways of tempting him, the devil left him to return at the appointed time” (Luke 4 : 11) – the appointed time being the Crucifixion when at the point of death Christ felt abandoned and forsaken by his Father.

The woman wiping her tears (7) is meant to represent Veronica who wiped the face of Jesus as he carried his cross to Calvary. In the Lamentation panel she is shown receiving two of the nails used to crucify Christ, those which pierced his hands. This is a subtle reference to the relic known as the Veil of Veronica or the Volto Santo (Holy Face), said to bear the likeness of the face of Jesus and not made by human hands. Close inspection of Veronica’s veil shows a wolf’s head meant to represent a sheep or the Lamb of God – and so a false representation – and probably the artist’s thoughts about the legitimacy of the relic.

Rembrandt has picked up on this and does show a representation of Christ’s face on the cloth his Veronica is using to wipe her tears. The nails or piercings are matched to the holes on the edge of her headdress.

Rembrandt has transferred the figure of John (8) supporting the VIrgin Mary seen in the Lamentation panel to the bearded man in the etching supporting himself at the side of Hugo’s bed.

Figures (9) and (10) in the etching are a combination of the same figures in the Lamentation panel. The male figure (10) looking up towards ‘Veronica’ and passing her the two nails, has been switched to represent a female figure in the etching, not kneeling, but standing, and still looking up. Notice also the extended finger representing one of the nails.

Hugo’s combination of these two figures is interesting as they are designed to point to a similar combination from another of Hugo’s painting – the Adoration of the Shepherds, which suggests that the Lamentation panel was painted after the Adoration of the Shepherds. Briefly, the sharp-nosed man in the friar’s brown habit is Hugo’s half-brother, Nicholas. The woman in the gold-colour robe is another gender switch, the friar and chronicler Gaspar Ofhuys. It is no coincidence that Hugo has linked the two figures to the legendary figure of Veronica, just as Rembrandt has placed them side by side with Veronica in his etching. More on the background to this particular group in a future post.

The heavily veiled woman in the Lamentation panel with her arms raised (11) is matched to the figure of John the Evangelist and his raised arms in the etching. The woman is another variation of Veronca, and a reference to the many veils said to be the cloth used to wipe the face of Jesus. This time the face of the wolf is depicted on the woman’s neck and breastbone. The veils of the two women are linked by the headdress of the women in the gold-colour robe. It represents a sudarium and one of several relics in circulation said to have covered the face of Jesus when he was entombed.

The connection to John is his Gospel report of himself and Peter seeing the linen cloths lying on the ground in Christ’s tomb and also “the cloth that had been over his head […] rolled up in a place by itself.” (John 20 : 3-10)

The bearded friar (2) supporting the dead weight of Jesus is the bearded man with his arm supporting Hugo’s head in the etching – Thomas Vessem, the prior who took Hugo under his wing and cared for him after his breakdown.

The kneeling woman, hands joined in prayer (12) and placed in front of John, both in the etching and the painting, is the Virgin Mary.

More matchups by Rembrandt

In my pevious post I showed that Rembrandt had mirrored one of the sections from the St Vincent Panels for his etching, Death of the Virgin.

Some 30 years later Rembrandt also used another area of the etching as a basis for one of his most famous paintings, the Return of the Prodigal Son. The match ups are easy to spot but I’ve numbered them for identification.

Detail from Rembrandt’s etching, Death of the Virgin, matched with the Return of the Prodigal Son

There is a third section of the etching that Rembrandt sourced or ‘matched’ to another painting (by Hugo van der Goes), the group of figures gathered at the far side of the bed. This will be the subject of my next post.

Rembrandt’s homage to Hugo

Could the ‘mirror’ effect shown below be evidence that points to the St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves – the work considered one of Portugal’s national treasures – may have been produced in the Burgundian Netherlands?

On the left is detail from Rembrandt’s etching Death of the Virgin dated 1439. On the right is the section from the St Vincent Panels known as the Panel of the Relic and estimated to have been painted between 1450 and 1480, some 150 years before Rembrandt made his etching at the age of 33. The title of the etching, Death of the Virgin, is a misnomer. The bed-ridden person is not the Virgin Mary but the painter Hugo van der Goes. Rembrandt’s etching is about paying homage or tribute to Hugo – homage being one of the prominent themes of the St Vincent Panels.

Knowing this, it’s not difficult to match the figures and the iconography. The detail shown in the hand and arm of John the Evangelist extending in from the left represents the man holding the book of scripture in the Relic Panel. He is the French priest Jean Jouffroy and an ambassador of the Burgundian court at the time. Behind him are two clerical administrators matched to the two seated women in the etching. The figure in red is Henry Beaufort and Rembrandt has matched himself to the prelate as a kind of cameo appearance drawing back the curtain to symbolise an act of revelation in a similar way the cardinal is revealing the precious relic wrapped in a green cloth.

The man matched to the shadowy figure in the etching, is the man portrayed as a pilgrim in the Relic Panel. This is the painter Jan van Eyck, placed in front of the wooden box – some say, a coffin. This piece of furniture, cupboard or coffin, can be matched to the empty chair seen in the lower corner of the etching.

It is said that Rembrandt never left his native Holland, although there are myths suggesting he may have travelled to England and Italy, even Sweden! But the myths never mention Portugal.

So for Rembrandt to have recorded such detail from the Relic Panel and rearrange it, or rebuild the temple, so to speak, he must have had sight of the St Vincent Panels to be able to make notes and preparatory sketches for his engraving. This would suggest that circa 1439 the St Vincent Panels were located in the Burgundian Netherlands and possibly Amsterdam at the time when Rembrandt moved to the city late in 1431.

If the panels were commissioned and produced in Holland, and it certainly seems that Hugo van der Goes had a hand in painting them, then who could have commissioned the work and when did the panels make their way to Lisbon in Portugal?

Many art historians consider the six panels formed part of a twelve-panel retable in Lisbon Cathedral. Other researchers dispute this. What seems very probable is that the panels did not leave Holland before Rembrandt had sight of them to embed details from the Relic Panel in his engraving. This isn’t the only example of Hugo’s later work that features in the engraving. The Vienna Diptych (Kunsthistorisches Museum) gets a good showing, and there are references to Hugo’s Adoration of the Shepherds (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), and his version of Death of a Virgin (Groeningmuseum, Ghent).

• More details on this in a future post.

More on the plagues

Three days ago I pointed out in the Panel of the Archbishop some of the ‘plagues’ associated with the biblical plagues inflicted on the Egyptians. Besides the plagues of (1) frogs; (2) gnats; (3) boils; and (4) death of the firstborn, there are others:

The thunderstorm of hail and fire (5) is matched to the round rivets embedded in two of the knight’s body armour, and the red tongue of fire on the duke of Braganza’s right shoulder. Notice his right arm and hand is raised in a hailing or greeting gesture.

The plague of locusts (6) can also be found in Alfonso’s armour, his right leg and knee shaped to represent a locust and the folds in St Vincent’s alb its horns.

For the three days of consecutive darkness (7) look to the consecutive line of the three clergymen wearing black hats.

Pestilence of livestock (8): Pistil, instead of pestil, as in the female reproductive part of a flower – and lance instead of lence. No livestock appears in the scene but the three lances point to members of the clergy and infer that the aftermath of conflict, even among popes and bishops can result in the decimation of their flocks. This was a period when there was a schism in the Catholic Church and three popes claimed the chair of St Peter.

Another play on words is the Water to Blood plague (9) and refers to the legs of the two kneeling knights. The biblical passage from Exodus reads: “With the staff in my hands I wil strike the water of the Nile and it will be changed into blood…” The staff is the one held by Afonso, duke of Braganza. Notice its pointed end. The river of blood – the ‘Nile’ – is an anagram of ‘line’. Hence the lined red legs of the two knights.

Finally the remaining plague refers to one of wild animals or flies – the bible describes them as gadflies. I’m still trying to identify the iconography for this plague and will publish it when I locate it.

Spot the plagues

The biblical Book of Exodus describes a number of plagues inflicted on Egypt because of the stubborn heart shown by the Pharoh in not wanting to allow the Israelites their freedom from captivity.

The Panel of the Archbishop section from the St Vincent Panels.

A similar scenario is expressed in the Panel of the Archbishop, the fourth section of the polyptych known as the St VIncent Panels. The stubborn hearts belong to the young king of Portugal Afonso V and his uncle Afonso duke of Braganza. In the aftermath of the Battle of Alfarrobeira in May 1449, when their army defeated the forces of Peter, duke of Coimbra – also an uncle of the king and half-brother to the duke of Braganza – they refused to allow Peter’s body to be buried at Bathala Monastery alongside his father, the Portuguese king João 1 and founder of the House of Aviz. Peter’s son John was taken prisoner during the battle, so were his brothers James and Peter afterwards.

Isabella, duchess of Burgundy and sister to Peter of Coimbra, later petitioned for her brother’s body to be translated to Bathala, but to no avail. Eventually, in December 1449, her husband, Philip the Good, commissioned the French dean of Vergy, Jean Jouffroy, to personally travel to Portugal with instructions that Peter’s remains be given an honorable funeral and the properties and dignity of his children be reinstated. Jouffroy, shown right, is depicted in the Panel of the Relic.

Jouffroy made three presentations, the final audience being on January 16, 1450. Eventually Alphonso V agreed to release Peter’s two sons who afterwards went into exile and travelled to Burgundy with their entourage. Their properties and titles were later reinstated, but the young king refused to give into the demands for Peter’s body to be buried at Bathala. Fearing the corpse might stolen he had it transported to the Chateau d’Abrantès. It took another five years for Afonso V to have a change of heart – brought on by the birth of his son Juan – before the Duke of Coimbra’s remains were finally translated and buried in the Bathala monastery.

So why the references to the plague in this particular panel? Firstly the father of Afonso V king Edward of Portugal was a victim of the plague in September 1438, as his father and mother were before him. Edward stands behind the young king. His neck is blemished with a dark circular mark – a sign of the plague. Secondly the artist is comparing the stubborn heart of Afonso V, perhaps influenced by his mentor the duke of Braganza, with the stubborn heart of the Pharoh portrayed in the Book of Exodus.

Another pointer to the Egyptian plagues or curses, is that before the birth of Afonso’s son John in 1455, his wife Isabella of Coimbra, daughter to his uncle Peter, gave birth earlier to another son in January 1451. He was also named John and was heir to the throne. However he died within the same year. This also is a pointer to one of the plagues inflicted on Egypt when the Lord said: “About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of the Pharoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn of the slave who is at her handmill…” (Exodus 11:4-5)

Notice the couter on the kneeling knight’s elbow, depicted as a young child’s face! The lacing on the knight’s front represents he plague of frogs, while the knots, or gnats, on the young king’s hat is symbolic of another plague.

Are the ten churchmen standing in the back row meant to be synonomous with the ten plagues associated with Egypt, perhaps considered a plague on the people at the time, and guilty of the sin of simony (selling of church offices and relics) – the translation of relics being a major theme of the St Vincent panels?

The plague mark on King Edward’ neck, and the child’s face depictied on the knight’s elbow protector.

• More on this in a future post.

Battles and beards

This Portrait of a Carthusian Monk was painted by Petrus Christus in 1446 and is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

It was this painting, along with another work by Petrus, that was the inspiration for the bearded Carthusian figure in the Panel of the Friars, the first of six frames that make up the St Vincent Panels.

The long-bearded monk is holding an upright plank of wood – upright as in the sense of righteous (a righteous or just judge). This contrasts to the first figure on the back row, Pontius Pilate, who sentenced Jesus Christ to death by crucifixion after telling the Jews he could find no fault in the man.

It’s not just the beard and white robe that Gonçlaves adopted from the Carthusian painting. The orange, fiery background is echoed in the fiery cross on the monk’s black hat, while the box edge that runs top and right of the frame is represented by the box standing behind Jan van Eyck in the Panel of the Relic.

The plank of wood as representative of the Cross is forefront in another painting by Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop, and forms the counter on which various items are displayed. This, too, was incorporated by Nuno Gonçalves into the Panel of the Friars.

A Goldsmith in his Shop, by Petrus Christus. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Researcher Clemente Baeta has identified eleven holes in the plank featured in the Panel of the Friars. The eleven holes match the number of round items grouped on the shop counter, excluding the red ribbon and the mirror. In the Petrus painting they represent the positions of the English forces when it laid seige to Orleans in 1428. The seige was relieved the following year when French forces led by Joan of Arc attacked and overpowered the English positions.

Gonçalves has linked this to reference the siege and conquest of Ceuta by Portugal in 1415 and its successful defence when Moroccan forces counter-attacked in 1419.

Notice also how the right hand of both St Eligius and the monk rest on the panel of wood.

There is another detail in the St Vincent Panels that links to a third painting by Petrus Christus. More about this in a future post.

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

Several Flemish painters are shown in the St Vincent Panels. The long-bearded monk is meant to represent Roger Campin. Hugo van der Goes shows up in the Panel of the Prince, as does Petrus Christus (see below). Jan van Eyck is the pilgrim featured in the Panel of the Relic, while Dieric Bouts, Rogier van der Weyden and Jaques Daret line up in the Panel of the Knights.

Left: Petrus Christus as portrayed in the St Vincent Panels and (right), probably twenty years earlier, as St Eligius in A Goldsmith in his Shop.