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.