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.