Seeing double

The St Vincent panels attributed to Nuno Gonçalves, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga

Why do the St Vincent Panels show a double image of the martyred deacon in the two centre frames, and almost identical in presentation? What or who inspired this ‘mirror’ effect. Is it designed to prompt the viewer to contemplate and ‘reflect’ on a particular mystery, or does it simply relate to two episode’s in St Vincent’s life and perhaps those who surround him?

Standing near to the deacon in the Panel of the Prince is the Hugo van der Goes (right), and probably the Flemish artist responsible for the painting and production of the St Vincent Panels, and not Nuno Gonçalves the Portuguese artist the work is currently attributed to.

I would go as far as to say that the St Vincent Panels may be the painting the German humanist Hieronymous Münzer mentioned in his diary after visiting Ghent in 1495, and attributed to “another great painter” who was “driven mad and melancholy” attempting to emulate Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. He did not mention Hugo by name, but historians generally agree that Münzer was referring to Van der Goes who suffered a breakdown late in his life.

Hugo has made several references in the St Vincent Panels to the work of Jan van Eyck – also to other Flemish painters. Jan and his two brothers Hubert and Lambert are presented in the Panel of the Relic.

Van der Goes has sourced the Ghent Altarpiece for his two versions of St Vincent, deacon and martyr. Jan van Eyck included two tonsured deacons standing next to each other in the central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, walled in between a line of three popes and a row of seven bishops (right). The two deacons are St Stephen and St Lawrence. The latter shares a common birthplace with St Vincent. Both were born in Huesca in Spain.

St Stephen, who was stoned to death, is identifiable by the rocks gathered in his dalmic vestment, and the collar resting on his shoulders, studded with precious stones. St Lawrence holds a Gospel book but can be more readily recognised by the pattern on his collar, a reference to the manner of torture he suffered when he was placed on a gridiron with hot coals underneath. Another clue is that Lawrence is turned facing away from the direction most of the group are looking toward. This is a reference to the length of time he was being roasted and quipped to his torturers: “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over!”

Van Eyck placed these two particular deacons together for a reason, St Stephen was martyred in Jerusalem but eventually his relics were brought to Rome and laid to rest alongside those of St Lawrence, martyred in Rome. It is said that when Stephen’s bones were reinterred, Lawrence’s relics miraculously moved to one side to accomodate those of Stephen’s – perhaps another reason why Lawrence is shown turned towards his neighbour. The two deacon’s remains are interred under the high altar in what is now known as the Basilica Papale di San Lorenzo fuori le mura.

Although there is much mystery about the origin and history of the St Vincent panels, the assumption that the six sections formed part of a larger altarpiece dedicated to St Vincent in Lisbon Cathedral is widely promoted and referred to as the “Vicente thesis”.

At some time during its history, the six panels were presumed lost – as was the rest of the Lisbon Cathedral altarpiece – until they were discovered in the 1880s at the monastery of Saint Vicente de Fora in Lisbon. This find has led some researchers to consider the six panels were never part of the Cathedral altarpiece dedicated to St Vincent, and instead formed a single work commissioned solely for the São Vicente de Fora monastery. The monastery was founded in the 12th century by Portugal’s first king Alfonso Henrique for the Augustinian Order. It was rebuilt between 1582 and 1629, which may explain why the St Vincent panels were discovered “covered in dirt and soot” among scaffolding some 300 years, perhaps having been relocated during the reconstruction of the monastery – the monastery descibed as being “outside the walls”, just as the Basilica of St Lawrence in Rome is also descibed as being “outside the walls” (San Lorenzo fuori le mura).

So has the artist who painted the St Vincent Panels provided a clue to the location the polyptych was originally commissioned for by linking the two deacons in Van Eyck’s work to the double image of St Vincent and the fact that the two churches are referred to as being “outside the walls”?

Although a Vicente theorist, the Portuguese art historian Reynaldo dos Santos (1970) proposed the retable was destined for the monastery of São Vicente de Fora because he considered the only obvious relics of St Vincent depicted in the panels were the skull fragment and coffin, which were in possession of the monastery and not Lisbon’s cathedral.

Another point to consider is that Hugo van der Goes – if he was responsible for painting the St Vincent Panels – was also a lay brother from 1477 at the Rood Klooster (Red Cloister), an Augustinian priory near Brussels. It was around this period that he suffered a breakdown and attempted to self-harm. The method and instrument he used is illustrated in at least three of his later paintings including the St Vincent Panels.

The Red Cloister takes its name from the red tiles of the roof which could explain why the two St Vincent figures are wearing red hats – the artist confirming the work was produced during the time he lived at the priory. Or is this simply a hat-tip to Jan van Eyck’s self portrait of a Man in a Red Turban, shaped as a red rooster and a pun on Red Klooster? Perhaps both.

St Vincent’s red hat could also be viewed as a pointer to another painting by Jan van Eyck – the Arnolfini Portrait and its prominent mirror on the wall. Not only does it reflect the backs of the two main subjects but also shows two or possibly three other obscure figures in the room, one of whom is considered to be Van Eyck in the process of painting the couple and wearing his red hat.

This famous painting was echoed in a manuscript illumination attributed to Loyset Liédet and forrms part of a book titled Histoire de Charles Martel. The compiler of the text is thought to have been Jean Wauquelin, but the minature actually features David Aubert who transcribed or translated the text, and is shown wearing a similar red hat to St Vincent. His pose is also reminiscent of the saint as seen in the Panel of the Archbishop.

This folio provides the link to identifying two more of the figures in the St Vincent Panels. The man holding a book and standing at the right end of the line is Jean Wauquelin. Turning his head toward Wauquelin is David Aubert, minus his red hat. Van der Goes has ‘translated’ the hat onto the head of the figure in front who is Anthony of Burgundy, Aubert’s main patron and the favourite bastard son of Philip the Good. Anthony also features in the Loyset Liédet illumination. He’s the figure in the blue gown, wearing a gold chain and pointing to Aubert’s work.

The facial features of St Vincent are adapted from the Good and Bad Judge fresco in the old town hall of Monsaraz, where Van Eyck visited during his year-long diplomatic excursion to Portugal. The judge’s double-face or turned head was probably another feature what partly inspired Jan’s portrayal of the two deacons in the Ghent Altarpiece.