One of the challenges for anyone attempting to identify the 60 persons contained in the six sections representing the St Vincent Panels, is realising the artist has applied more than one identity to many of them. Very rarely is any figure a stand-alone representation of who they appear to be at surface level.
The artist – and my preference is Hugo van der Goes, not Nuno Gonçalves – took his lead from Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, particularly the Just Judges panel in which four identities are applied to each rider.
Perhaps in this way Hugo not only intended to pay homage to Van Eyck but also echo the emergence of Portugal’s “Age of Discoveries” which began at the start of the 15th century, and so invite the viewer to explore and navigate their way around the altarpiece, panel by panel, increasing their knowledge and understanding of the artist’s mapping and connectivity techniques as they do so.
I have commented about the Panel of the Friars in previous posts and mentioned that one of the identities given to the figure standing extreme left in the back row is Pontius PIlate, the Roman governor who gave up Jesus to the Jews to be crucified.
The figure also represents Pope Boniface VIII. Alongside him is Saint Thomas Aquinas. Not only can these two figures be identified from other paintings but also by the iconography Van der Goes has embedded and connected to the group.
I can’t date the painting of Pope Boniface VIII shown below; neither do I know the name of the artist. But excluding the papal tiara there is a distinct resemblance to the first man on the back row.
Another person who can be added to the mix is St Ambrose of Milan. He is the third identity applied to the first figure in the back row. Like Pilate, Ambrose was also a Roman Governor. To complete the set of Roman governors – all men of authority – is Pope Boniface VIII, consecrated bishop of Rome in 1295.
The second figure in the back row can be matched to the Thomas Aquinas portrait by Sandro Botticelli dated 1481-1482. Of course, date attributions are not always accurate, but if this is close to the mark then it also helps to date the Panel of the Friars to a period after Botticelli’s painting and probably before a time Hugo is thought to have died around 1482. There is no record of Hugo’s death except a vague mention without a date in a chronicler’s journal said to have been written between 1509 and 1523.
There is a noticeable difference in the eyes of the two portraits. Hugo’s version has embedded the eyes of Botticelli from another painting – the Monforte Altarpiece. He did this not only to make a connection to Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi because it portrays Van der Goes, but for two other reasons which link the work to the Panel of the Friars.
The identity of the Aquinas figure can be confirmed by iconography that forms part of the white-haired Cistercian friar who, in this instance, is another saintly figure, Bernard of Clairvaux. The same applies to the portrayal of Boniface VIII. He too is connected to the Cistercian figure, not only portrayed as Bernard of Clairvaux but also as Bartolomeo Platina , the Vatican librarian who compiled and wrote a book on the Lives of the Popes (1479).
• I shall explain more about these group of figures and how they connect to each other in my next post.