Four Knights and a Marriage

In my previous post I pointed out the connection in the Panel of the Friars to the Three Kings who travelled to Bethlehem with gifts for the new-born Saviour. The Magi motif is repeated in different ways in all of the six sections of the St Vincent Panels. It is why each panel is structured with groups of three figures in the forefront.

However, there appears to be an exception to this format in the Panel of the Knights where four knights are shown, and not three. The knights represent four sons of King John l of Portugal. Kneeling at the front is Henry (the Navigator). Behind him is Peter, Duke of Coimbra. Next in line is John, Constable of Portugal, backed by the ‘Holy Prince’ Ferdinand wearing the steel helmet.

I’ve mentioned in past posts that the St Vincent Panels is an altarpiece inspired by the Ghent Altarpiece produced by the Van Eyck brothers, Jan and Hubert, and probably the work of Hugo van der Goes and not the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves it is currently attributed to.

The Panel of the Knights is a section inspired by another famous painting by Jan van Eyck – The Arnolfini Portrait, now displayed in London’s National Gallery. It is from this painting that Van der Goes makes the connection to the Three Kings, or Magi.

The Arnolfini Portrait has no link with an Italian merchant named Giovanni Arnolfini who had business connections in Flanders – but it does relate to Portugal and the House of Aviz. Philip the Good, duke of Burgndy is depicted alongside his third wife, Isabella, daughter of King John l of Portugal and sister to the four brotherly knights.

The Arnolfini Portrait is noted for its large mirror, centrally placed. It shows a mysterious reflection. The backs of the man and woman are clearly identifiable, but the other figures – there are three – are not. Some people speculate that the figure in red may represent Jan van Eyck painting the portrait.

Certainly, other artists of the time understood the composition of the reflection in the mirror, notably Rogier van der Weyden, but some 80 years later Joos van Cleeve revealed the mystery in his panel painting of The Annunciation which also depicted a scene of the Three Wise Men behind the open door of a tabernacle. So Van Eyck’s three figures represent in this sense the Magi arriving to pay homage to the infant-king and Philip and Isabella arere portrayed as a type of Joseph and Mary.

Van Eyck’s tabernacle is housed behind the mirror. It probably contained the miraculous ‘bleeding Host of Dijon’ given to the couple as a gift by Pope Eugenious IV, and therefore considered the Real Presence of Christ by the Catholic Church.

In another sense, Isabella was about to or had recently given birth to her third son, Charles Martin, later nicknamed The Bold, and so the Wise Men or Three Kings had come to pay homage to the new-born heir.

The Panel of the Knights is primarily intended to depict the reflection seen in Van Eyck’s mirror. The first three knights represent the Magi who followed the Star of Bethlehem. The bearded fourth knight, the Holy Prince Ferdinand, is depicted as an image of Christ, his steel cap representing the tomb in which he was laid to rest. Its highlight is matched to the beam of light above the head of one of the kings in Van Eyck’s mirror reflection. The red hat and jacket worn by John can also picked up in the refelection, as can the blue and black colours in the sleeve of Henry’s undercoat.

That the wise men were guided by a star is echoed in the celestial symbols attached to the garments of the knights. The most notable is the quadrant for measuring angles worn on Henry the Navigator’s elbow.

This brief presentation is simply to reveal the connection to The Arnolfini Portrait. There is much, much more to ‘break open’ but at another time.

Meanwhile, there is a detailed analysis of the Arnolfini Portrait at my other website arnolfinimystery.com

Through this sign you will conquer

Detail from the Adoration of the Lamb section of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

This detail is from the Ghent Altarpiece – produced by Jan and Hubert van Eyck – and forms part of the centre panel known as the Adoration of the Lamb. The young man looking up represents the Roman Emperor Constantine experiencing a vision he had prior to a battle with another Roman Emperor, Maxentius. His vision entailed seeing a Christian cross appearing out of the sun along with the words: “Through this sign you will conquer”. Constantine adopted the symbol and ordered it to be marked on the shields of his soldiers. The next day Constantine proved victorious against Maxentius at what is known as the Battle of the MIivian Bridge.

A younger version of Constantine is also included in the Pilgrims panel of the altarpiece.

Hugo van der Goes paid tribute to Jan van Eyck by incoporating many features from the Ghent Altarpiece into the St Vincent Panels. Although this work is attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves, there is evidence to argue that Van der Goes instead was the artist.

Constantine’s appearance in the two panels of the Ghent Altarpiece is referenced by Van der Goes in the Friars section of the St Vincent Panels, though not apparent at surface level because the clues are intentionally cryptic, as is most of the iconography used to assist identificaton of the six figures.

Like Van Eyck’s Just Judges panel, four identities are given to each figure in the Friars panel. To add to the mix and assist with identification of figures and themes, Hugo also made references to other painters and their work.

Detail from the Friars section of the St Vincent Panels.

After visiting Ghent in 1495 the humanist Hieronymous Münzer wrote of a famous Flemish painter who had “been driven mad and melancholy” in his attempt to “equal the Ghent Altarpiece in his own work”. It’s likely that painter was Hugo van der Goes. Münzer’s claim is supported by a report recorded in the Chronicle of the Red Cloister stating Hugo had suffered a breakdown and made an attempt to take his own life.

Historians date Gaspar Ofhuys’ entry in the monastery’s chronicle between 1509-1513. However, Van der Goes, who is said to have died in 1482, was still alive when Ofhuys likely recorded Hugo’s setback because the artist refers to the chronicler and the event in several of his later paintings after his recovery.

In fact, Gasper Ofhuys is one of the identities given to the kneeling man in the forefront of the Friars panel (pictured above).

His black cap identifies with a missing section from a painting at Monsaraz in Portugal titled The Good and Bad Judge (see below). The fresco was sourced by both Van der Goes and Van Eyck for their respective altarpieces. The cap applies to two of the other identities the figure represents. But what is its significance when applied to Ofhuys? Could it point to the blackcap bird known to perch and repeatedly twitter. A gossip, and perhaps even a complainer?

Detail from the Good and Bad Judge fresco at Monsaraz, Portugal

There are other ‘buried’ clues to confirm the identity of Gaspar Ofhuys, one of them relates to the numeral 3, as in Trinitarian or, as mentioned in a previous post, to the Three Crowns – the group of three figures standing at the back – Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio. The three friars are also positioned to represent three ‘wise men’ travelling from the East to pay homage and bring gifts.

For Caspar, read Gaspar. The friar to his left can be understood as Melchior and the bearded friar as Balthazar. The subtle reference to the Magi is part of a ‘confession’ theme in the panel and links to the time of Hugo’s attempt at self-harm on his return with a group of other friars to the Red Cloister monastery after making a pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral.

Gaspar Ofhuys was not part of the group. He claims the account of Hugo’s breakdown was related to him by another friar, named Nicholas, Hugo’s half-brother.

It can now be understood that the Three Crowns reference was a pointer to the Three Kings or Magi. Constantine’s vision, the Sign of the Cross, represents the self-blessing action made by Christians to confess their belief in the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

More on this in my next post: Four Knights and a Marriage