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