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