Revealing the Relic

It has never been established which saint or martyr the skull fragment depicted in the so-called Panel of the Relic belongs to. Is it St VIncent of Zaragossa or, as some historians have suggested, Ferdinand, known as the Holy Prince or the Saint Prince (but never canonised), who died as a captive in a Moroccan prison?

Hugo van der Goes, the Flemish artist who painted the St Vincent panels, has provided visible clues that point to another saint, possibly even two, which as far as I know have never been considered before by historians.

While the focus of the Altarpiece is on St Vincent, he is not the only saint or martyr represented in the panels. There are many. In fact, Van der Goes has made “uncovering saints” one of the main themes in the painting. This stems from a connection with the first figure of many representing a saint – in this instance St Ambrose of Milan, depicted in the top left corner of the Friars Panel. More on this connection at another time.

So it should not be assumed that the so-called ‘twin’ figures said to be of St Vincent simply represent that particular saint alone. We are invited to “uncover the saints and martyrs” represented in all of the six panels, as well as other idenities associated with the St Vincent figures.

Van der Goes links each clue to another, as a method of confirming identities and connections. He was influenced in this type of construction by Jan van Eyck who employed the same technique in the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly in the Just Judges panel where the ten riders interlock as jigsaw pieces.

Let’s explore how Van der Goes leads the viewer to discovering the saint associated with the skull fragment. The artist was well versed in producing heraldic decorations for the Burgundian court and the city of Ghent. In 1468 he was commissioned to do so for the marriage of Charles the Bold to Margareta of York and later other works for important occasions.

Aspects of Hugo’s knowledge and experience of heraldic disciplines and terminology feature in the St Vincent Panels. One particular term Hugo has utilised from the language of heraldry is ‘erasure’ which, according to The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, is the tearing off a part of a charge, to leave a jagged edge, and mostly applied to heads depicted with a ragged edge as if forcibly torn from the body.

In another post I pointed out that one of the works of art which Hugo borrowed features from to include in the St Vincent Panels was the Monsaraz fresco known as the Good and Bad Judge, most notably the damaged or ‘erased’ section that formed part of the Good Judge’s right arm and hand. This ‘erased’ or ‘hidden’ motif is utilised in all of the St Vincent Panels in a variety of ways – for instance: men with arms, men without arms, in a literal and military sense. Very few of the figures standing in the back row of the panels are depicted with arms or hands, and if they are, then there is usually a significant meaning to why this is so.

The Panel of the Relic is a typical example. Only the figure of Jan van Eyck doubling up as John the Baptist shows both arms and hands, and even his arms are partly cut off or covered. His two brothers on the back row, Hubert and Lambert, both named after saints, are also armless. The figure of the French prelate and diplomat Jean Jouffroy, twinned with Pierre Cauchon, another French bishop and also a prosecutor in the trial of Joan of Arc, are depicted with their right arm on show and hand on a holy book. Jouffroy later attacked Joan’s ‘saintly’ reputation in a eulogy given in 1459 to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, which may explain the symbolism of the hidden arm and underhand motif.

As to any visual reference to St Joan of Arc – yet another French connection – it is found in the patterned surplice worn by Hubert. Notice the stake-shaped arch in the centre and what appears to be rising flames, a reminder of how Joan suffered martyrdom by being burnt at the stake. The flames can also be understood as symbolic of the Holy Spirit.

The kneeling figure in the bright red gown depicts the French king Charles VI, referred to as ‘Charles the Mad’, who was plagued throughout his life with bouts of mental illness. The figure is also representative of Cardinal Henry Beaufort, said to have had a a hidden hand in the prosecution of Joan of Arc, although the absent left hand seemingly supporting the skull fragment also has a connection to the relic itself. Both Beaufort and Charles VI are also presented in Jan van Eyck’s Just Judges panel in the Ghent altarpiece.

As to the skull fragment itself, close inspection shows a ragged edge on its top side. This makes the connection to the heraldic term ‘erasure’ and a reason why Charles VI is holding the relic.

With its spiked back, the ‘torn’ fragment is meant to depict a porcupine and links to the French king’s younger brother, Louis I Duke of Orleans, who was assassinated on November 23, 1407, on the orders of John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy. He was lured to his death on a Paris street in broad daylight after being told his brother wished to meet with him. When he mounted his horse to start on his way a gang of fifteen masked men attacked and fatally stabbed him, cutting off one of his hands in the process, hence the image of his brother Charles depicted with one hand only.

As to the porpupine motif, this represents the chivalric Order of the Porcupine founded by Louis in 1394 to mark the occasion of the baptism of his son Charles of Orleans who was later held captive by the English as a prisoner of war for 25 years.

The Order’s insignia was represented by a gold porcupine standing on a green enamelled oval-shaped base, hence the green cloth base behind the skull fragment. The Order was sometimes referred to in France as the Ordre du Camail and here Hugo van der Goes makes another link to confirm his intended reference to the insignia. Depicted just above the king’s right shoulder is the coat of camel hair worn by John the Baptist. The word-play, camel and camail, is confirmed by the folds in the Baptist’s coat shaped to represent the legs of a camel.

But there is more to link to the Order of the Porcupine. Louis, duke of Orleans, did not enjoy the best of reputations with the people. He had many enemies and is said to have taken his brother’s wife as a mistress. It was also claimed that he dabbled in magic and the black arts, even necromancy. So when we look at the fuller figure in red, there are other clues that point to Louis, duke of Orleans. Saint he wasn’t, it seems.

To the right and slightly above the green cloth is the shape of demonic face with a sharp-pointed nose. It also has an open, laughing mouth with two teeth. The demonic face represents John the Fearless, noted for his long sharp nose, piercing the cameo, and the stabbing of Louis. This motif is also adapted by Hugo from the Monsaraz fresco, shown below.

But take a look at the green cloth to its full extent and we see portrayed another demonic feature, screaming on its way into the fires of hell. The folds in the red garment are angled and accentuated in a descending formation.

Some twelve years later John the Fearless was assassinated in similar fashion on the bridge at Montereau when an attempt to parley with the French dauphin and future Charles VII of France went amiss. One of the dauphin’s escorts panicked and attacked the duke of Burgundy with an axe to his face. The shape of the axe head can be made out in the demonic face of John the Fearless, cleaving his skull through to the socket of his eye.

So where is the saint feature in all of this? Van der Goes is pointing the way back to another Louis and another king, the only French king canonised by the Cathoic Church, Louis IX.

It was Louis who built a dedicated chapel, the Sainte-Chapelle, as a shrine to house the many relics associated with the life of Christ presented to him by Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople. These included the Crown of Thorns and a fragment fo the True Cross, so the skull fragment held by king Charles VI can also be understood as a relic of St Louis and the porcupine’s thorns as the Crown of Thorns placed on the head of Christ during his Passion.

In all of this there is another connection to Jan van Eyck and a folio attributed to him in the Turin-Milan Hours depicting the Birth of John the Baptist. The minature refers to many of the items Louis IX received from Baldwin II and were kept in the Sainte-Chapelle. More recently, the Crown of Thorns was rescued from its sanctuary when the Paris cathedral of Notre Dame caught fire in April 2019.

The Order of the Porcupine is not the only chivalric company represented in the St Vincent panels. There are several, and at least three others in the Panel of the Relic.

More on this and other connections to be discovered in the Panel of the Relic in my next post.