The above detail depicting John the Baptist is from the left wing of the Donne Triptych painted by Hans Membling and housed at the National Gallery in London. Model for the Baptist figure is Rogier van der Weyden. In the background is another Flemish painter, Dieric Bouts.
This pairing is repeated in the Panel of the Knights, the fifth section of the St Vincent Panels as shown here. Hugo van der Goes has featured several artists and made references to their paintings in the St Vincent Panels, usually placing them on the back row.
However, Hans Membling is given a more prominent position. He is one of the identities applied to the kneeling figure in the Panel of the Relic and is shown well advanced in age compared with the some of the other paintings in which he appears as a young man, sometimes in the role of the youngest apostle John the Evangelist.
Membling portrays himself as John in the right wing of the Donne Triptych, holding the poisoned chalice he was invited to drink from by a pagan priest. Hugo has also made a connection to the chalice and the skull fragment held by the ageing Henry Beaufort whose likeness is based on the painting of the Cardinal by Jan van Eyck.
Here Hugo has attempted to morph the two men into one likeness, just as Van Eyck did with himself and the figure of Philip the Good in the Arnolfini Portrait, and so we have another indication for Hugo attempting to emulate the work of Van Eyck.
But there is more to this connection. Beaufort had amassed a great fortune in his life-time and was considered to be one of the wealthiest men in England, so rich that kings and emperors came to him for loans to finance their military and war efforts.
According to the art historian Til-Holger Borchert, so successful was Hans Membling during his painting career and at making investments (he owned several houses) that he was listed among the richest citizens in Bruge, and so an obligatory subscriber to the loan raised by Maximillian I of Austria to finance hostilities towards France in 1480.
Was Hugo van der Goes making a judgement on the success of Membling, or was the reference to the descent into Hell featured in the red-robed figure (as explained in a previous post) a pointer to one of Memling’s most famous and dramatic paintings, The Last Judgment triptych, now housed at the National Museum in Gdańsk, Poland?
Close inspection of the St John figure and the poisoned chalice shows a fold in the red gown shaped to represent a demonic figure with its nose pointing to the rim of the cup.
A similar motif with a sharp nose can be seen “attacking” the skull fragment in the Panel of the Relic.
The chalice and the skull fragment connect to another narrative disguised in the St Vincent Panels, but more on this at another time.
Hugo also combines two elements from Membling’s two triptychs into one of his own – the towers which appear in the left wing of The Last Judgment and the right wing of The Donne Tryptich – to form the wooden upright box in the Panel of the Relic.
Finally, the inspiration for the coupling of Rogier van der Weyden and Dieric Bouts in the Panel of the Knights can also be found in The Last Supper painting by Dieric Bouts painted in the 1460’s and probably around the same time as Membling produced The Last Judgment.
The two portraits shown in the serving hatch of The Last Supper painting are Dieric Bouts and Hans Membling. Another ‘servant’ depicted in the painting is Rogier van der Weyden who died during the time Bouts was painting The Last Supper, and so another possible reason for Van der Goes to link Bouts and Van der Weyden in the St Vincent Panels. Bouts died in 1475.
More revelations on the Panel of the Relic in a future post.
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