Lights that shine in the dark

Mentioned in a previous post was Barthélemy van Eyck, an artist in the service of duke René of Anjou. He is credited with producing some of the Calendar folios of The Very Rich Hours belonging to John, duke of Berry.

René also acquired a Book of Hours originally illuminated by an unknown artist. He subsequently commissioned several more pages to add to the manuscript. One of the commissioned artists was Barthélemy van Eyck, responsible for the rather gruesome image shown here depicting René as a decomposing corpse. 

Book of Hours, Use of Paris (The ‘Hours of René of Anjou’), British Library, Egerton MS 1070

The manuscript (referred to as Egerton MS 1070) is kept by the British Library. It describes this particular folio as a memento-mori portrait placed at the beginning of the Office of the Dead. The banner reads, “Memento homo quod sinis es et in sinere reverteris” (Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return).

It is this folio which Hugo van der Goes has sourced to make the connection to René and Barthélemy van Eyck (as well as to the figures of Lambert and Jan van Eyck), and to reference another two saints in the frame, SS Michael and Bartholomew.

René of Anjou is one of four identities Van der Goes has given to the man in black in the Panel of the Relic (St Vincent Panels).

Detail of René of Anjou from the Matheron Diptych, Louvre, Paris

The link to St Michael derives from the Matheron Diptych by the French artist Nicolas Froment, a double portrait of René with his second wife Jeanne de Laval (Louvre, Paris). René is wearing the collar of the Order of St Michael founded by Louis XI of France in 1469. It was dedicated to the archangel Michael.

The collar is unusual in that it is made up of a series of scallop shells (the badge of pilgrims). Van der Goes makes the pilgrim connection to the pilgrim figure depicted by Jan van Eyck, but more subtly mirrors the shape of the shells in the waved and cockled pages of the holy book.

Another link to René of Anjou and the pilgrim figure – in this instance in the guise of John the Baptist – is the proclaimer’s coat which is made of camel hair.

René was a keeper of exotic animals and one of his menageries housed six camels. The shape of the camel legs  in the Baptist’s coat was pointed out in a previous post.

The next set of connections link the death and later translation of Jan van Eyck’s corpse. When he died in July 1441 he was initially buried in the precincts of the church of St Donatian, Bruges. Seven months later, in March 1442, at the request of his brother Lambert, permission was given for Jan’s body to be translated into the church and buried near the baptismal font. This is depicted in the Seven Sacraments painting by Rogier van der Weyden.

So here we have Hugo van der Goes creating a link between the figures of Lambert and René and also connecting the baptism theme. The exhumation of Jan’s body and translation also lends to the figure of Jan standing in front of what is understood to be an upright coffin, perhaps also signifying the upright nature of the man during his life. The motif also points to another painting by Van der Weyden, The Joseph Portrait, that shows Jan placed in front of an empty niche. This in turn sets up another theme in the panel which I shall post on at another time.

The rotting flesh of the René figure in the memento-mori is also a reminder of Jan van Eyck’s exhumation. Hugo van der Goes has deliberately arranged Jan’s hands in a way to echo those of the corpse. Even the left hand’s grip on the scroll is matched to Jan’s hold on his staff. The corpse’s stomach is represented by the dark area beneath Jan’s arms with the descending folds below his belt its disgorging contents, a combination of intestines and worms.

Notice also the tattered and torn state of the scroll held by the corpse. The scroll has a peculiar shape and hangs over the shroud representing Rene’s coat of arms and earthly kingdoms.  The shape of the scroll loosely resembles the Greek lambada, or the letter ‘l’ (λ). Combined with the bow shape, we arrive at a word that sounds like ´El-bow’, meaning God’s bow, a reminder of his covenant promise. And if we look to the corpse’s right arm, another Greek letter, Delta (Δ), is formed. confirmed by the ‘branches’ of the trees inside the shape of the counter. Also, the corpse’s elbow points to and confirms the ‘El-bow’ shape produced by the scroll.

Hugo has incorporated these elements in the pilgrim figure. A lower-case Delta (𝛿) symbol can be seen on the cuff of Jan’s sleeve; the tributaries are three pronounced veins on the back of his right hand. This can be understood in two ways: (1) As part of a trinitarian theme that runs throughout the St Vincent panels and (2) symbolic of the three Van Eyck brothers, Lambert, Hubert and Jan and their branches of the Van Eyck family. The Delta symbol is turned to point to the torn elbow, and so connects to the torn scroll and another branch of the Van Eyck family, Barthélemy.

Hugo visualised the unfolding scroll stemming from the pierced flesh of the memento-mori figure as an extended piece of peeling flesh. This was to introduce another Saint into the scene that linked to Barthélemy – his namesake Bartholomew, who was one of the Twelve Apostles chosen by Jesus. Bartholomew is said to have been martyred when flayed alive and his head cut off, hence the torn fabric at the elbow and the white blade-shapes underneath his loose camel skin. The shape of an axehead is formed in the cuff of the left sleeve below the head of Elijah formed from the knuckles on the left hand, and a reminder that John the Baptist was also beheaded. Another account claims Bartholomew was crucified upside down, which may also explain why the Delta symbol is shown upside down beneath the profile of Christ crucified.

More on the Panel of the Relic in my next post.