Another written source Hugo van der Goes called on so as to link Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert in the St Vincent Panel of the Relic was Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (Natural History). The Roman author’s ‘encyclopedia’ provides an account of a contest between two Greek artists, Apelles and Protogenes. Apelles was attached to the court of the Macedonian king Philip II, and later served his son Alexander the Great. His rival Protogenes resided in Rhodes.
“A circumstance that happened to him [Apelles] in connection with Protogenes is worthy of notice. The latter was living at Rhodes, when Apelles disembarked there, desirous of seeing the works of a man whom he had hitherto only known by reputation. Accordingly, he repaired at once to the studio; Protogenes was not at home, but there happened to be a large panel upon the easel ready for painting, with an old woman who was left in charge. To his enquiries she made answer, that Protogenes was not at home, and then asked whom she should name as the visitor. “Here he is,” was the reply of Apelles, and seizing a brush, he traced with colour upon the panel an outline of a singularly minute fineness. Upon his return, the old woman mentioned to Protogenes what had happened. The artist, it is said, upon remarking the delicacy of the touch, instantly exclaimed that Apelles must have been the visitor, for that no other person was capable of executing anything so exquisitely perfect. So saying, he traced within the same outline a still finer outline, but with another colour, and then took his departure, with instructions to the woman to show it to the stranger, if he returned, and to let him know that this was the person whom he had come to see. It happened as he anticipated; Apelles returned, and vexed at finding himself thus surpassed, he took up another colour and split both of the outlines, leaving no possibility of anything finer being executed. Upon seeing this, Protogenes admitted that he was defeated, and at once flew to the harbour to look for his guest.”Pliny the Elder, The Natural History
Jan van Eyck was sometimes referred to as Apelles by his contemporaries, such were his skills and knowledge as an artist, but there was another reason why he was compared to the Greek painter in this way. While Jan served Philip II, duke of Burgundy, as valet de chambre, he was also employed as the Burgundian court painter
“The Dukes of Burgundy saw their ambitions in historical contexts. The fascination with Alexander the Great, revealed in their patronage, demonstrated their ambitions to be compared to this great ancient model. This interest further enhanced the status of individuals like Jan van Eyck. The comparison was made between the court of Alexander with his painter Apelles and the court of Philip the Good with his painter Jan van Eyck.”Jan van Eyck as a Court Artist
But by relating Jan and Hubert van Eyck to the Pliny account of Apelles and Protogenes, Hugo van der Goes intended yet another connection to the Ghent Altarpiece – the Latin ‘quatrain’ inscribed on four of the frames of the Ghent Altarpiece, part of which declares Hubert van Eyck “the greatest painter there was” and his “brother Jan second in art”.
However, although the consesus is that Jan is referring to himself as second best, Van der Goes may have interpreted the phrase “second in art” as “second in line”, that is Jan being the second artist born in the Van Eyck family, Hubert being the first – Protogenes (proto = original or first; gene = from genos, meaning generation of birth). Also, ‘Protogenes’… a subtle play on the word ‘Portuguese’ (Portogees) by Hugo van der Goes.
UPDATE July 21, 2021: So where in the Panel of the Relic is the “line of singularly minute fineness” to be found? It’s the black strap worn over the right shoulder of the figure of Jan van Eyck. In heraldic terms it represents a ‘bend’ or a line of partition placed on a shield (the shape of the white undergarment). A ‘bend’ is a band or strip running from the upper dexter corner of the shield to the lower sinster and can be further partitioned.
• More details about the Panel of the Relic in my next post.