Lines of succession

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.

Protogenes and Apelles

“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 and Hubert van Eyck, as Apelles and Protogenes

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”.

Part of the quatrain featured on one of the frames of the Ghent Altarpiece

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.

The hollow tree

In my previous post I pointed out the connection to the ‘coffin’ in the St Vincent Panel of the Relic to the ‘hollow tree’ that St Bavo made his abode for a time, and how this further linked to another theme in the panel, Halloween and All Saints Day (All Hallows Day)

What I didn’t mention at the time was also the connection to the birth name given to St Bavo – Allowin.

The Relic Panel is ‘mirrored’ in a section of Rembrandt’s 1639 etching Death of a Virgin, which I posted a year ago at this link. The ‘hollow tree’ is also featured in the etching, and features Rembrandt, aka St Bavo, looking into the scene through a gap (the hollow) in the curtain representing the tree.

Jan van Eyck as a type of St Bavo stepping out of a ‘hollow tree’… Rembrandt mirroring the theme… and a 15th century limestone sculpture of St Bavo.

The likeness of Rembrandt is similar to a 15th century limestone sculpture of St Bavo shown above, now housed at the Met Museum in New York. Look closely at Rembrandt’s left arm in the etching and you will see the faint outline of the shape of a bird. This represents a falcon, one of the attributes associated with St Bavo.

Another etching of St Bavo was published in 1650 by the Dutch artist Pieter Southam. The saint is depicted in all his glory as a noble soldier before his conversion, but notice the way his cloak is open widely and the similarity to Rembrant’s version of appearing through an open curtain. Is Southam’s illustration a hat-tip to his contemporary as Rembrandt’s is to the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes?

Rembrandt’s Death of a Virgin and Peter Southam’s St Bavo, Met Museum, New York

That the representations of St Bavo appear to be stepping out from the coffin or from behind the curtain relates to a passage from St Matthew’s gospel: The veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom; the earth quaked; the rocks split; the tombs opened and the bodies of many men holy men rose from the dead, and these, after resurrection, came out of the tombs and entered the Holy City and appeared to a number of people (29 : 51-53).

The Three Marys at the Tomb, by Hubert van Eyck, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

This passage also relates to Hubert van Eyck, placed right of the coffin in the Panel of the Relic, and one of his few extant paintings: The Three Marys at the Tomb (of the Risen Christ).

Rembrandt picked up on this, and made a group of the three women, two of them with their back to the viewer. (replacing Hubert and Lambert van Eyck). The Virgin Mary is seated on a ‘cushion’ chair, a reference to one of the other identities in the Panel of the Relic – the priestly figure in black, Pierre Cauchon.

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

Panel of the Relic… more connections

Over the years art historians have speculated on the identity of the 60 figures in the St Vincent Panels, without ever able to agree on a definitive line-up. Their efforts, it seems, have always focused on linking the 58 males and two women to Portuguese society, perhaps led by the fact the panels were discovered in the 1880s – in the monastery of Saint Vicente de Fora, in Lisbon.

So for some figures multiple names have been posited for their identity. In a sense this mixed bag of identities held an answer historians were searching for, but had yet to consider since they were focused on producing a single identity for each figure. The fact is that each figure usually has more that one identity, depending on a particular theme the artist embedded. While the painting is officially attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves, my preference is the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes who is featured on the back row of the Panel of the Prince. It may be that the work and the commission was shared between the two men, similar to the Ghent Altarpiece attributed to the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

The Ghent Altarpiece is perhaps the principal source of inspiration for the St Vincent Panels, and especially for the concept of using multiple identities. In the Just Judges panel Jan van Eyck has applied four identities to each of the ten riders. This was the challenge for Hugo van der Goes, to create a similar work embedded with multiple identities. To truly get to grips with the St Vincent Panels one has to understand the embedded themes and iconography Jan introduced in the Ghent Altarpiece. Without this knowledge or understanding it is not possible to grasp and comprehend all that Van der Goes presented in the St Vincent Panels.

Another painter, Barthélemy van Eyck, had knowledge of Jan’s disguised iconography in the Ghent Altarpiece and incorporated parts in the January folio he produced for Les Très Riche Heures when the manuscript was later in the possession of René d’Anjou. It’s also likely, Lambert van Eyck, a brother to Jan and Hubert, had knowledge of the cryptic narratives in the Ghent Altarpiece.

In the Panel of the Relic, Hugo van der Goes depicted the likeness of the three Van Eyck brothers. Barthélemy is also referenced but not seen and is a second ‘hidden’ identity given to Jan van Eyck. Jan also appears as John the Baptist, his name saint and the name of the church the Ghent Altarpiece was originally commissioned for until it was later renamed as St Bavo after it was rebuilt in the 16th century. St Bavo is the patron saint of Ghent.

Hugo van der Goes sourced a painting by Rogier van der Weyden for the image of Jan Van Eyck. The painting, now fragmented, portrayed Jan as Joseph the husband of the Virgin Mary, The section, which is housed at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon shows part of a church tower with a vacant aedicula to house a statue of some kind. The platform and canopy are there but the statue is missing. It’s very likely this motif partly inspired Van der Goes to portray Jan standing in front of an empty wooden box, which most observers presume is a coffin.

The wooden box acts as a visible link between the two Van Eyck brothers, so does it have other levels of meaning associated with the two figures? It’s constructed from a number of panels. Could it point to the wood panels that Jan and Hubert painted on to create the Ghent Altarpiece, perhaps a particular unfinished panel started by Hubert before his death in 1426? The Ghent Altarpiece is also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.

Observe Van Eyck’s red hat, shaped as a resting lamb, and a pointer to Jan’s self-portrait titled Man in a Red Turban, painted a year after the Ghent Altarpiece was unveiled. Hugo would have understood that the turban’s intricate folds also depicted the ‘Lamb of God’.

The Ghent Altarpiece was commissioned by the prosperous Flemish merchant and nobleman Joos Vijd, for his funeral bay chapel in the Ghent church of St John the Baptist. When completed in 1432 the painting was placed above the St Bavo altar in what became known as the Vidj Chapel.

St Bavo is the patron saint of Ghent. He came to faith late in life ‘after leading a worldly and dissipated life’ as a knight for nearly fifty years. His conversion came following his wife’s death and after listening to the preaching of St Amand. For a while he attached himself to a Benedictine monastery in Ghent but eventually moved out and lived a more secluded life out of a hollow tree in the forest of Malemedum, surviving only on herbs and spring water. The hollow tree, a natural harbour for shelter and rest, and a bay within the forest, has partly inspired Hugo’s empty wooden box. The mention of forest connects to the figure alongside of St Hubert whose conversion took place while hunting in a forest. However, the principle connection to the empty coffin or the hollow tree, is a pun to reference All Hallows’ Evening (Halloween, also known as All Saints’ Eve) followed by All Hallows Day – the Christian feast of All Saints; hence the many references made to Christian saints in the Panel of the Relic. The reference also serves to link to the phrase “communion of saints” (sanctorum communionem) declared in the Apostles’ Creed, which in turn connects to an earlier mention of the medieval poem: William’s Vision of Piers the Plowman.

There are other links. Understood as a niche or a nook, the box leads to a prevalent theme in the Panel of the Relic, that of books, and one of the most obvious being the holy book held by Jean Jouffroy. At the time of the painting Hugo van der Goes was a lay brother in a religious community known as the Brethren of the Common Life based at the Red Cloister priory near Brussels that housed an impressive collection of books as well as a workshop for book production.

The pious way of life adopted by the brothers of the community was also known as Devotio Moderna (the Modern Devotion). An early follower was Thomas á Kempis who wrote the popular book on Christian meditation, The Imitation of Christ. One of the famous quotes attributed to Thomas is used by Hugo to link the wooden box with books: “I have sought everywhere for peace, but found it not, except in nooks and in books.” Hugo repeated the quote in a later painting known as the Dormition of the Virgin, depicting Kempes gripping the headboard of the Virgin’s bed and decorated with the carved shape of an open book.

Another written source Hugo called on so as to link Jan and his brother Hubert to a specific feature of the Ghent Altarpiece 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.

More on this in my next post

Leonardo’s Head of a Bear up for auction

A small drawing of a bear’s head by Leonardo da Vinci is expected to sell for up to £12m ($16.7m) at a London auction today.

Measuring 7x7cm, Head of a Bear is more than 500 years old.

The sale could surpass the previous record for a da Vinci drawing, set by the Horse and Rider in 2001.

According to Christie’s auction house, holding the sale, it is among just a few drawings by the Italian Renaissance master which are still privately owned.

More details at this link.

UPDATE: The drawing sold for a record £8.8m ($12.1m).