Patching up with the past

The Monsaraz fresco known as The Good and Bad Judge, was discovered in 1958 during renovations to the town’s old court building. There is a consensus that the artwork was likely created in the latter part of the 15th century, although later additions (primarily depicting two coats of arms) and perhaps some restoration work were carried out later.

My understanding is that the fresco was painted at a much earlier date, before 1425 and the year the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck was part of the Burgundian diplomatic miission sent to Portugal to pave the way for the marriage of Philip ll, Duke of Burgundy, to Isabella, the only daughter of King John l.

There are elements of the fresco which afterwards Van Eyck incorporated in the Ghent Altarpiece completed in 1432, notably in the Just Judges panel.

In later years Hugo van der Goes seemingly had sight of and studied the fresco as he too was inspired to include some of its features in the St Vincent Panels in his attempt to emulate the Ghent Altarpiece and pay homage to the Van Eyck brothers.

As a citizen of Ghent, Van der Goes would have been more than familiar with the town’s famous altarpiece, and probably the hidden iconography embedded in its panels. For what other reason would Hugo choose to mirror many references to the iconic work of Jan and Hubert van Eyck in the St Vincent Panels?

Returning to the Monsaraz fresco as a source of inspiration for both Jan van Eyck and Hugo van Der Goes, it’s not difficult to match to sections in the St Vincent Panels. For starters, the three figures on the left side of the fresco’s lower register can be compared to the group of three men wearing white religious habits featured in the Panel of the Friars. Two are wearing black hats and one has a beard.

Detail from the Monsaraz fresco and the St Vincent Panel of the Friar

Van der Goes made some adjustment in his painting with the positioning of two of the friars, moving the notary to the front of the frame and the fairhead friar into the centre of the trio.

Now as to the question which artwork was produced first, the fresco or the St Vincent Panels, there are TWO notable clues in the fresco that provide the answer and which Hugo has referenced in his unique way in the Panel of the Friars.

The fresco is damaged in some areas. Paint and its plaster base is missing. In the lower section part of the right arm and hand of the seated judge is lost. Van der Goes has referenced the shape of this missing piece as the black hat worn by the kneeling friar and which covers the hands of the friar behind him.

Detail from the Monsaraz fresco and the St Vincent Panel of the Friar

The shape of the damaged arm in the fresco can also be matched to a ‘mirror’ image in the Panel of the Relic – the relic itself – confirming that Van der Goes had prior sight of the damaged fresco before he completed painting the St Vincent panels. Further confirmation is part of the hand protruding from beneath the damaged area. Hugo picks up on this as well and reproduces the fingers feature as extending from the sleeve of the bearded friar.

Another obvious missing section in the fresco is the top right segment of the upper register. The angel blowing the trumpet is almost obliterated, as is the head of the Suffering Christ in Glory as if decapitated from the body. A piece of the Saviour’s hair is all that remains visible. The word ‘hair’ is not only a key to discovering the Suffering Christ connection in the Panel of the Friars, but also to a series of embedded homophones revealing other identities and connections in the frame.

Christ on his throne… Monsaraz fresco…

Van der Goes also references this missing feature in the Panel of the Friars. Look closely at the head of the figure first in line on the back row. In this instance his identity is the Roman governor Pontius Pilate who was the judge at the trial of Jesus, the judge who responded to Christ’s claim to have been born to witness to the truth: “Truth, what is that?” before handing Jesus over to be crucified.

Pontius Pilate… his ear… and Lambert van Eyck… St Vincent Panels

Hugo has illustrated Christ’s crucifixion within the shape of Pilate’s ear, (a reminder that Pilate had listened to Jesus witness he was the Son of God. But notice that the head of Christ and part of the upper body is missing, hidden under Pilate’s hairline. This is not only a reference to the missing head of Christ in the fresco but also to the phrase found in the Nicene Creed: “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” Various references to the Nicene Creed can be found in other sections of the St Vincent Panels. Truth is also reflected in the head of Lambert van Eyck seen in the Panel of the Relic (and a pointer to Van Eyck’s famous mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait). Truth can be understood as the Holy Spirit shaped into Lambert’s hair, and to the first part of his name as Lamb (of God).

So while some may argue that the fresco was painted after and inspired by the St Vincent Panels, it is highly unlikely that whoever painted the fresco deliberately damaged the work to coincide with Hugo’s references to the missing limbs and head. Hugo has restored the missing parts of the fresco in new light, as if rediscovering or resurrecting lost relics.

“Then the One sitting on the throne spoke: “Now I am making the whole of creation new,” he said. “Write this, that what I am saying is sure and will come true.” And then he said. “It is already done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End…” (Revelation 21 : 5-6)

Notice the Alpha and Omega symbols below “the One sitting on the throne” in the upper register of the fresco!

• My next post will deal with a section of the fresco that inspired Jan van Eyck to utilise in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.