Eye for eye, tooth for tooth…

In a recent post (Lines of Succession) I mentioned 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”.

Although Hubert was originally commissioned to produce the polyptych it was Jan van Eyck who later took on the commission after his brother’s death in 1426. The project was completed in 1432.

As to how much progress Hubert had made with the commission before his death is uncertain, but apart from the mention in the quatrain Jan acknowledged and paid homage to his brother in other areas of the altarpiece, which suggests where this is the case, the particular panels were executed by Jan “second in art”.

The method Jan used was not only to depict an image of Hubert in some of the panels but also to make reference to some of his brother’s earlier works, thereby building on his statement in the quatrain that his brother was “the greatest painter”.

Below is an example of Jan’s approach to reformatting a part of Hubert’s earlier work. I must say at this stage that the painting I am presenting for comparison is generally attributed to Jan himself, but there is a view held by some art historians that the work is by Hubert and not his brother.

The detail is from the Crucifixion panel of the painting known as the Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych housed at the Met Museum of Art, New York. The comparison is made with detail in the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

left: the Crucifixion scene… right: the Pilgrims panel from the Ghent Altarpiece

The Crucifixion detail portrays a bearded man nose to nose with a white horse. The most striking feature is the open mouths displaying their white teeth, while the eye of the horse looks down on the seemingly closed eye of the man. The grouping is an analogy for the biblical expression, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth”.

Detail from the Crucifixion scene of the Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych and the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece

Jan van Eyck echoes the expression in a different format. The woman is portrayed as The Wife of Bath, a feisty character who features in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (a theme in the Ghent Altarpiece). In lines 605-606 she claims “I was fourty, if I shal seye sooth, but yet I hadde alwey a coltes tooth. Gat-tothed I was, and that bicam me wel… (I was forty, if I tell the truth; but then I always had a young colt’s tooth. Gap toothed I was, and that became me well…)”

So in this instance we have a match for the teeth and colt (horse) reference in Hubert’s painting. As to the eye reference in the bearded man and horse, this is portrayed in the man alongside, depicted with one eye as if blind, and his hat shaped as the muzzle of a horse resting on a cushion. Notice also in Hubert’s version how the horse’s muzzle is cushioned on the brim of the hat belonging to another figure of a man below.

Jan van Eyck has included in the Ghent Altarpiece other elements of paintings attributed to his brother Hugo which I shall present in a future post.