The painting above – The Three Marys at the Tomb – is generally attributed to Hubert van Eyck, but there is an opinion that the work may be by his brother Jan, or even a shared production as the Ghent Altarpiece was.
Another painting, Folio 30v from the Turin-Milan Hours depicting Christ’s Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, also has an uncertain attribute. Generally classed as by Hand G, but considered to be the work of either Hubert or Jan van Eyck, the miniature shares many similarities with the Three Marys.
So are the two paintings the work of the same artist and if so, by Hubert or Jan? It’s not hard to see how the artist has rung some of the changes in the Three Marys picture, using the Gethsemane folio as the original source of inspiration.
For starters, the composition is very similar; three men asleep against a stone tomb. The central figure of Jesus has been replaced by an angel facing Mary the mother of Jesus and announcing his resurrection, similar in style to paintings of the angel Gabriel announcing to the `Virgin Mary that she was to conceive and bear a son.
The three Marys are substitutes for the three main figures behind the fence in the Gethsemane painting, the red, blue and green colours matched to the colours given to the three disciples asleep by the rocks.
The cohort coming to arrest Jesus are depicted against a background representing the Mount of Olives. One man’s hat is shaped and coloured as an olive. This corresponds to the three Mary’s bringing oil to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus.
The figure asleep at the right of the tomb has his legs crossed. This echoes the sleeping disciple James (the brother of John) whose hands are crossed. Both men are dressed in green and placed at the edge of the frame. The shape of the guard’s hat is matched to the blue hat of the mysterious figure behind the fence in the Gethsemane painting, and his bandaged legs and knee protector links to the helmeted soldier and the torse supporting the red-peaked hat of the man alongside.
Another link to this group is the guard’s left hand pointing to his right ear. It’s a pointer to the armoured guard behind the fence seen with a pronounced ear protector attached to his helmet. The figure represents Malchus, the servant of the high priest Caiaphas. It was Malchus who had his right ear sliced off by Peter when the Jewish guards came to arrest Jesus, and that’s why it is hidden behind the ‘bandaged’ torse on the head of Malchus and explains why the crossed legs of the guard in the Three Marys painting are bandaged.
On the right shoulder of Caiaphas is Judas Iscariot wearing a hat depicted as a coiled rope. It has two representations: The betrayal and binding of Jesus in Gethsemane and the rope Judas used later to hang himself. In the Three Marys painting the rope feature is echoed in the lining of the red gown worn by the kneeling Mary Magdalene. It was this Mary who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and wiped them with her hair before anointing them with ointment. The other connection to Judas is when he complained about Mary using the expensive pure nard when it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. But Judas was also a thief and robbed the common purse of which he was in charge of.
There are several other connections between the two paintings, enough to confirm that the artist who painted The Three Mary’s at the Tomb had detailed knowledge of the disguised and hidden iconography in the Gethsemane folio, enough to postulate that both works were produced by the same artist. My assumption is that the artist was Hubert van Eyck, as his brother later translated some of the features in both paintings to the Ghent Altarpiece as a tribute to Hubert who was the artist commissioned originally to produce the polyptych. Hubert died in1426 before he was able to finish the project and It was then given to Jan van Eyck for completion.
• More on this in a future post.