Revisiting the Très Riche Heures

During the past two years I have posted several times about the January folio from the Très Riche Heures calendar section. More recently I have uncovered some interesting features about the painting which, as far as I know, have not come to light in any other commentaries concerning the miniature.

Detail from January folio in the Calendar section of the Très Riche Heures de Duc de Berry

The Très Riche Heures (Very Rich Hours) was commissioned by John, Duke of Berry and assigned to the Limbourg brothers to produce illustrations for the calendar section and collection of prayers. However, both the sponsor and the brothers died in 1416 before the work was completed. The book was inherited by René of Anjou and further pages were completed in the 1440s, attributed to Barthélemy d’Eyck, a relative of the brothers Hubert, Jan and Lambert van Eyck. The Duke of Savoy acquired the book in the 1480s and more pages were finished by the painter Jean Colombe.

Some historians attribute the March, September (part of), October and December calendar pages to Barthélemy van Eyck and refer to him as the “Master of the Shadows”. However, there is evidence to postulate that the January folio was also painted by Bathélemy d’Eyck.

In previous posts made about the January folio, I referred to Pol Limbourg as being the painter. He does feature in the scene, as does Barthélemy, who I now believe painted the banquet scene celebrating the feast of the Epiphany which occurs on January 6.

Sat at the table is a priest wearing a white alb which symbolizes purity of the soul, so the banquet can also be considered as a celebration of the Catholic Mass, the Eucharist, which is a memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection. The host of the occasion is the Duke of Berry, clothed in royal blue and sat before the host-shaped fireguard. Christ’s death is denoted by the duke’s hat, a crown of thorns. The table represents an altar and the cloth is depicted as the shroud that covered Jesus in his tomb.

Parts of the picture are based on the Three Marys at the Tomb painting attributed to Jan van Eyck or his brother Hubert, which indicates that the folio was completed after the attribution date of 1425-1435 given to the Three Marys by the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam and where the painting is housed. If this is the case then it rules out Pol Limbourg or one of his brothers as having produced the January folio.

Most of the guests at the banquet are assigned with double identities. For instance, the kneeling figure in the bottom right corner of the frame is portrayed as both Richard II and St Bartholomew, the latter as a pointer to the artist, Barthélemy d’Eyck. The iconography relating to Richard ll was published in a previous post.

St Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. He is also identified as Nathaniel, the disciple brought to Jesus by Philip (John 1 : 43-51). Tradition holds that he was martyred by being skinned alive for proclaiming the Gospel. His skin was cut into strips and then peeled back to expose his inner flesh. The body was then allowed to bleed for some time before Bartholomew was eventually beheaded. Most representations of the saint show him holding his peeled skin along with a flensing knife.

The illustration alongside shows the hem of the Duke of Berry’s gown peeled back to reveal the patterned strips of the dias beneath. The figure’s gown also hangs in a manner to suggest a piece of loose flesh. In his hand is a knife, seemingly carving strips from a piece of meat (notice the very faint suggestion of strips). The loop of his chaperon is shaped as a sickle, indicating the saint’s decapitation.

The knife also represents a bull’s horn. This connects to the black hood of the chaperon that hangs down and doubles up as the face of a cow and also a shield which both connect to Edward the Black Prince, father of Richard ll. The bovine reference echoes a similar attribute depicted in the Three Mary’s at the Tomb, as do the four men standing left of Richard ll who doubles up as Barthélemy d’Eyck. The group of four men also have two identities.

Interestingly, Barthélemy has painted both the January and December folios, the beginning and the end of the year, when one looks back on the past and forward to the future. The month of January is named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, transitions and duality. He is usually depicted as having two heads. The bear-like figure of the Duke of Berry is the head looking back on the past, while the bear perched on the boat-shaped ‘nef’ is shown facing the opposite direction, looking forward into the future and the new year.

The painting is designed to entertain and amuse, an occasion to ‘spot the historic celebrities’ among the crowded scene, even though all of the ‘faces’ are practically identical, making it somewhat a puzzler for art historians and researchers, especially as the painting is also embedded with word play features and riddles.

For instance: why are two kittens allowed to eat on the banquet table, and why are some of the guests seemingly warming their hands at the fireplace?

My next post will present more details about Barthélemy d’Eyck’s connection to the Très Riche Heures, revealed in one of the folios attributed to Jean Colombe.

Themes of Threes

In the Three Marys at the Tomb painting the trinitarian theme, or theme of threes, also extends to the guards representing the Magi, the Three Kings or Wise Men who brought gifts to the Infant Jesus at Bethlehem.

The Three Mary’s at the TombMuseum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Traditionally they are named as Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar but in this representation the figures share several identities. The artist, be it Hubert van Eyck or his brother Jan, has sourced a collection of writings attributed to the Pseudo-Bede (Excerptiones Patrum, Collectanea, Flores ex diversis, Quaestiones et Parabolae) in which a Latin description of the three kings is given.

The second king, Caspar, is described as a youth without a beard and ruddy, which goes some way to describing the face of the guard wearing upper body armour. Melchior is stated to be aged and hoary, with a long beard and hair, while Balthazaar is said to be sallow (dark) in complexion and full bearded.

The “youth without a beard and ruddy”, and no mention that he has long hair, seems a good match to the artist’s depiction for the central king. Beards and long hair also fit well for the other two figures.

That they are kings is clue to a third level of identities, but can they be linked or identified in other ways? The oversized golden helmet for a seemingly large head, placed alongside Casper is pointer. Its crest is a wyvern, a legendary bipedal winged dragon adopted by Thomas Crouchback, titled Earl of Lancaster and Leicester. The Wyvern is still incorporated in the Arms of the City of Leicester. Another animal probably more associated with Leicester is the fox. To locate the fox look closely at the top of the outcrop of rock on painting’s right side.

In a letter to Scottish barons, Crouchback signed off with the pseudonym “Arthur” as in King Arthur, inferring that he was the rightful ‘king’ of England and not his cousin Edward II who he was at war with. The final outcome for Thomas was he was captured and beheaded, hence the lighter colour of his blade-shaped neck and his helmet on the ground.

As to the other two kings they are Thomas’s father Edmund Crouchback (right) and uncle, King Edward 1.

More about the identities of the three guards in a future post and how they link to other narratives in the painting.

A Trinitarian theme

There is somewhat of a Trinitarian theme detectable in the Agony in the Garden miniature (folio 30v in the Turin-Milan Hours) attributed to Jan or Hubert van Eyck.

Turin-Milan Hours folio 30v, Agony in the Garden, Museo Civico d’Arte Antica of Turin, digital copy: Closer to Van Eyck

There are three apostles, Peter and the brothers John and James, each wearing one of the primary colours related to physics that when mixed or overlapped produce a white light; there are three trees to the right of Jesus representing three crucifixions on Calvary; three principal figures are grouped behind the fence and represent the cohort arriving to arrest Jesus; there are three main grouping of stones among the apostles; and in the bible account relating to the Agony in the Garden Jesus returned to his sleeping followers three times.

Another painting attributed to either of the two Van Eyck brothers and which takes its inspiration and translates some of the iconography from the Gethsemane miniature is the Three Marys at the Tomb: three being the number of women and also the men guarding the tomb who, like the three apostles, are sound asleep. The three guards are also positioned in a similar fashion as the disciples: one is lying down as John; the guard suited in plated armour sleeps with his back against the tomb as Peter; and the third guard as James has his back resting against a rock at the far corner of the tomb.

The Three Mary’s at the TombMuseum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

There are also three other features that connect the guards to the three apostles. James’ hands are crossed, the guard, his legs; Peter’s hands rest on his lap while the armoured guard’s hands are arranged in a similar position; John’s hands act as a pillow under his head, so do those of the guard lying down.

Detail from the Agony in the Garden, folio 30v, Turin-Milan Hours

The three guards at the tomb also connect to the three men behind the fence in the Gethsemane miniature. The armoured guard’s ear is mutilated, and has the appearance of having been sliced. This refers to the armoured figure behind the fence who represents Malchus. The servant of the high priest Caiaphas had his ear cut off by Peter’s sword. 

Caiaphas is the central figure in the group of three men behind the fence. His red pointed hat, its wreath or torse, and the long hair covering his neck, are translated as the hat worn by the sleeping guard lying down. The hat is pointed, its green peak represents the wreath, and the neck protector the long hair. The third figure in the group behind the fence is Judas and is matched to the guard in green with his hand gripping the side of his jaw.

This feature is meant to mirror the heavy stubble or shadow on the jaw of Judas. The shape of the guard’s hat matches the bottle shape of the blue hat of the figure behind Judas. But its circular pattern is also designed to reflect the roped hat worn by Judas – and both the pseudo text and the extended peak is perhaps symbolic of the false heart of Judas and his lying tongue. 

Another meaning the artist – Hubert or Jan – has applied to the guards at the tomb is they represent the three churches that share custody of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic.

The trinitarian theme also extends to the guards representing the Magi, the Three Kings or Wise Men who brought gifts to the Infant Jesus at Bethlehem. I shall explain the connection in my next post.

By wisdom a house is built…

This post sets out to illustrate another example of how Jan van Eyck translated iconography from the Agony in the Garden miniature to the smaller version of St Francis Receiving the Stigmata.

St Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Jan van Eyck, Philadelphia Museum of Art

One of the original followers of St Francis was Brother Juniper. He was received into the Order of Friars Minor by Francis himself who once said about his follower: “Would to God, my brothers, that I had a whole forest of such Junipers.”

The expression was not lost on Jan van Eyck, as he was also partial to planting puns and other forms of word play in his paintings.

Placed behind St Francis is a line of spiky shrubbery – Juniper – not only a reference to Brother Juniper but also as a symbol of protection. It’s meant to echo the pointed fence that surrounds Jesus and three of his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane miniature. It also relates to a story about Brother Juniper’s great power against demons recorded in the Little Flowers of St Francis.

“The devils could not endure the purity of Brother Juniper’s innocence and his profound humility, as appears in the following example: A certain demoniac one day fled in an unaccustomed manner, and through devious paths, seven miles from his home. When his parents, who had followed him in great distress of mind, at last overtook him, they asked him why he had fled in this strange way. The demoniac answered: ‘Because that fool Juniper was coming this way. I could not endure his presence, and therefore, rather than wait his coming, I fled away through these woods.’ And on inquiring into the truth of these words, they found that Brother Juniper had indeed arrived at the time the devil had said. Therefore when demoniacs were brought to St Francis to be healed, if the evil spirit did not immediately depart at his command, he was wont to say: ‘Unless thou dost instantly leave this creature, I will bring Brother Juniper to thee.’ Then the devil, fearing the presence of Brother Juniper, and being unable to endure the virtue and humility of St Francis, would forthwith depart.”

Van Eyck uses simple pointers to direct the viewer to specifics. In this instance the tip of Francis’ cowl points to the head of the ‘demoniac’ covered by the spiky juniper leaves.

This in turn relates to the impaled head of Judas, one of the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus, positioned left in the group behind the pointed fence in the Gethsemane scene. Luke’s gospel (22-3) states: “Satan entered into Judas, surnamed Iscariot, who was numbered among the Twelve.” From that moment he set out to betray Jesus and hand him over to the chief priests and the officers of the guard.

Judas had earlier complained about the woman at Bethany wasting expensive spikenard to anoint the feet of Jesus, saying it could have been sold and the money given to the poor (John 12 : 1-8). Judas was in charge of the common purse, but also a liar and a thief who used the purse for his own needs—unlike Brother Juniper who had a tendency to give any items to the poor that he found lying around, which occasionally belonged to other brothers of the Order..

However, there was one particular Franciscan brother who some considered to have been a ‘Judas’ in betraying the Order and the way of life followed by its founder, even to the extent of furnishing himself a worldly lifestyle from funds he raised to build a basilica in honour of St Francis. His name was Elias, a form of Elijah the biblical prophet. This connection refers back to Van Eyck’s depiction of the juniper shrub and its mention in the First Book of Kings when Elijah fled in fear from Jezebel and sat under a juniper tree in the desert, wishing himself dead (1 Kings 19 : 4). So the demoniac embedded beneath the juniper shrub is a reference to Brother Elias, also referred to as Helias (Latin) and which Van Eyck would pun as “He lies”, comparing his words and deeds to the transgressions of Judas. The Gethsemane fence is considered the ‘pale’ — a perimeter, a kind of city wall built for protection from attack by enemies; hence the juniper shrub as a protective measure around Francis.

The line of juniper shrub also extends to the right of Francis and in this section can be seen another vague visage. It’s a cross between a cow and a lion. Again, the feature originates in the Gethsemane miniature among the group of men on the Mount of Olives coming to arrest Jesus. At the rear of the group is a faceless figure whose hat is shaped and coloured as an olive. In front of him is a figure wearing a blue hat. The hat is bottled shaped and represents a container for the olive oil retrieved from Gethsemane (meaning oil-press) – holy oil, hence the hat’s blue colour. 

Detail from the Agony in the Garden, folio 30v, Turin-Milan Hours

The hat is also shaped to represent a horn and refers to the horn God commanded Samuel to fill to anoint David as king, and take with him a heifer to sacrifice (Samuel 16 : 1-13). The somewhat mysterious face beneath the hat represents a heifer.  The heifer also links to  comparisons of Samson with Jesus as a saviour of his people. Sansom referred one time to his wife as a heifer (Judges 14 : 18).

The connection to the cow in the Stigmata painting derives from a play on the word cowl, as worn by Brother Leo, its tip indicating the feature just as Francis’ cowl points to the other face disguised in the juniper shrub. The founder had a love for all creatures and called them brothers, often blessing and curing sick animals, even cattle.

The lion motif is also associated with the name of Brother Leo. Another Leo, Pope Leo IV, who ordered a protective wall to be built around part of the city of Rome following the sacking of Old St Peter’s Basilica in 846 by Muslim raiders. It is now known as the Leonine Wall. Here we can see the connection Van Eyck has made to Brother Elias and his ambitious project to build a basilica in honour of St Francis.

The building projects also link to the voice Francis heard in the spring of 1206 while contemplating an icon depicting the Crucified Christ. The voice commanded Francis to “Go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling down.” Francis thought the instruction meant to repair the church of San Damiano in which he heard the voice, and proceeded to do so and also repair other churches elsewhere. He never asked for money from anyone to do so, only for stones, of which plenty feature in Van Eyck’s painting, stacked high in all shapes and sizes!

So now we have three references to building projects, that of St Francis, Pope Leo IV, and Brother Elias. But Jan van Eyck introduces another, and by doing so gives a clue to who commissioned the painting — the Adornes brothers from Bruges, Pieter and Jacob. It is likely Pieter who actually ordered the work, portrayed here as St Francis and adopting the position of patron or donor, while Jacob is seen meditating, or even asleep!

When the Adornes brothers returned to Bruges from making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the 1420s, they started to rebuild a family chapel which was erected earlier by their forefathers in memory of the Passion of Christ and his Holy Sepulchre. The private chapel, known as the Jerusalem Chapel, was consecrated on Palm Sunday 1429 and is still in the ownership of the Adornes family. 

It’s possible that both the large and small versions of Van Eyck’s paintings were commissioned as a reminder of the brothers’ pilgrimage to the Holy Land, perhaps one for each brother, or maybe one for use as private devotion and the larger painting for display in the newly built chapel.

Further analysis of the iconography in St Francis Receiving the Stigmata will be presented in a future post.

All about brothers

Another painting attributed to Jan van Eyck – St Francis Receiving the Stigmata – draws its inspiration from the Agony in the Garden miniature featured in the Turin-Milan Hours, as well as the Three Marys at the Tomb attributed to either Jan or Hubert van Eyck, or both.

There are two versions of the St Francis painting, both said to have been produced by Jan van Eyck. A small version (above) measuring just 12.7cm x 14.6cm is housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The larger work, 29.3cm x 33.4cm, is kept at the Sabauda Gallery in Turin, Italy.

Despite its smaller size the PMA version appears more detailed in its scenery and backdrop. Like the Agony in the Garden, it also sources Proverbs 30 for some of its embedded iconography. It’s not the only work by Jan that incorporates references from the Agony in the Garden. Could this be another example of Jan van Eyck possibly paying tribute to his brother Hubert?

St Francis is the kneeling friar; the other is Brother Leo of Assisi, a disciple, secretary and confessor of St Francis. Not only was Leo present when Francis received the stigmata, he also wrote an account of the acts and the words of his companion titled The Mirror of Perfection.

Van Eyck has depicted the ‘Acts’ according to Leo in a unique way by mirroring the two cords worn by the ‘brothers’. It has a central position in the painting, similar to the famous mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait painted by Jan in 1434. The dates considered for both St Francis paintings are 1430-32. The mirrored cords are linked to suggest that the two brothers are of one accord. This is a pointer to what Leo considered to be the true nature of the Franciscan life, for after Francis had died conflicts within the Order began to arise about remaining to the strict and simple life Francis had lived and dictated to others. The frayed ends of the cords may also be viewed as symbolic of the Order’s discipline unravelling or coming apart.

Another ‘brothers’ connection is the two men thought to have commissioned the St Francis paintings – Pieter and Jacob Adornes. They were from an Italian family of prosperous wool and cloth merchants that had settled in Brugge. It was likely Pieter who actually commissioned the work, portrayed here as St Francis and adopting the position of patron or donor, while Jacob is seen meditating, or even asleep!

Another possible brotherly connection is that of Hubert and Jan van Eyck. If Hubert did paint the Agony in the Garden and also contributed to the Three Marys at the Tomb, this may explain why Jan has ‘mirrored’ or translated much of the iconography in the St Francis paintings. Similar to Leo recording the acts of Francis after the saint’s death, so Jan has incorporated some of the works of Hugo after his death in 1426.

Another collection of writings (a florilegium) on the life of St Francis is the Little Flowers of St Francis. The collection has 53 short chapters. Van Eyck illustrates this in the central bed of little white flowers. They number fifty-three!

There is much, much more about this painting which I intend to present in future posts. Readers can be notified of updates by email. Details at the head of the page.

No water, no life; no blue, no green*

A maritime theme is embedded in the miniature of the Agony in the Garden, portrayed in folio 30v of the Turin-Milan Hours.

The artist, be it Jan or Hubert van Eyck, has translated one of the questions posed in Proverbs 30: “Who has wrapped the waters in his cloak?” as a basis for merging references to both sea and land.

The colours of the cloaks worn by the three disciples represent three seas: the Red Sea, the Sea of Galilee (also called Lake Tiberias), and the Mediterranean Sea (called the Great Green by the Ancient Egyptians).

The cloak worn by Jesus also represents water, the waters under and above the vault (called Heaven) created by God (Genesis 1 : 7-8).

In the next passage God said, “Let the waters under heaven come together under a single mass. and let dry land appear” And so it was. God called the dry land ‘earth’ and the mass of waters ‘seas’. (Genesis 1 : 9-10)

This quotation corresponds to another question in Proverbs 30: Who has set all the ends of the earth firm?

In all four figures can be found several references to Proverbs 30 and other verses from Scripture. However, the figure of Jesus is also shaped and presented to point to a series of events current during the life of the artist and known as the Hook and Cod Wars – “a series of wars and battles in the County of Holland between 1350 and 1490”. The ‘fish’ reference also links to the three disciples as being fishermen and also “fishers of men”.

The visual reference to Cod is Christ’s cloak, shaped as a trawl dragged behind a boat to catch fish – the bulging section is known as the ‘cod-end’. The hook is shaped as his bent arms and praying hands.

Another miniature from the Turin-Milan Hours which references the Hook and Cod Wars is the Prayer on the Shore, also said to be by Jan or Hubert van Eyck.

Some of the iconography embedded in the Agony of the Garden has been translated to the Arnolfini Portrait, possibly suggesting that Jan van Eyck painted both works. However, it can also be understood that Jan is simply paying homage to his brother by mirroring the iconography and so affirming the inscription on the Ghent Altarpiece declaring Hubert as “the greatest painter there was”.

* No water, no life; no blue no green. – Sylvia Earle