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