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.
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.
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.