The title of this painting by Hubert or Jan van Eyck is usually referred to as The Three Marys at the Tomb, that is Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Mary Salome.
However, the artist has only portrayed two Mary’s, the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. The other woman (in green) is Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza. She is mentioned twice in Luke’s gospel, and as one of the women who went to the tomb with spices and found it empty (Luke 24 : 9-11).
Joanna is also portrayed here in the role of the unnamed Hebrew girl and servant to the wife of the Naaman the Syrian leper, also mentioned by Luke (4 : 27), which explains the mystery of why the woman is depicted carrying what is described by researchers as a Syrian apothecary jar.
Notice also that the woman’s left hand is hidden, echoing the sentiment expressed by Jesus that when giving alms the left hand should not know what the right hand is doing (Matthew 6 : 3). The left hand is also hidden for another reason. Its cover forms the shape of a face disfigured by leprosy.
Joanna’s right hand is also distorted, but for another reason. It is meant to portray a falcon’s claw, a peregine in particular. The Latin version of peregrine is “peregrinus” meaning “coming from foreign parts” and so a reference to the unnamed servant girl captured from Israel and brought to Syria.
The story of Naman and his healing from leprosy appears in the Second Book of Kings (5 : 1-27). Mentioned are several servants and the services they undertake. It is in this role that Joanna is presented – as a servant – fulfilling the command of Christ to serve others, and as lady in waiting in line behind the Virgin Mary.
The falcon image is also extended to the woman’s white head covering. The head is shaped as that of a falcon, its beak and an eye facing out of the painting, its wings suggested by the pointed ends of the cloth. Notice there are no black markings on the woman’s head that are a familiar feature of the Egyptian falcon, signifying Naman’s healing from leprosy.
The artist, be it Jan or Hubert van Eyck, also puns on the word peregrine. Pere (French) as in Father, a title attached to a priest; and “grine” sounding like green, the colour of the woman’s gown. The connection is to the priest Peregrine Laziosi, an Italian saint of the Servite Order who died in 1345. The Servite Order, also known as the Order of Servants of Mary, strives among other objectives to propagate devotion to the Virgin Mary, Mother of God.
Late in life, at the age of 60, Peregrine developed an infection in his right leg which deteriorated to the extent that a doctor decided he would have to amputate. During the night before he was to have his leg amputated in the morning Peregrine had a vision of Jesus descending from his Cross and touching the infected limb. When the physician arrived the next day to perform the surgery, all signs of the cancerous wound had disappeared and a miraculous cure was proclaimed. Peregrine is now considered a patron saint of cancer.
This account is one of three delberate references to legs in the painting made by the artist. A second is associated with the guard lying down asleep on the floor, and the third connects to the guard sat with his legs crossed. I shall present an explanation about this in a future post other than to say than to state at this stage that the iconography relating to the three legs is echoed in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures, as are connections to the three guards and the three women.
Another connection to Joanna and the falcon motif is that the founderess of what is known as the Religious Sisters of the Third Order of Servites was a woman named Juliana Falconieri. Her uncle, Alex Falconieri, was one of the seven founders of the Servite Order. When Juliana was approaching death in June 1341, she was too sick to receive Holy Communion. Instead she requested the priest to lay the corporal on her chest and place the Eucharistic Host on it. Shortly after she died an image of a crucifix, as that impressed on the Host, was discovered on Juliana’s breast.
This explains why the artist has depicted Joanna’s headress extended to cover her chest.
The Syrian woman account is also translated in Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, suggesting that he may have done so to pay homage to his brother Hubert who died before the commission was completed.