More on the butterfly effect

This figure is another “butterfly” featured in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry. His name is Sir Thomas Blount, a supporter of Richard II. He served as a napier at Richard’s coronation banquet in 1377.

Thomas was a participant in the Epiphany Rising to restore Richard after the king was dethroned by Henry Bolingbroke in 1399. But the rebellion was unsuccessful and Thomas was captured and put to death at a place known as the Green Ditch on the outskirts of Oxford. His execution was brutal and recorded later by a chronicler as follows:

Sir Thomas Blount was hanged; but the halter was soon cut, and he was made to sit on a bench before a great fire, and the executioner came with a razor in his hand, and knelt before Sir Thomas, whose hands were tied, begging him to pardon him his death, as he must do his office. Sir Thomas asked, “Are you the person appointed to deliver me from this world?” The executioner answered, “Yes, Sir, I pray you pardon me.” And Sir Thomas kissed him, and pardoned him his death. The executioner then knelt down, and opened his belly, and cut out his bowels, and threw them into the fire. While Sir Thomas was dying, one Erpyngham, the king’s chamberlain, insulting Blount, said to him, in derision, “Go, seek a master that can cure you.” Blount only answered, “Te Deum laudamus! Blessed be the day on which I was born, and blessed be this day, for I shall die in the service of my sovereign lord, the noble King Richard”. His head was soon after cut off and he was quartered.

Elements of the execution are indicated in Blount’s portrayal. The location is referenced by the figure in green standing immediately behind Blount. The green colour represents the Green Ditch. One of the figure’s identities is the painter Jan van Eyck. Ditch can be translated as dyke, a pun on the name d’Eyck or Van Eyck. Blount’s hanging is matched to the string of beads around his neck and his beheading to the black collar. Quartering of the body is when limbs are severed from the torso, hence the surcoat’s serrated design. Other references to quartering are the folded napkin and the four pieces of bread on the table. As for Blount’s disembowelment, this is indicated by what appears to be a belt but actually represents where Blount’s belly was opened. Notice also the demonic feature, formed by part of the serated edge, appearing to look into the opened wound. The markings on the front of the red section of the surcoat are best understood if the image is turned upside down. Now the jagged edges can be recognised as representing rising flames and the markings as the eyes seen of a peacock’s feathers. The peacock is symbolic of eternal life. The flames are also associated with the mythical phoenix but this relates to another narrative associated with the Van Eyck figure.

Detail from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

The account of Blount’s execution where its states he was made to sit on a bench before a great fire, is mirrored in the group of men seemingly warming their hands “before a great fire” as they are commanded to approach by the marshall. In this scenario “the great fire” can be understood as the fire of Hell. The artist has also made sure that the prelate, in the guise of Cardinal Henry Beaufort, is portrayed seated on a bench with his hands raised. This, too, relates to another narrative that connects with the Epiphany Rising and recorded in the Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers.

So how is Sir Thomas Blount portrayed as a butterfly by the artist Bathélemy d’Eyck? His wings are meant to represent a butterfly, wings that were torn from its body when he was tortured and executed after his capture.

Detail from the November folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry attributed to Jean Colombe

Jean Colombe picks up on this in his painting of the November folio in the Très Riche Heures. The two men in the wooded represent Jan and Hubert van Eyck (Hubert is a second identity applied to the Blount figure). They are clothed in white tops and wear black caps and stand apart, separated. This is a reference to Blount’s white and black wing features in the January folio. The figure of Barthélemy d’Eyck looking up is depicted in the process of shedding his outer coat to morph into a butterfly as the Van Eyck brothers. Notice his black cap and white undergarment, its hem shaped as a wing. In reality the artist is expressing Barthélemy’s conversion after witnessing a vision of the Lamb of God depicted among the oak trees. This is also a reference to another Van Eyck painting, The Stigmata of St Francis who is portrayed levitating when he is presented with a vision of the Crucified Christ portrayed as a six-winged seraph.

Detail from the November folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry