Today is St Andrew’s Day, so what better time than now to point out this early follower of Jesus in the line-up of Witnesses to the Old Testament. He’s the faired-haired figure wearing the blue-cushioned, crown-shaped hat.
Andrew was the brother of Simon Peter, hence his proximity to the figure wearing the blue-domed hat. Peter was renamed Cephas by Jesus, meaning Rock. The blue dome represents the colour of the semi-precious stone Lapis Lazuli, sometimes referred to as a ‘heavenly stone’.
To the right of Andrew is the disciple Philip and on his right, Nathaniel, “an Israelite incapable of deceit”.
Chapter six in John’s gospel records the event known as the Miracle of the Loaves. A large crowd had followed Jesus to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He asks Philip: “Where can we buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip answered: “Two hundred denari would only buy enough to give them a small piece each”. Andrew arrived on the scene and reported: “There is a small boy here with five barley loaves and two fish, but what is that between so many?” Jesus then told the disciples to make the the people sit down on the grass in groups of about 50. There are 50 figures in the group of Witnesses to the Old Testament. After the people were fed and satisfied, the scraps that were left over and picked up filled twelve bastkets.
Andrew’s hat represents the boy’s basket of five loaves and two fish. Notice the two blue fish shapes and the five spots representing the five loaves. Behind Andrew and his group are what appear to be blue and white flowers. These represent the scraps left over from the meal.
Hubert and Jan van Eyck sourced two biblical passages as a basis for the composition of the Lamb of God panel in the Ghent Altarpiece. One is the prophecy by Isaiah when he spoke of the Coming of the Virtuous King and the Return of the Exiles (11:1-16, 12: 1-3); the other is the Feeding of the Multitude account recorded in all four gospels.
Isaiah stated that the Lord “will bring back the scattered people of Judah from the four corners of the earth (11:12), hence the four groups of people gathered around the altar and mirroring the four corners of the earth. They stand on ceremony waiting to be fed by the Lamb of God, to eat and drink from the Lord’s table, as did the apostles who shared the Passover meal with Jesus at the Last Supper.
In the section referred to as Witnesses to the Old Covenant the figures are pieced together with more biblical references, each figure dependent or related to another. In some instances the figures are grouped in threes, having a particular common connection.
Other figures in the group of ‘Witnesses’ have more that one identity. This pairing or doubling-up process can be understood in three ways – firstly as a pointer to the miracle of the multiplication of loaves (John 6:1); secondly in the way that Jesus sent out the disciples in pairs to proclaim the gospel (Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1); and thirdly as both clean and unclean ‘saved’ creatures of the earth entering Noah’s ark two by two (Genesis 7:9). All three ways point to God’s saving grace and entry to the “Heavenly Jerusalem”.
The apostles are featured in a unique way and mirrored in two groups: as prophets linked to those from the Old Testament in the foreground group on the left side of the fountain, and in the facing group on the right side of the fountain.
There is also a distinct difference within the group of Witnesses to the Old Covenant, compared with the people represented in the other groups who are mostly focused on the Lamb of God present on the altar. In the Old Covenant group almost half the number have their heads raised, looking heavenwards and not at the altar. They are witnesses to some kind of celestial phenomenon which has caused their faces to light up. This cues another narrative expressing the “Heavenly Jerusalem”, a symbolic chart of constellations. Van Eyck, be it Hubert of Jan, takes the reference to constellations to pun with the word consolation and point to the opening words of chapter 40 from the Book of Isaiah: “Console my people, console them” says your God. “Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call to her that her time of service is ended, that her sin is atoned for…”
Also embedded in the group of witnesses are several passages from both the Old and the New Testament, which helps to explain why the Van Eyck brothers have linked Old Testament prophets to the Apostles and followers of Jesus. For instance, the number of opened books is five, representing the Pentateuch or the first five books of the Torah, the Hebrew Bible. The five books can also refer to the first five books of the New Testament, four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Viewed as the New Testament the books help identify four of the figures that the four gospels are attributed to, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Matthew is the disciple in the front row wearing the white turban. The bald-headed figure to his left is Luke. On Matthew’s right wearing the red hat is Mark, and behind him is John.
Matthew’s hat is shaped as a white pearl and refers to the parable told by Jesus known as the Pearl of Great Price. Only Matthew’s gospel (13:44-46) records this parable. This exclusion theme is linked and applied to the identity of Mark.
The gospels of Mark and Matthew both tell of the time the Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign from heaven. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus responds saying the only sign the evil and unfaithful generation will be given is the sign of Jonah [when he was in the belly of the beast for three days and three nights]. In Mark’s gospel Jesus responds to the Pharisees by saying “no sign shall be given to this generation”(8:11-12) and makes no mention of Jonah.
Notice that Mark’s right hand is covered. It is shaped as a sea monster raising itself from the blue turban representing turbelent water. The sea monster’s jaws are open, symbolic of releasing Jonah the prophet, preacher of the word of God, from the depths of disaster and death, an event that forshadowed the saving death and resurrection of Jesus after three days in the tomb. So although Mark’s gospel excludes the mention of Jonah, the Van Eyck’s have emphasised the point by resurrecting the link to Jonah and binding it to Mark.
There are two other visual clues to identify Mark. His hair is shown as a lion’s mane and the sides of his hat are shaped as wings, for Mark is symbolised in art as the winged lion mentioned in the Book of Revelation (4:7). As to the shape of the hat’s crown, this represents the jar of nard oil that was used to anoint the head of Jesus in the house of Simon the leper (Mark4:1-9). The passage describing this event falls in the fifth and last section of Mark’s gospel which relates the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. It comes immediately before the short account of Judas approaching the chief priests and offering to betray Jesus. The colour of the jar represents the colour of the blood shed by Jesus. The hat’s wings also represent his rising from the dead, his resurrection.
The neck of the oil jar points to another figure in the scene, that of Judas, dressed in the same colour as the jar. His head is turned away from the altar and looking at the viewer. Judas was one of the people who complained that the anointing was a waste of expensive perfume which could have been sold and the money given to the poor (John 12:5). The aromatic nature of the perfume explains why another apostle, Jude – placed left of Mark – is portrayed with his nose close to the jar of anointing oil.
The Van Eycks add further links to the anointing theme. As Jude’s nose absorbed the scent of the nard oil, so also does the nose of Judas absorb the scent produced by the anointing of SimonPeter, christened by Jesus as Cephas, meaning rock. Peter was commissioned and therefore anointed as the first priest of Christ’s chuch on earth.
Mirrored on the opposite side of the group is Aaron, commissioned by God to be the High Priest of the Israelites and annointed by Moses his brother. Yaweh said to Moses: You must also anoint Aaron and his sons and consecrate them, so that they may be priests in my service. Then you are to say to the sons of Israel, ‘You must hold this chrism [oil] holy from generation to generation. It is not to be pured out on the bodies of common men, nor are you to make any other of the same mixture. It is a holy thing; you must consider it holy. Whoever copies the composition of it or uses it on a layman shall be outlawed from his people’”(Exodus 30:30-33).
Close inspection of Aaron’s face shows beads of oil running down his face after his anointing.
The seven column markings on the fur fringe of Aaron’s hat, represent the seven lamps of the Temple menorah kept lit continuously with olive oil. The menorah was also a symbol for the early Christians, hence the similar markings on Peter’s fur-rimmed hat. The blue dome represents the dome of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the colour blue being a symbol of heavenly holiness.
The Jonah reference, the leper’s house and the jar of oil all connect to two other figures in the group of Witnesses to the Old Testament. I shall describe more about this and the Judas connection in a future post.
The Ghent Altarpiece was in the art media spotlight recently. New research has revealed an elaborate under-painting in the The Adoration of the Lamb centre panel and scholars have attributed this to Hubert van Eyck. Their findings also suggest that some of the finished figures were painted by Hugo, some by his brother Jan, and others by the hand of both painters.
A diagram of a section of the panel was published by the research group at KIK-IRPA indicating some of the attributions made by the researchers. Shown below is the group painted in the bottom left corner of the panel. The red markers represent the hand of Jan, the yellow markers the hand of Hubert, and the orange markers indicate figures worked on by both artists.
I’m not aware of any extensive research available in the public domain Identifying the 50 figures in this group and any of its themes or underlying narratives, but art historian Bernhard Ridderbos states the gathered group are “witnesses of the Old Covenant, among them the Roman poet Virgil, holding wreath of a laurel, who was thought to have foretold the coming of the Messiah”. Ridderbos continues: “Beside him is Isaiah “who holds a twig, in token of his prophecy of Christ as a ‘rod out of the stem of Jesse’ (Isaiah 11 :1)”
What the historian didn’t mention is that the figure in green standing next to Isaiah is in fact the mentioned Jesse, hence his covered right hand depicted as a stump. Standing to the right of Jesse is the lawgiver Moses, and slightly behind the prophet’s right side is his brother Aaron.
If Hubert van Eyck (pictured right) was responsible for the concept then he must have made notes or shared his rationale at some time with his brother for Jan to have made sense of the carefully planned construction and placement of figures and go on to complete the painting which, unsurprisingly, is mirrored in parts with the group of figures in the botton right corner of the frame that Ridderbos described as “witnesses to the New Covenant”.
I’ve recently identified almost all of the figures in this scene, its preconceived concept, and embedded narratives. My next series of posts will deal with revealing the so-called “witnesses of the Old Covenant”.
In previous posts I’ve proposed that the St Vincent Panels were inspired by the Ghent Altarpiece and Hugo van der Goes was the artist, not the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves to whom the current attribution is given.
It’s very possible the St Vincent Panels could be be the painting the German humanist Hieronymous Münzer mentioned in his diary after visiting Ghent in 1495, and attributed to “another great painter” who was “driven mad and melancholy” attempting to emulate Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. He did not mention Hugo by name, but historians generally agree that Münzer was referring to Van der Goes who suffered a mental breakdown late in life.
Several references in the St Vincent Panels are made to the work of Jan van Eyck – and also to some of his contemporaries.
Jan van Eyck’s style of ‘mirroring’ and ‘translating’ motifs and themes from other works is emulated by Hugo van der Goes in the St Vincent Panels, not as an attempt to surpass Jan in greatness but to pay tribute to the painter, similar in the manner that Van Eyck paid tribute to his brother Hubert by incorporating references to some of his brother’s works in the Ghent Altarpiece. After all, it was Hubert who was commissioned to produce the altarpiece in the first place, but following his untimely death in 1426 Jan was invited to complete the work started by his brother.
Comparisons can be made between the four outer St Vincent panels with the four outer panels in the lower register of the Ghent Altarpiece. Here, Van der Goes has applied a ‘mirror’ technique in the arrangement and content of the four outer St Vincent panels, and transferred or ‘translated’ some of the motifs and features from the Ghent Altarpiece.
The first panel on the left side of the opened register in the GA is titled: The Just Judges. This is mirrored and positioned as the panel on the far right of the SVPs and titled the Panel of the Relic. In reality, it features two judges who took part in the trial of St Joan of Arc, Cardinal Henry Beaufort and Pierre Cauchon. Both men can also be identified in the Just Judges panel, as can Jan and Hubert van Eyck who also feature in the Panel of the Relic.
The second panel in the GA is titled: Knights of Christ, and translated to the SVPs as the Panel of the Knights placed alongside the Panel of the Relic.
The third ‘mirrored’ panel from the GA is titled Hermits, and Panel of the Fishermen in the SVPs. The fishermen are those appointed by Jesus to be “fishers of men”, as are the hermits, some of whom can be identified as ‘desert fathers’ and preachers of the Gospel.
The fourth panel in the GA is titled Pilgrims and focused on the tall, bearded figure of St Christopher leading pilgrims across the river with Christ on his back. The motif of Christopher with Christ on his back is echoed in the Panel of the Friars, the first section of the SVPs. The tall bearded man is also translated as the bearded friar carrying a cross, a symbol of death and passage, or crossing over to a new life. He is a Christ-bearer.
On these comparisions alone it is enough to recognise that the Ghent Altarpiece was the main inspiration for the painter of the St Vincent Panels, be it Hugo van der Goes or Nuno Gonçalves, or even by both men, as in the GA being produced by the two brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck.
Most of the figures in the six panels of the St VIncent Altarpiece are ‘mirrored’ in some way, a recurrent theme in some of Jan van Eyck’s paintings to stimulate self examination by both painter and viewer.
In January this year I posted an item titled “Telling tales about Chaucer”. It identified one of the figures in the January folio of the Très Riche Heure du Duc de Berry as the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. The post also explained the relationship between Chaucer’s grey cap and the red chaperon worn by the figure in green, one of whose identities is the painter Jan van Eyck.
The headwear of both figures represent a bird, Chaucer’s cap a pelican, and Van Eyck’s chaperon a legendary griffin. This figure in blue with its arm resting on Van Eyck’s shoulder represents the French heroine Joan of Arc.
The three-figure combination is a hat-tip by Barthélémy d’Eyck to Jan van Eyck and a similar motif painted in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece. The red-headed griffin is Joan of Arc, while the pelican-styled cap worn by the figure ahead of Joan is presented as Geoffrey Chaucer. Below them is the painter of the panel, Jan van Eyck.
By pairing the griffin with the pelican Van Eyck is referring to one of the pseudo-texts attributed to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which relates to a conversation overheard between a Pelican “without pride” and a Griffin of “grim stature”.
As for any link between Chaucer’s cowl and Van Eyck’s chaperon, this combination can be better understood as a reference to the Hook and Cod wars, “a series of wars and battles in the County of Holland between 1350 and 1490.” In Dutch the conflict is known as “Hoekse en Kabeljauwse twisten”. “Twisten” can also mean “dispute” or “quarrel” and even “twist”, which brings the connection back to the “twist” motif on top of the cushioned hat and its other links.
Chaucer’s hood is shaped as a trawl dragged behind a boat to catch fish – the bulging end is known as the “cod-end”. The tail of the Van Eyck’s chaperon is shaped to represent a hook. More on this here.
I explained in an earlier post that one of four identities Jan van Eyck applied to this figure in blue, featured in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, is the French heroine Joan of Arc.
And one of four identities applied to the rider beneath Joan is the prosecutor during her trial for witchcraft and heresy, the French bishop Pierre Cauchon.
Not only has Van Eyck rhymed the name Cauchon with ‘cushion’, the shape of the red hat, but also with the French word cochon, meaning pig. There is even a suggestion of a twisted pig’s tail – or tale – attached to the backside of the ‘cochon’ or cushion, suggesting the devious methods the prosecutor pursued to convict Joan of the charges against her.
The red cushion and its ‘tale’ or ‘tail’ is also portrayed as a bird nest, as is most of the headwear worn by the figures featured in the panel. This links to two literary works associated with Geoffrey Chaucer used as a source of reference in some areas of the altarpiece: The Canterbury Tales, and Parlement of Fowls.
The latter poem and the word Fowl is a ‘twist’ on the word ‘foul’. Here Van Eyck is intimating that a second identity given to the figure wearing the cushion-style hat, the French king Charles VI, had his nest fouled by an intruder, namely his brother Louis 1, duke of Orléans, who was rumoured to have conducted an affair with the queen consort Isabeau of Bavaria. Orleans is postioned behind Charles staring down at the twisted and salacious ‘Canterbury’ tail.
Having previously posted on Jan van Eyck’s self portrait, Man in a Red Turban, I recently discovered Van Eyck’s source of inspiration for the painting, a book authored in 1354 by Henri de Grosmont, First Duke of Lancaster; its title: Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines (The Book of Holy Medicines). A translation of the text into modern English by Catherine Batt was published in 2014 by ACMRS (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies).
It’s very likely Van Eyck possessed or had access to a copy of this book that can be described as a literary form of confession and penitence.
Written in the first person, the text also serves as a mirror for self examination by the reader. It focuses on the narrator’s spiritual wounds in a physical sense. Body parts, particularly those associated with the five senses, are described as gateways for the seven cardinal sins: pride, greed, anger, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth. Healing grace ministered by Christ the doctor, accompanied by his mother Mary, is compared allegorically with a variety of medicinal remedies used by the people in Henry’s time.
As a mirror of reflection, the book is echoed in Van Eyck’s self-portrait made with the aid of a mirror. The painter presents himself as both sinner and penitent.
The modified chaperon is contoured in ways that refer to the passion and death of Jesus, particularly his denial by Peter, the disciple who had been entrusted earlier with the mission to build Christ’s church on earth and pasture his flock. After Jesus was arrested and taken into custody, Peter denied he knew him three times when questioned. At the third denial Peter wept bitterly when he remembered the words Jesus had spoken to him earlier: “Before the cock crows, you will have disowned me three times” (John 13:38).
Van Eyck has portrayed himself as a rooster staring out from darkness. The red chaperon represents the bird’s comb, the black coat its body, the sharp nose its beak, while the piercing, hooded eyes keep careful watch on all who come near to its roost. For Christians, the cockerel also symbolises Christ’s resurrection.
By turning the chaperon 90 degrees clockwise it can be seen how Van Eyck has depicted the rooster’s head and beak, as well as it’s comb or ‘crown’. Other forms connected to the Passion can also be made out.
Another image to emerge at this angle is Christ crucified. It depicts his suspension from the cross, hanging by his left arm, and his bowed head capped or crowned. A third image is Mary, the mother of Jesus, resting her head against the rooster. When viewed at the normal angle the turban reveals the presentation of the ‘Lamb of God’. Also, when the images of the Lamb and Mary resting her head are united, the combination is recognised as a ‘Pieta’, a subject in Christian art depicting Mary cradling her crucified Son.
Henry de Gosmont describes his heart as a whirlpool that swallows up all the sins of the world. Van Eyck has translated this as the passion and death of Christ whose self-sacrifice as the Lamb of God takes away or “swallows up” the sins of the world. Christ’s crucifixion and the Lamb of God are outlined in the “whirlpool” or “turbulent” presentation of the red turban. Jan was not slow to embed word-play in to his paintings. “Whirl and “world” is another example. Some observers may insist that Jan’s head-cover is actually a chaperon, but the artist’s intention was two-fold, both chaperon and turban.
Van Eyck also embedded the reference to chaperon as implied in “chaperone”, a person who accompanies and takes care of another individual or group, and in this instance the most obvious reference is the outline of the mother of Jesus who accompanied her Son on his way to Calvary, stood by him during his crucifixion, and was there to receive his body when it was taken down from the cross. The painting reflects Christ’s call for all to carry their cross and follow him. A similar message is mirrored in The Book of Holy Medicines In which Henry de Grosmont – “weak from his wounds and bodily sickness that he has lost his wits” – expresses his desire to be healed of his delirium, delusions and sinful thoughts in mind, body and spirit by meditating on the passion of Christ.
Grosmont’s remedy for healing his delirium is both practical and metaphorical. It was to place a cockerel on one’s head, “all split and dismembered and fully spread out, with the blood still hot […] the blessed cockerel who sang for us at dawn when we were in darkness and in shadows. […] I am the weak delirious wretch, and our precious Jesus Christ is the cockerel…” (translation by Catherine Batt, The Book of Holy Medicines, p217)
This remedy explains why Van Eyck has depicted the turban as the cockrel on his head. Batt also points to another treatise, Liber de Diversis Medicinis, which “recommends in cases of madness, a black cockerel, to be applied for three days”. This may also be the reason why Van Eyck is painted wearing a black coat.
Another description Grosmont applies to his heart is to liken it to a fox’s den of earth where the sinful creature of mischief retreats and hides during the day only to appear again at night under the cover of darkness to pursue its wicked vices. Grosmont relates how his eyes and ears, nose and mouth are all portals to the fox’s lair, his heart.
Apart from his portrayal as a cockerel, Van Eyck presents himself as an image of a fox. The entrance to his lair is the fox-trimmed collar; the small triangle shape depicts the white markings seen on a fox’s throat; his sharp nose points to the animal’s long snout, and his clamped thin lips to the long line of the fox’s mouth when closed. Van Eyck’s observant eyes depict those of a watchful fox eying its prey – the red cockrel disguised in the artist’s turban.
Already mentioned is that the cockerel represents Christ. In this portrait the fox represents the Galilean ruler Herod Antipas. The combination of cockerel and fox refers to the passage from Luke’s gospel (13 : 32). When warned by some Pharisees that Herod meant to kill him, Jesus responded, “You may go and tell that fox this message: Learn that today and tomorrow I cast out devils and on the third day attain my end…” He was speaking about his three days in the tomb and resurrection on the third day.
Grosmont also relates his sins and heart to “when a salmon wants to reproduce and have its young, it swims far from the sea, upstream towards the mountains and changes its nature completely.” In other words, the nature of sin is regarded as deadly, once it has entered and reached the heart via the senses.
In this instance Van Eyck depicts an observant eye as the spawning ground for salmon, the portal where sin enters his heart. His eyelid is shaped as a ‘leaping’ salmon. The eye and its pupil can be understood as the egg and food sac, and the small highlights the gravel that covers the egg. One corner of the eye is seemingly the point of entry for salmon to spawn; the other corner is bloodshot and represents the sinful wound.
One of the seven ‘deadly’ sins Grosmont warns about in detail is “Lady Sloth”, a creature of comfort and laziness who arrives at the gate of his ear pleading to enter and once inside is reluctant to leave the castle that is his body. Sloth encourages the body to rest and tend to the needs of the soul “some other day”. Grosmont confesses to the Lord he has badly conducted the defence of his castle and guarded his heart, the tower stronghold, even less so.
In Van Eyck’s self-portrait the sin of Sloth is expressed as the animal of the same name noted for its slowness and hanging upside down on trees. He depicts it as the shape in the turban showing Christ crucified, hanging on a tree. The feature covers Van Eyck’s ear, the gate where Grosmont allowed sloth to enter his castle. Christ is also considered as a gate to a heavenly kingdom and his Church on earth, his body, as a holy temple which the gates of Hell can never prevail against (Matthew 16 : 18). Unlike Sloth whose work is never completed, Christ hangs upright on the tree and confesses that his redemptive mission on earth is achieved. His final words before lowering his head and giving up his spirit were: “It is accomplished” (John 19 : 30).
Mary the mother of Jesus also has a role in Grosmont’s treatise. She is presented as a “most sweet Lady” who dresses and bandages the wounds of the sinner. The bandages of “Mary’s Joys” is portrayed as Van Eyck’s “bandaged” turban, and Mary as a chaperone accompanying Jesus, shown as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1 : 29).
Jan van Eyck’s self-portrait is not the only painting the artist is associated with that has embedded references from The Book of Holy Medicines. The Three Marys at the Tomb is another work that testifies to Grosmont’s confession, so also is the Agony in the Garden folio from Les Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry.
• I shall present more on this in a future post.
• Previous posts about the Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban are at the following links:
Some months ago, in June, an interesting report appeared about the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck. A discovery in the Vatican archives by historian Hendrik Callewier, director of Bruges State Archives, Belgium, revealed Van Eyck had requested a “confessional letter” from Pope Eugenius IV for himself and his wife Margareta.
It stated: “May Your Holiness be deemed worthy to grant Jan van Eyck and Margareta, his wife, from the diocese of Liège, perpetual confessional letters”.
Normal practice at the time was for the penitent to confesss their sins at least once a year in their own diocese. A “confessional letter” would grant the person permission to confess outside of their diocese. In Van Eyck’s case it is thought he wanted to confess in Rome.
The letter to Pope Euginius IV was dated 26 March 1441. Van Eyck died less than four months later, 9 July 1441.
The original document is lodged at Vatican City’s Apostolic Penitentiary Archive, Reg. Matrim. ey Divers. 2,f. 165v
So what’s with the detail of Van Eyck’s eye taken from his iconic self-portrait Man in a Red Turban (1433)? Well, the painting in itself is a confessional type portrait, a form which requires self-analysis and was likely produced with the aid of a mirror. Another mirror, a puzzler for some observers, is the one that features in the famous so-called Arnolfini Portrait (1434). Both paintings are housed in the National Gallery, London. The Arnolfini Portrait also contains confessional or penitential themes. In fact, it could be said that Van Eyck had a fixation about embedding penetential subject matter as there are other paintings attributed to him which link to pilgrimage and confession.
I intend to expand on Van Eyck’s mirror and confession themes in a future post, but in the meantime here’s a reminder that man’s soul-searching and for peace within echoes through every generation.
In 1934, exactly five hundred years after the completition of the Arnolfini Portrait featuring its famous mirror, Peter ‘Dale’ Wimbrow wrote a poem titled The Guy in the Glass.
When you get what you want in your struggle for pelf, And the world makes you King for a day, Then go to the mirror and look at yourself, And see what that guy has to say. For it isn’t your Father, or Mother, or Wife, Who judgement upon you must pass. The feller whose verdict counts most in your life Is the guy staring back from the glass. He’s the feller to please, never mind all the rest, For he’s with you clear up to the end, And you’ve passed your most dangerous, difficult test If the guy in the glass is your friend. You may be like Jack Horner and “chisel” a plum, And think you’re a wonderful guy, But the man in the glass says you’re only a bum If you can’t look him straight in the eye. You can fool the whole world down the pathway of years, And get pats on the back as you pass, But your final reward will be heartaches and tears If you’ve cheated the guy in the glass.
This post deals with more connections to the story of Samson found in the Agony in the Garden folio from the Turin-Milan Hours.
In my previous post I mentioned that ‘foxes’ had a role in the lives of both Samson and Jesus.
On one occasion Samson took revenge on the Philistines by a most unusual method. “He went off and caught three hundred foxes, then took torches and turning the foxes tail to tail put a torch between each pair of tails. He lit the torches and set the foxes free in the Philistines’ cornfields. In this way he burned both sheaves and standing corn, and the vines and olive trees as well”(Judges 15 : 4-5).
And responding to a scribe who said, “Master I will follow you wherever you go”, Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8 : 19-20).
Here, the artist is pairing the response of Jesus to the instruction he gave to his three disciples seen sleeping in the Garden of Gethsemane to “stay awake and pray not to be put to the test” (Matthew 26 : 41).
In Luke’s gospel (13 : 31-33) Jesus refers to the Galilean ruler Herod Antipas as a fox. Warned by some Pharisees that Herod meant to kill him, Jesus responded, “You may go and tell that fox this message: Learn that today and tomorrow I cast out devils and on the third day attain my end…” He was speaking about his three days in the tomb and resurrection on the third day, an event that happened soon after his capture by the cohort sent by the chief priests and Pharisees.
The artist has also made two visual references to foxes which connect to the two passages from the New Testament and to the story of Samson from the Book of Judges.
The hands of Jesus are shaped as the head of a fox, so too is the head of Jesus. Not only are his long ringlets intended to depict him as a Nazarite but they also represent the foxes tails set on fire by Samson. The ringlets also connect to the time Delilah asked Samsom what would be needed to bind him. Samson replied: “If you wove the seven locks of my hair into the warp of the web and fixed the peg firmly, I should lose my strength and become like any other man” (Judges 16 : 13).
This corresponds to when the cohort “seized Jesus and bound him” (John 18 : 12). Jesus offered no resistance, the illustration shows him with his hands coming together in prayer and in a manner of surrender to his Father, knowing the self sacrifice he is soon to make.
On three occasions Delilah called out to the sleeping Samson, “The Philistines are on you Samson!” Similarly, before Jesus was arrested by the cohort he found his disciples sleeping on three occasions.
Many of the elements from the Agony in the Garden are reworked into The Three Marys at the Tomb painting attributed to Hubert or Jan van Eyck, or even both.
The figure of Jesus praying to his Father in Heaven was also translated into the figure of William VI, Count of Holland, in another folio from the Turin-Milan Hours known as the Prayer on the Shore. Like Jesus, William is portrayed with his hands joined in prayer and his head looking up to God and his angels in Heaven. The pleats in William’s fur coat echo the ringlets rolling down from the head of Jesus.