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.