Mirroring Jan van Eyck

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.