Here’s an interesting figure painted by the 15th century Italian artist Domenico Ghirlandaio. It represents two people and appears in one of a series of frescoes depicting the life of John the Baptist displayed in the Tornabuoni Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence.
At surface level the figure represents Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, in the process of naming his new-born son. But Ghirlandaio also embedded another narrative in the scene centred on Leonardo da Vinci and presents the artist in the process of drawing and making a study of Fioretta Gorini representing the Virgin Mary and her Child.
The composition is inspired by a fresco in the Sistine Chapel, the Testimony and Death of Moses painted in 1481-82, while the commission for the Tornabuoni Chapel paintings was carried out between 1486-90.
“On the fifth day of Christmas my true love sent to me five gold rings…” is probably the most memorable line from the Christmas carol, The Twelve days of Christmas.
Another recognisable five-rings motif is the Olympic Games symbol created by Pierre de Coubertin who founded the International Olympic Committee. The educator and historian was also a talented designer.
The five-rings design first saw the light of day during preparations for the 1914 Olympic World Congress in Paris, but is wasn’t until after the First World War that the symbolic flag made its official world debut at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium.
Although the new Olympic flag was displayed in the stadium throughout the four weeks of the Games, the symbol wasn’t incorporated on the 90,000 posters printed in 17 languages advertising the event.
The poster features a naked discus thrower as a reference to the Games of Antiquity. The figure is wrapped in a ribbon of national flags representing the competing nations. The coat of arms of the host city Antwerp – a castle with three towers, two hands and a wreath of laurel and six roses – is placed in the top right corner. In the background is the city of Antwerp and one of its most notable landmarks, the tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Antwerp.
The Cathedral is approximately five kilometres from Antwerp’s Olympic Stadium, now home to the Belgian football club, Beerschot. It houses a stunnng set of the Stations of the Cross painted by two Belgian artists, Louis Hendrix and Frans Vinck. The 14 paintings were produced between 1864 and 1868.
The fourth station – Jesus meets his mother – is attributed to Hendrix. Like Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, it is structured as a coat of arms. The group of supporters on the left side of the frame depicts the Virgin Mary, John the Evangelist, Mary Magdalene, Mary Clophas and Joanna the wife of Chuza.
All five figures of the group are presented with halos shown as five gold interlocking rings!
So while the Olympic five-rings flag was flown only at the stadium during the month-long event, a similar motif had been present and on display in Antwerp for 50 years prior to the 1920 Olympic Games. I sometimes wonder if Pierre de Coubertin was aware of the connection to the “five gold rings” in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Antwerp.
I ended my previous post pointing to some of the iconography attached to the figure of St James the Lesser and made mention he was presented as a sower of the word of God – but there’s more.
His blue cap is the shape of a fish head, the strap represents a fishing line. This is a pointer to another passage from Matthew’s gospel (17:24-27) when Peter was asked if Jesus paid the Temple tax. Jesus gave instructions to Peter: “Go to the lake and cast a hook; take the first fish that bites; open its mouth and there you will find a shekel; take it and give it to them [the tax collectors] for me and for you.”
Notice James’ opened mouth shaped as the lips of a pouting fish, his silvery teeth and hook-shaped moustache. The shekel can also be identified in the sickle shape of the blue cap and tie. The work “sicle” was an Old French term for shekel.
The combination of the hook and the blue cap also serves as another narrative, that of the Hook and Cod Wars fought in the County of Holland from 1350 to 1490. The Hook and Cod reference appears in other works associated with the Van Eycks. Jan van Eyck has made a similar reference in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.
The term “Cod” referred to a trawling net and introduces a further fishing narrative that relates to when Jesus called Simon Peter and Andrew to follow him and become “fishers of men”. Peter is the figure in green placed next to James the Lesser. Cod can also be understood as a pun on the word “God” – or the “word of God”.
This area of the “Witnesses to the Old Testament” is teeming with biblical references and I shall point out more and their connections in my next post.
Two disciples of Jesus are named in the New Testament as sons of Alphaeus: Matthew the evangelist and James (the Less). But in the 13th century Golden Legend collection of hagiographies the compiler Jacobus de Varagine links two more sons to Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot and Jude Thaddeus who were sons of Mary Clophas, suggesting perhaps they were half-brothers to Matthew and James.
The Van Eycks have placed the four men together in the group of “Witnesses of the Old Testament” from the lower corner section of the Adoration of the Lamb panel in the Ghent Altarpiece.
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.
Matthew’s brother is referred to as James the Less as there was another disciple named James (the Great) among the twelve apostles commisioned by Jesus to go out and sow the word of God and proclaim the kingdom of Heaven.
Both James’s are depicted wearing a type of berry cap worn by field workers. See the example alongside of the sower planting seed in the October folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry.
John, duke of Berry, originally commisioned the Limbourg brothers to produce his Very Rich Book of Hours but they were never able to complete the work. The three brothers all died in 1416, as did the duke of Berry, most likely from the plague.
A closer look at James the Less reveals more detail about the connection to the Limbourg brothers and John of Berry. Firstly, the assumption that the men died from the plague, a disease that swept Europe at various times and was associated with the fleas of rats. The chin tie hanging from the cap is a visual reference to infer a rat’s tail. This in turn links with the figure in red above James – Judas Iscariot – the disciple who betrayed Jesus. He also is shown with iconography symbolising a rat.
The Duke of Berry’s Book of Hours has a calendar section depicting the labours of the month. The October page already mentioned is the month of tilling and sowing. Each calendar page is crowned with a semi-circle depicting signs of the zodiac related to the paticular month.
Several of the figures in the group of “Witnesses of the Old Testament” are also linked to celestial constellations. James the Less is one such figure. He represents Ursa Minor or the Lesser Bear. I revealed in a previous post that the hands of the nearby figure in green, one of which points in the direction of James, represents the composition of seven stars known as Ursa Major, the Great Bear.
The Van Eycks always confirmed links and connections in more ways than one, hence why I explain the method of constructing the picture as like fitting pieces of a jigsaw. A piece or reference rarely stands alone, it always has two or more connecting pieces.
So here’s another piece of the jigsaw to connect to the head of James the lesser that confirms the link to the Duke of Berry, his Book of Hours and the Lesser Bear.
Notice the “button nose” given to James. It is meant to mirror the “button nose” of John of Berry. A profile of the duke appears in the January calendar page of his Book of Hours. Notice too in this depiction John’s hands are shaped as bear claws, acknowledging his fondness for the small domesticated bear he kept as a pet. The bear is even sculpted on John’s tomb, but with human hands! And this brings the connection back to the hands of the figure in green symbolising the Great Bear constellation with human hands.
For some time now I’ve been propounding the theory that the St Vincent Panels were produced by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes and not Nuno Gonçalves, the Portuguese artist to whom the work is currently attributed.
I mentioned in a post last month that the St Vincent Panels could be the painting the German humanist Hieronymous Münzer referred to 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 didn’t mention Hugo by name, but historians generally agree that Münzer was referring to Van der Goes.
And in another post made as far back as April 2020, I pointed out the likeness of Hugo and his father in the Prince section of the St Vincent Panels.
Last month I came across further evidence to support my theory. It’s embedded in the Adoration of the Lamb that forms part of the Ghent Altarpiece, the section I’ve posted on these past few days and referred to as Witnesses of the Old Covenant.
Late in his life Hugo van der Goes suffered a mental breakdown and in 1482 made an attempt to self harm, perhaps even to take his own life. He was placed in the care of Prior Thomas of the Red Cloister community which Hugo had entered as a lay brother around 1477.
Gaspar Ofhuys, the community’s chronicler, recorded that Prior Thomas Vesem suspected Hugo was “vexed by the same disease by which King Saul was tormented”. The Prior recalled that whenever “David took the harp and played, then Saul grew calm, and recovered, and the evil spirit left him” (1 Samuel 17:21). He arranged for “a melody be played without restraint in the presence of brother Hugo” to dispel the delusions and thoughts he was having of being a lost soul heading for damnation.
Hugo’s attempt at self harm, seemingly with a sickle, mirrors King Saul’s suicide when “he took his own sword and fell on it” (1 Samuel 31:4).
My previous post identified the figure wearing the crushed gold hat as King Saul. The face half-hidden by the edge of his hat is Samuel who anointed Saul as King. In front of Saul dressed in royal purple is Saul’s successor David, who would play the harp for the tormented king to calm him. Notice the harp-shaped peak of David’s headdress.
Van Eyck, be it Jan or Hubert, has applied two further identities, King Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas, to the figure in the gold hat, which is sometimes referred to as a ‘solar’ or ‘tyrant crown’. It was the son who gave the order for the beheading of John the Baptist, seen placed in front of Herod’s left cheek. The head of Herod is turned, and in the guise of the son’s father his right cheek faces toward the head of Jesus. It was Herod the Great who ordered the death of all male children under the age of two in an attempt to kill the infant Jesus who he considered a threat to his throne.
The child’s foster father Joseph was warned in a dream to take Jesus and his mother into Egypt to escape the danger and the family remained in the land of the pharoahs until Herod was dead. King Herod died in excruciating agony. So severe was the pain, he attempted suicide with a knife but was thwarted by a family member.
The bald-headed figure of Joseph looks down at the representation of the winged Holy Spirit in the blue-peaked cap worn by Heli, the father of Joseph. This Egyptian-styled crown suggests a celestial connotation, represented by the structured pattern of starry lights. Here the Van Eycks have added another narrative to the scene that points to a new light, a paradisical light of heavenly constellations. I shall identify these in a future post. The constellations theme was recognised by Hugo van der Goes who translated the idea to the St Vincent Panel of the Knights.
The placement of Christ the King – yet to be fully revealed – alongside King Herod and King David can also be understood as a reference to the Magi or Three Kings who were guided by a rising star to Bethlehem to pay homage to Jesus the newborn King of the Jews. The Magi theme can also be recognised in the St Vincent Panels.
The Saul/Herod portrayal links two suicides and one attempt at self-slaughter and so makes the connection to the bid by Hugo van der Goes to take his own life. Hugo has adapted some of the representations from this section of ‘witnesses’ and translated them to the Panel of the Prince to make reference to his state of mind and recovery. The crushed hat worn by Saul and its reference to the sun/son is mirrored in the depression or hollow depicted in Hugo’s hat. The foster father figure of Joseph is adapted to portray Prior Thomas Vessem who nursed Hugo back to recovery, or even an image of his own father standing cheek-to-cheek with his son.
Other elements from the Van Eycks’ group of ‘witnesses’ are translated by Hugo to not only the Panel of the Prince, but also to other sections of the St Vincent panels.
The figure of King David seen holding a branch to signify a new line of succession (the House of David) can be matched to the figure of Joao, the first Portuguese king of the House of Aviz. Beneath his hands, the gold strands on the hat of his first-born son Alfonso, cascading like leaves on a palm tree – a play on words on the Psalms of David and Hugo’s response to the musical stringed harp shaped in King David’s headdress.
King Joao’s hand’s are shaped to form a chevron, an heraldic device to signify the roof of a house (of Aviz). The two hands are also a pointer to the representation of Joao being a double image, father and son, Joao and Duarte, similar to how the Van Eycks portrayed the two Herods, father and son, as one image, and so another motif adopted and recrafted by Van der Goes from the Witnesses to the Old Testament. Both Joao and Duarte died from the plague.
This ‘discovery’ provides a solution to the identity of the young boy alongside the double image of Joao and Duarte, that of Afonso I, the son of Duarte who inherited his father’s throne at the age of six after his father’s death in 1438.
The resurrected figure of St Vincent is matched to the resurrected figure of Jesus, his golden hair mirrored by St Vincent’s gold nimbus. The boat-shaped collar on St Vincent’s dalmatic is matched to the red and gold ark-shaped hat of Eli, the figure placed immediately above Jesus. And the red bell-shape crown of Eli’s hat is echoed by the bell-shape hat worn by St Vincent.
• More on this and details of further connections between the Witnesses of the Old Testament and the St Vincent Panels in a future post.
Like the Just Judges panel where the identity of each rider has a connection to one next to it, as if they were jigsaw pieces fitted together, so too the figures featured in the Witnesses of the Old Testament.
For instance, the three central figures in the detail below, the prophet Isaiah wearing the red chaperon, and two men behind him, John the Baptist and the poet Virgil, all connect a way to relate to prophecies made by Isaiah – “The wolf will live with the lamb…”(11:6); “A voice cries in the wilderness, prepare a straight way for the Lord…”(40:3); and the Saviour as a sheep “burdened with the sins of all of us…”(53:6).
Virgil, as a Roman represents the Capitoline Wolf, the symbol of Rome since ancient times. John the Baptist replied to the question put to him by the men sent by the Pharisees to ask who he was, by saying: “I am, as Isaiah prophesied, a voice that cries in the wilderness, make a straight way for the Lord.” The next day, seeing Jesus coming towards him, John said to his disciples, “Look, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world”(John 1:29).
The muzzle and shape of an ear depicting the sacrificial lamb of God is shaped into Isaiah’s red chaperon, not an unfamiliar feature in the work of Jan van Eyck. Virgil also makes reference in his First Eclogue to a tender lamb often staining the altar, and offered to a god who gives peace.
The second line of Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming of the virtuous king is also referred to: “The leopard lies down with the kid (goat)…(11:6)” This is illustrated in the two figures above Virgil, the apostles Philip and Peter. The fur rim of Peter’s hat represents the spotted leopard lying down while Philip’s unusual-shaped profile with its narrow eyes, and the two black horns shaped into his hat represent the goat.
I mentioned in my previous post that some of the figures in the group have been given double identities (even more in some instances). Virgil is also cast in more than one role, not just as a poet in his own right but as a companion who acted as one of three guides to the soul of poet and philospher Dante Alighieri during the writer’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in Dante’s Divine Comedy, “an allegory of human life”.
As Dante starts his journey he is confronted by three beasts, a lion, a leopard and a she wolf. He is rescued by Virgil and the pair continued their travels together. Two of the beasts, the lion and the she-wolf, are depicted in the beards of Virgil and St Peter, but the figures need to be turned upside down to recognise the feature. St Peter’s beard represents the she-wolf, while the beard belonging to Virgil portrays the lion.
The upside down feature also points to a second identity the Van Eycks applied to Virgil, that of Simon Magus, the ‘magician’ described in the Acts of the Apostles who offered money to be able to receive the power to call down the Holy Spirit on people. His name has since extended to the word “simony”, understood and considered sinful as “selling church offices and sacred things”. Virgil and Dante met with Simonists in the Inferno level of the Divine Comedy. The Simonists were “upside down in round holes the size of baptismal fonts”.
The figure of St Peter is also portrayed in the guise of another Pope, Nicholas III, who Dante placed in hell among the Simonists. Nicholas reveals himself in the poem as the son of a she-bear. The family name was Orsini, meaning “bearlike”. In the papal representation of Nicholas the bear reference is indicated by the shape and visible fingers of the two hands. They represent the stars and formation that combine to form the Great Bear constellation. The pronounced vein seen on the right hand represents an adjacent constellation to the Great Bear known as Draco, that forms the shape of a serpent dragon.
The leopard attribute is the one revealed earlier on the rim of St Peter’s hat. This may be a subtle reference by the Van Eyck’s to Dante’s run-in with Church authorities and his belief that the authority of kings and emperors was not dependent on the authority of the Pope but descended from the “fountain of universal authority” which is God. This creed could also explain one of the reasons why Jan van Eyck included a fountain feature below the altar in the Adoration of the Lamb panel.
The St Peter figure as head of the Church points to another connection concerning the travels of Virgil and Dante. Because Virgil was unbaptised (depicted with his back to John the Baptist), he was prevented from entering Paradise as Dante did in the Divine Comedy. Virgil remained in Limbo, along with oher souls considered by the Church as “virtuous pagans”. The Van Eycks have illustrated this by separating the figure of Virgil and that of Dante (a second identity given to the Judas figure) with the portrayal of St Peter as first pope and representing the Church. St Peter’s raised hand can also be interpreted as indicating no entry into the green pastures of Paradise for the unbaptised Virgil.
The composition is carefully crafted and constructed because now the dual identity of the the figure in red as both Judas and Dante introduces another narrative – that of wasted talents – which I will detail in a future post.
So far, I’ve named 15 of the figures out of 50 that make up the group described as Witnesses of the Resurrection: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who wrote the four Gospels; Judas, Jude, Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip and Nathaniel (also identified as Batholomew), disciples of Jesus; Moses and his brother Aaron; Jesse the father of King David; Isaiah the Israelite prophet; and the statuesque figure of the Roman poet Virgil.
Here are some more: John the Baptist is tucked in behind Virgil and at the Baptist’s right side is King David. Immediately behind David is the half-hidden figure of Jesus. On the left of Jesus is King Saul wearing the crushed golden crown symbolic of his depression, and on the Saviour’s right in the blue peaked cap is Heli, the father of Mary’s husband Joseph. Joseph is the bald-headed figure looking down at his father’s peaked hat shaped to represent the Holy Spirit who Jesus was conceived by. Above and to the right of Joseph is Eli, the judge and high priest who raised Samuel as his successor, the half hidden face behind Eli.
To the left of Heli are Jacob and Esau, sons of Isaac who is placed immediately behind and between the pair. Issac’s half-brother Ishmael stands behind Esau and his red chaperon. Abraham, the father of Issac and Ishmael is the figure wearing the green hat and positioned at the rear of his grandson Jacob.
That’s another 13 identities to add to the 15 revealed earlier, making a total of 28 from the 50 figures in the group. The remaining figures are not so clear cut, especially as some have been given double identities, but I will reveal more in a future post.