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.