Virgil on the verge

In my previous post I identified the three figures shown here as Dante Alighieri, Virgil and the half-hidden head as Plutarch (doubling up as Pluto, king of the dead and the underworld). They are part of the section known as the Panel of the Prince in the St Vincent Panels.

Virgil accompanied Dante as a guide through the depths of Hell and Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy poem, but was never able to enter Paradise because he wasn’t baptised. Although the stain of “original sin” remained with him, he was what was referred to as a “virtuous pagan”.

Notice the face shaped in the folds of his throat and looking down at the stain of original sin presented as a black spot on his white undergarment. Baptism is said to remove the mark of original sin humanity is born with.

The face in the folds of Virgil’s neck is a reminder of a gorget worn to cover and protect the throat (as seen in the figure of Philippa). Gorget lends itself to the word “gorge” meaning “chasm” and this refers to the gap or distance that Virgil was never able to cross to reach Paradise.

Hugo van der Goes borrowed this detail from a section of the Ghent Altarpiece that refers to the biblical parable of The Rich man and Lazarus and the words spoken by Abraham to the rich man, “Between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours” (Luke 16:26).

In the top image Virgil is placed in front of Pluto representing Hades, and on the verge or edge of the frame. His location is Limbo, meaning “edge” or “border”, and a special place the Church conceived for unbaptised “virtuous pagans” after death.

Standing on ceremony

Here’s another example of how Hugo van der Goes was inspired by the Ghent Altarpiece when he set out to paint the St Vincent Panels.

The Panel of the Prince, (St Vincent Panels), and the Singing Angels panel (Ghent Altarpiece)

In this instance he has taken elements and themes from the Singing Angels section of the Ghent Altarpiece and translated them to the Panel of the Prince in the St Vincent polyptych.

The Singing Angels represent a celestial scene, seven of which refer to the cluster of stars called the Pleiades, also known as “The Seven Sisters”. The eighth angel at the top of the group represents Joan of Arc, depicted in the guise of a ram and therefore the constellation Aries. This constellation is located next to the constellation Taurus which houses the Pleiades.

Joan of Arc, depicted in the guise of a ram. Singing Angels panel (Ghent Altarpiece)

Notice also the angels’ arc-shaped headbands studded with diamonds, the arch-shaped picture frame, and the arched shelf representing the Ark of the Covenant containing the Pentateuch or Torah.

The Holy Book, stones and arcs are features translated by Van der Goes to the Panel of the Prince. So too is the lead angel in her red vestment and the placing of her hands on the lectern as if she is at the helm, steering the ark. This is echoed in the figure of the deacon guiding and steering the kneeling man as to the right path to take in life.

Instead of angels, Van der Goes has arched a group of eleven men, and as an alternative to the headbands the arc on the forehead is formed by the brim of the men’s hats. The line of men is split into two groups. The first five men on the left represent an ascent culminating with a sixth figure at the peak, half-hidden behind the man with bald head.

Detail from the Panel of the Prince, (St Vincent Panels)

Francisco Petrarca or Petrarch (Italian poet) is the half-hidden figure at the peak and in descending order are: John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster), Henry Bolingbroke (King Henry IV), Geoffrey Chaucer (poet and diplomat), Edward Grimstone (diplomat), and Petrus Christus (painter). All represent variations of and are linked by the word stone, beginning with Petrus and ending with Petrarch (petra meaning stone or rock).

The group is also connected to another figure, the woman wearing the white headdress who is Philippa of Lancaster, Queen consort of Portugal through her marriage to King John I. She was the daughter of John of Gaunt and therefore a sister to Henry Bolingbroke. Chaucer mentored Philippa in her youth. He was also the brother-in-law of Philippa’s governess, Katherine Swynford having married her sister, also named Philippa.

Serving as an English diplomat at the Burgundian court of Philip the Good, Edward Grimstone was married three times. His third wife was named Philippa. His extant portrait (in the National Gallery, London) was painted by Petrus Christus.

The Philippa connection to Petrus comes through one of his paintings titled “Isabella of Portugal with St Elizabeth” (right) and which Hugo van der Goes translated to represent Philippa and her kneeling daughter Isabella in the Panel of the Prince.

The similarity between the faces of Philippa and St Elizabeth suggest that Petrus Christus may have modelled the Saint’s features on Isabella’s mother with whom she is said to have had a very close relationship.

Lookalikes…Philippa of Lancaster and St Elizabeth

Philippa’s mother was Blanche of Lancaster. Both women died of the plague, as did Philippa’s husband King John I and their son Edward. The moustached figure paired with Philippa is a double or two-layered image representing both kings matched by the double image of Philippa and her mother and the fact that all four individuals succumbed to the plague.

The Blanche/Philippa figure is placed in front of Geoffrey Chaucer to make a connection to the poet’s “Book of the Duchess” in which Blanche is featured as the character “White”. Blanche was John of Gaunt’s first wife and was only 26 when she died. Gaunt married three times but chose to be buried alongside Blanche when he died. Notice the head of the Duke of Lancaster is turned to look at the white headdress and dual image of Blanche and Philippa.

Grouped with Petrarch on his left are the artist Hugo van der Goes, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, the ancient Roman poet Virgil, and behind him the half-hidden Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch. What connects three of the men – Van der Goes, Dante and Virgil – is they were all sent into exile at sometime during their life. Plutarch represents an eternal exile when his name is played with Pluto, the Roman god of the dead and the underworld, equivalent to the Greek version Hades. He wears no hat. Like Petrarch, his head is cropped. Petrarch represents a capstone for the line of stone figures on his right, while the Pluto or Hades figure is also assigned a cap which is hidden, a cap of invisibility referred to as the “Cap of Hades” or the “Helm of Hades”. When the cap is donned the wearer becomes an invisible force at the helm of the ship steering and conducting the paths and souls of others on a descent to disaster.

This corresponds with Van Eyck’s angel steering the ark and the choir, but now the wingless angels represent a new choir, that of the mythological Sirens calling out with their sweet melodious voices to entice ships to shore and flounder on the rocks.

So the “exiles” represent a descent into death, but not just by exile alone. Hugo’s exile is somewhat of a mystery but there is a written record that he was, as a young man, pardoned by Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, in March 1451.

However, in later years Hugo’s descent into Hades manifested once more when he suffered a mental breakdown and attempted suicide, claiming he was bound for damnation. His attempt at self harm was thwarted by those around him and he was placed into the care of Thomas van Vessem, prior of the the Red Cloister Augustinian community which Hugo had joined as a lay brother in 1478. Vessem is the figure standing cheek to cheek with Van der Goes. There are two references in the panel which point to his identity.

The first derives from the half-hidden figure of Petrarch. Widely travelled, the poet once ascended Mount Ventoux in the Provence region of France, a considerable feat in 1336. When he reached the summit (hence the earlier mention of capstone) he contemplated on his ascent and view of the Alps and then took from his pocket a copy of St Augustine’s “Confessions”. When Petrarch opened the book his eyes fell on a passage that suggested the climbing experience was but an allegory and a prompt to lead a better life.

Mount Ventoux (meaning “windy” in French) is nicknamed “Bald Mountain” and this is another connection to the word “arc” formed by the bald head of Thomas van Vessem. The word “windy” is also a pointer to the Windesheim Congregation which the Augustinians of the Red Cloister community joined in 1412.

More on this in my next post.

An open book

There has always been somewhat of a mystery about the signficance of the book, presumably a Bible, held by the figure (claimed to be St Vincent) in the Panel of the Prince, one of six sections that make up what is known as the St Vincent Panels.

The medieval Latin writing has been identified as two separate texts; the left page as part of a verse from John’s gospel (14:30-31), while the facing page is thought to refer to the Preface from the liturgy of the Mass of the Holy Spirit.

The text from John’s gospel, the final two verses, is a pointer to the discourse given by Jesus to the apostles after the Last Supper when he spoke about his relationship with the Father and promised to ask the Father to send another Advocate to be with them for ever, “that Spirit of truth” (14:16-17). This promise manifested at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came down on the apostles and others in the Upper Room.

The discourse ends when Jesus said, “I shall not talk with you any longer, because the prince of this world is on his way. He has no power over me, but the world must be brought to know that I love the Father and that I am doing exactly as the Father told me. Come now, let us go” (14:30-31).

In ecclesiastical terms the Preface is described as “an introduction to the canon of the Mass”. In an ordinary sense the word stems from Latin praefationem, “fore-speaking, to say beforehand”. When Jesus gave his farewell discourse he was speaking “beforehand”, that is before his arrest, passion and crucifixion. Hence the prominence of the left hand and four fingers of the Saint bearing the book. He is proclaiming a message beforehand, before the “prince of the world” impacts on the life of the kneeling prince who is “prefaced” directly with the “Spirit of truth”.

The Holy Spirit is often portrayed as a dove, based on the witness of John the Baptist recorded in John’s gospel: “I saw the Spirit coming down on him (Jesus) from heaven like a dove and resting on him” (1:31).

Spirit can also mean breath or wind as revealed in John’s gospel account of Nicodemus visiting Jesus under the cover of darkness: “The wind blows wherever it pleases; you hear it’s sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. That is how it is with all who are born of the Spirit” (3:8).

The cover of darkness is represented by the black cloth covering the holy book; the conversation is the word of God; the wind of the Spirit is reflected in the two turning pages; the Spirit as a dove is the shape of the Saint’s left hand, the thumb being the bird’s head nestling under the feathers of one of its wings represented by the three fingers that symbolise the Holy Trinity.

• The Father and Son reference is part of the father and son theme present elsewhere in the Panel of the Prince. The Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) also connects to a trinitarian theme in the panels, while the word “canon” is represented in several forms in the altarpiece and represents another major theme. More on this in a future post.

Changing course on Henry the Navigator

The image below is the frontispiece of a manuscript titled Crónica dos Feitos da Guiné written by the Portuguese chronicler Gomes Eanes de Zuara.

The manuscript was commissioned by Portugal’s King Afonso V and records the recollections of his uncle Henry the Navigator and Portugal’s maritime exploration during the first half of the 15th century.

The original manuscript was completed in 1453 but a century later declared missing or lost. However, in 1839, an intact and preserved copy was rediscovered in the Royal Library of Paris. The Paris Codex includes the frontispiece shown above. It is presented as a representation of Henry the Navigator. Since its discovery the portrait has served as the basis of multiple other images depicting Henry.

That the portrait was of Henry was seemingly confirmed with the rediscovery in 1882 of the St Vincent Panels at the monastery of St Vincent de Fora in Portugal. In what is known as the Panel of the Prince is a mirror image of that shown in Zuara’s Chronicle of Guinea.

Panel of the Prince, St Vincent Panels

For almost a century Infante D. Henrique was the general consensus of researchers and historians for the identity of the figure wearing the Burgundian style chaperon and that the illustration in the Zuara chronicle was the source for the mirror image in the St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves.

But in the 1980s two researchers presented a new suggestion for the identity of the figure in the Panel of the Prince… King Edward of Portugal. This raised the question as to which of the two representations was painted first, and was the Paris Codex version added later. The frontispiece is an intact folio and part of the original manuscript. But that doesn’t exclude the possibility the illustration was painted on a reserved blank page at a later date.

So was the Paris Codex image produced after the completion of the St Vincent Panels? If so, this could place a question mark over the completion date of the St Vincent Panels and possibly the accepted attribution to Nuno Gonçalves. My understanding is the the St Vincent Panels panels were produced by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes who included his own image in the Panel of the Prince, above and to the right of the figure considered to be Prince Henry.

Henry, or his brother Edward, is moustached. There is a written record that Edward was moustached at some time in his life. Most images of Edward depict him with a full beard but his tomb effigy portrays him as clean-shaven. Henry’s effigy is also without a beard or moustache. Bearing in mind it is highly unlikely Hugo ever set eyes on Edward before the King died of the plague in September 1438, so if Van der Goes is the originator of the St Vincent Panels, where did he locate his source for the image of Edward or Prince Henry?

Petrus Christus

A clue to the source is portrayed in the panel itself. Some researchers believe the figure on the extreme left of the back row is the painter of the panels Nuno Gonçalves. It’s not. It’s the artist Petrus Christus who took over the workshop of Jan van Eyck after the Flemish master died in July 1441.

If Hugo van der Goes is the painter who produced the St Vincent Panels, then this could be the work and the artist that the German humanist Hieronymous Münzer referred to in his diary after visiting Ghent and wrote, “another great painter was driven mad and melancholy” attempting to emulate Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. Hugo wasn’t mentioned by name, but historians generally agree Münzer was referring to Van der Goes.

Hugo has mirrored several references and themes from the Ghent Altarpiece in the St Vincent Panels, so it should be no surprise to find the work of Petrus Christus is also reflected in the panels, particularly the Panel of the Prince.

There are at least five references to the works of Petrus Christus in the panel, but one in particular relates to the image of KIng Edward / Prince Henry. A pointer to this work are the unusual silver sleeves of the bald-headed man standing behind the figure believed to be St Vincent. The sleeves protect his forearms because he is portrayed in one guise as a falconer. Silver and falconer are pointers to the silver-point portrait, Man and his Falcon by Petrus Christus.

Elements of this drawing are incorporated into the Edward/Henry portrait. The face in the drawing is a younger version (but let’s discard Henry and replace him with the brothers’ father instead, King John I of Portugal, because the panel image is, in fact, a double portrait which I shall explain in a future post).

Silver-point portrait, A Man and his Falcon by Petrus Christus.

The low eyebrows and hooded eyelids can be matched, so can the thin upper lips and pronounced lower lips. But perhaps the most telling feature is the strong similarity of the ears. Hugo has adapted the firm brim of the hat to feature instead as the moustache, while Hugo adapts the falcon at the shoulder into an image of himself standing just behind the man in the chaperon representing John and his son Edward.

There are more elements in the drawing that link to other features and figures in the panel but better discussed as a separate topic in a future post.

So who is the man with the falcon in the silverpoint drawing? He bears a remarkable resemblance to the Burgundian duke Philip the Good who in 1430 married Isabella, daughter of King John I and sister of Edward. Compare the silverpoint drawing with two paintings of Philip by Rogier van der Weyden. Observe the large and similar ear, the low eyebrows and hooded eyes, the thin upper lip and full lower lip. Could the falcon dawng be a depiction of Philip the Good?

If so, then the kneeling woman in the Panel of the Prince could be said to be Isabella with her mother Philippa standing over her, and her father John, brother Edward and husband Philip all represented in the figure wearing the chaperon. This intimate connection could suggest that the painting may have been originally commissioned by Isabella herself. She died in December 1471. Petrus Christus died sometime in 1475 or 1476. Hugo van der Goes closed his workshop around 1477 and joined the Roode Klooster as a lay brother where he continued painting until his death, thought to be around 1482.

The date attribution for the silver point drawing is 1450. It’s kept at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt.

Temporary move for the Man of Sorrows

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts has announced the loan of a trio of internationally significant paintings usually on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

The three works are: The Last of England (1855) by Ford Maddox Brown; Erminia and the Shepherds (c.1620) by Guercino; and The Man of Sorrows (c.1450) by the Flemish painter Petrus Christus.

The Man of Sorrows panel is one of four paintings by Petrus Christus referenced in the St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese artist Nuno Gonćalves. However, my understanding is that the work is by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes and not Gonćalves.

More on the Petrus Christus link to the St Vincent Panels in a future post.