More about the Panel of the Prince

This post is a continuation from the previous, which set out to identify some of the figures in the Panel of the Prince.

I named these six men in my previous post as (front row, left to right) Thomas Vassem, Hugo van der Goes, Dante Alighieri and Virgil. The two half-hidden faces belong to Francesco Petrarch and Plutarch (doubling up as Pluto, king of the underworld).

A further link to five of the figures is they all experienced some form of exile. Petrarch’s father ser Petracco was exiled from Florence in 1302, eighteen months before the birth of his son. Ser Petracco’s friend Dante was also exiled from Florence during the same year. 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. Virgil is placed on the verge of the frame for a reason. He accompanied and guided Dante 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. However, 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 Virgil’s throat and looking 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 is a reminder of a gorget worn to cover and protect the throat and neck (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 image shown above, Virgil is placed in front of the twinned figure of Plutarch and 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.

Thomas van Vessem was 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. After he reached the summit 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.

Just as Jan van Eyck planted puns and word play in the Ghent Altarpiece, so too did Hugo van Eyck in the St Vincent Panels.

“Cloister can be understood as “cluster” which serves as a meaning for “nest”. Birds is another theme in the painting which Hugo borrowed from the Ghent Altarpiece. Jan van Eyck sourced Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls to introduce this theme in the Just Judges panel which goes some way to making the connection to the figure of Chaucer standing close to the deacon said to represent St Vincent, patron saint of Portugal’s capital Lisbon.

Notice the feathered look of the deacon’s hair, shaped to represent both bird and nest. The hairstyles applied to some of the other figures in the painting also have a feathered appearance.

Perched on the deacon’s “cluster” is a red hat. The combination of red hat and nest is not only a reference to the bird depiction in Van Eyck’s famous self-portrait, Man in a Red Turban, but also to the red roof tiles that covered the Red Cloister priory.