Virgil on the verge

UPDATED: January 27, 2022

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 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.

And if to suggest that Limbo is closer to Hell than Heaven, Hugo formed a second, more sinister face in Virgil’s neck. The darkened area below the cheekbone forms part of the creature’s forehead, while the rim of the rather long ear forms the shape of a horn.

The horn feature also serves as a reference to Plutarch’s book of biographies known as Parallel Lives and the chapter on the Life of Theseus. When Theseus arrived at Delos he joined a group of youths dancing around an altar called Keraton and made entirely of horns taken from the left side of animals. The dance was known as The Crane.

Was Van der Goes also suggesting with the altar reference that the Plutrach image had been altered in some to also represent Pluto, or his Roman equivalent Hades?