St Valentine and the St Vincent Panels

“The idea that Valentine’s Day is a day for lovers is thought to originate with Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, a poem written in the late 14th century. It describes a group of birds which gather together in the early spring – on ‘seynt valentynes day’ – to choose their mates for the year.” (British Library).

The poet Geoffrey Chaucer is featured in the St Vincent Panels, so is a reference to the Parliament of Fowls.

The poem begins with the narrator reading Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis in the hope of learning some “certeyn thing”. When he falls asleep, Scipio Africanus the Elder appears and guides him up through the celestial spheres to a gate promising both a “welle of grace” and a stream that “ledeth to the sorweful were/ Ther as a fissh in prison is al drye” (reminiscent of the famous grimly inscribed gates in Dante’s Inferno). After some deliberation at the gate, the narrator enters and passes through Venus’s dark temple with its friezes of doomed lovers and out into the bright sunlight. Here Nature is convening a parliament at which the birds will all choose their mates. The three tercel (male) eagles make their case for the hand of a formel (female) eagle until the birds of the lower estates begin to protest and launch into a comic parliamentary debate, which Nature herself finally ends. None of the tercels wins the formel, for at her request Nature allows her to put off her decision for another year (indeed, female birds of prey often become sexually mature at one year of age, males only at two years). Nature, as the ruling figure, in allowing the formel the right to choose not to choose, is acknowledging the importance of free will, which is ultimately the foundation of a key theme in the poem, that of common profit. Nature allows the other birds, however, to pair off. The dream ends with a song welcoming the new spring. The dreamer awakes, still unsatisfied, and returns to his books, hoping still to learn the thing for which he seeks. (Wikipedia)

In the Panel of the Prince, the back row of men all represent birds of one kind or another – the Parliament of Birds. Chaucer (representing an owl) is the figure standing third from the left. The three tercels are the three men grouped on the right of the frame: Hugo van der Goes, who painted the panel, and the poets Dante Alighieri alongside Virgil, his guide in in the Divine Comedy. No doubt, they have the look of eagles forsaken in love.

Van der Goes’ request to marry a woman he loved was rejected by her father which may have prompted the artist to become a “conversus”, a lay brother at the Red Cloister monastery; Dante’s lifelong love for Beatrice Portinari never came to fruition as she was already married; and Virgil, the Roman poet never married.

The reference to Scipio Africanus in Chaucer’s poem is also echoed by the kneeling figure in the panel, King Afonso V of Portugal, known by the sobriquet “The African”.