Botticelli’s Siena roundel… part 2

The centre section of the roundel – the area containing the image of the saint, not the frame – is said to be an earlier work attributed to the Sienese painter Bartolommeo Bulgarini and which was later recessed into the main panel by Botticelli. But there is no definite proof of this and the saint has never been identified.

Taking into account that the figure of the young man is Piero de Lorenzo di’ Medici and modelled on Donatello’s Marzocco lion, the roundel therefore represents a shield, a symbol of both protection and identity. However, in this instance the roundel seemingly has no connection to the style of shield or the red lily emblem associated with Florence. Instead Botticelli has subsituted references to Siena, a rival neighbour south of Florence, noted for its saints and preachers.

The most obvious reference is the colour of the frame – burnt sienna – derived from an earth pigment known as terra di Siena and sourced from the region during the Renaissance. Yellowish-brown in its raw state, it turns to reddish-brown when heated and is then referred to as burnt sienna. The heating or conversion process is implied by the fiery colours used as the base for the saintly portrait.

This section of the painting represents two of the classic four elements in Greek philosophy – Earth and Fire. The two other elements are Air (the heavenly sky background) and Water (the colour of Piero’s deep blue tunic).

Sotheby’s auction catalogue states “the saint lacks any identifiable attributes, and only his right hand is visible, raised as an apparent gesture of blessing”. However the ‘sign of the horns’ is an attribute which can be identified with two particular saints – Moses, and his assistant Hoshea whose name was later changed to Joshua. So is the saint in the roundel, Moses or Joshua? Perhaps the figure is meant to represent both, as well as other biblical prophets and preachers.

There are other themes incorporated in the roundel to suggest it was produced by Botticelli during Piero’s time and is not the work of the Sienese painter Bartolommeo Bulgarini. This is borne out by several references to the roundel, Siena, and Botticelli in the Parnassus painting by Andrea Mantegna.

An earlier Sienese painter most likely to have inspired the style of roundel replicated by Botticelli was Duccio di Buoninsegna (d.1319). One of his most famous works is the Maestà commissioned by the city of Siena in 1308. The front of the the altarpiece depicts the Virgin Mary and Child enthroned, surrounded by numerous angels and saints. The predella is a series of panels depicting the Childhood of Christ, interspersed with images of six prophets.

It is a section of this predella that was the lkely source for Botticelli and his portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel. The scene illustrates the Flight into Egypt of the Holy Family. Left of the scene stands the ‘weeping prophet’ Jeremiah (B), and on the right is the prophet Hosea (D) showing the ‘sign of the horns’.

Another work partly attributed to Duccio is an altarpiece referred to as Polyptych No. 47, again featuring the Virgin with Child accompanied by angels and prophets. Above the Virgin is a panel depicting Moses (C), his left hand displaying the “sign of the horns”.

Was this portrait of Moses (C) the basis for the saint (A) shown in the roundel? If so, what connection was Botticelli making to want to link Moses, or any other ‘prophet’ it represented, with Piero?

More on this in my next post

Botticelli’s Siena roundel

Sotheby’s online magazine describes the roundel featured in Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Roundel as follows:

The [….] painting differs from any other portrait of the time in the fascinating way in which Botticelli has shown his sitter holding a small roundel in his hand depicting a saint. This roundel is an original 14th-century work attributed to the Sienese painter Bartolommeo Bulgarini, which was inserted into the panel on which Botticelli painted his portrait. The significance of this striking visual device remains to be decoded, but must relate in some way to the identity of the handsome young nobleman who shows it off so proudly.

Further information is included in Sotheby’s auction catalogue:

The grain of the wood and the truncated punchwork of the background confirm it as a fragment—one not always round in shape, but rather cut out of a larger, vertical panel. While some of the gilding around the curved edges has been repaired, the figure of the saint has survived, like the rest of this painting, in very good condition. He is depicted half-length with a long grey beard, balding head and wearing a grey mantle atop an orange robe. Set against a gilded background, he is surrounded by a network of geometric punchwork that serves to frame his figure in a manner not unlike the painted architectural setting behind the young man. The saint lacks any identiable iconographic attributes, and only his right hand is visible, raised in an apparent gesture of blessing.

Detail from the Parnassus painting by Andrea Mantegna and housed in the Louvre Museum. Some of the detail takes its inspiration from the roundel featured in Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man.

Botticelli’s portrait of the Young Man Holding a Roundel is referred to by the Italian painter Andrea Mantegna in his painting known as Parnassus, and identifies the sitter as Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici. Mantegna also makes reference to the roundel and links its inclusion to Siena, as Bottcelli intended.

More on this in my next post

In search of Piero… part 3

In yesterday’s post I mentioned that the original Marzocco probably depicted a wolf pinned down by the lion, indicating Florence’s historic rivalry with Siena. Evidence of this is shown in at least three paintings: Mantegna’s Parnassus, Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi version), and also the portrait being auctioned today at Sotheby’s, New York – Young Man Holding a Roundel.

Mantegna took his lead on representing the original and replacement version of the Marzocco from Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi. Botticelli depicts the orginal version as the backdrop to the Mary and Joseph figures, while the new version is shaped from the brick wall to the right of the Virgin.

Beneath the chin of the old lion is a carpet of earth covering a “rock face” (Leonardo da Vinci). This also represents the flat cap associated with Leonardo. The peak of the cap is shaped as a wolf’s head, a wolf being the symbol of Sienna. Siena earth is produces a pigment known as raw sienna which is yellowish-brown in its natural state. It turns to a reddish-brown when heated and then called burnt sienna.

In the Parnassus painting Mantegna’s fox head is indicated by the joined hands of the two dancers at the end of the line of nine muses pointing towards the crumbling Marzocco (another depiction of Leonardo).

A similar motif is formed by Botticelli in the Young Man Holding a Roundel. Three fingers on Piero’s left hand form the wolf’s open mouth and ear underneath the roundel, symbolic of submission under the weight of the “Medici ball” and Piero’s right hand shaped to resemble the paw or claws of the Marzocco lion (Piero himself).

Notice also the dark colour of the roundel frame – burnt sienna! Another border and another colour Botticelli has connected with the Marzocco is the window frame. This is the colour of the stone known as pietra serena used by Donatello to sculpt his version of the Marzocco. It comes out of the ground as a blue-grey colour and was widely used in Renaissance Florence.

The final part of this analysis – my next post – will focus on the mystery of the roundel and who its saintly figure represents.

UPDATE… The Young Man Holding a Roundel painting was sold at Sotheby’s this afternoon (15:40) for eight million US dollars.

In search of Piero… part 2

Continuing the connection between Piero di Lorenzo de Medici, Lord of Florence from 1492 until he was exiled in 1494, and the portrait known as A Young Man Holding a Roundel, attributed to Sandro Botticelli…

From Wikipedia: “The Marzocco is the heraldic lion that is a symbol of Florence, and was apparently the first piece of public secular sculpture commissioned by the Republic of Florence, in the late 14th century. It stood at the heart of the city in the Piazza della Signoria at the end of the platform attached to the Palazzo Vecchio called the ringhiera, from which speakers traditionally harangued the crowd. This is now lost, having weathered with time to an unrecognizable mass of stone.”

The “unreconizable mass of stone” features in the Parnassus painting by Andrea Mantegna. It is the “lion” embedded into the left side of the platform that supports Mars and Venus. The name ‘Marzocco’ is derived from Mars, the Roman god of war.

Before the Lion was adopted as the Florentine symbol, the people looked to a statue of Mars as protector of the people and the State. That was until the sculpture was swept into the Arno river and lost forever during the great flood which devastated Florence in 1333.

The Marzocco Lion later became its replacement. There is evidence to suggest that a wolf was pinned underneath the lion, suggesting that Florence had supremacy over its rival Siena, the wolf being its symbol as well as that of Rome. The reference to Siena points to the Battle of Montaperti in September, 1260, between Florence and Siena as part of the conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. An act of betrayal resulted in the Florentines being routed and suffering thousands of casualties.

A replacement for the crumbling heraldic Marzocco was sculpted by Donatello between 1418-20 without any reference to the Siena wolf. Instead, the lion cradles a shield bearing the “stemma”, the Florentine coat of arms.

This new version is also shown in Mantegna’s Parnassus painting, embedded into the right side of the platform support. It’s appearance is in profile, whereas the old Marzocco is face on. There is a reason why Mantegna has done this – to reflect Donatello’s skill at humanizing the creature. Michelangelo is reported to have said that he had never seen anyone who looked more like an honest man than Donatello’s Marzocco.

By contrasting the two lions supporting the platform in the Parnassus, Mantegna is pointing to Leonardo da Vinci as being past his sell-by date and that there is a new kid in town wowing the Florentine people – Michelangelo. The two men became bitter rivals.

But the real point Mantegna was making was in reference to Botticelli being considered ‘old-school’ or past his best by Isabella d’Este in her efforts to commission the most fashionable artists of the time to contribute to her studiola. Her demanding pursuit of Leonardo came to nothing in the end but for a profile sketch he made of Isabella when he visited Mantua. The drawing was later given away by her husband Francesco.

Mantegna’s humanizing of the two lions is also in recognition of two similar achievements intended by Botticelli when he painted the Young Man Holding a Roundel and the earlier portrait of Piero’s uncle Giuliano de Medici who was assassinated in April 1478. Both men are profiled specifically to represent the Marzocco lion.

More on this in my next post.

In search of Piero… part 1

So just who is the young man holding a roundel in the Sandro Botticelli painting set to be auctioned at Sotheby’s New York on January 28 and expected to sell for around £60 million?

The Sotheby’s auction catalogue suggests his identity is lost to history but likely to be a member of the Medici banking family and Florentine political dynasty. True on the second assumption but his identity is not lost to history. He is Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, nicknamed “Piero the Unfortunate”, and Lord of Florence for a short time, from 1492 until he was exiled in November 1494.

There are extant works of art that feature Piero, notably another portrait – attributed to Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora (1445-1497) – and a terracotta bust sculpted by Andrea Verocchio (1435-1488).

Although these two works are an aid to recognising Piero as the young man holding the roundel, there is another painting that I would suggest is the “clincher” when it comes to identification as well as providing the underlying narrative to the portrait, and that is the Parnassus by the Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna (c1431-1506), now housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

The date attribution for the Parnassus is 1497, but this is open to question as there is an historical reference in the painting (echoed from Botticelli’s roundel) to suggest the work was not completed until at least the latter quarter of 1498.

The two figures standing on the bridge represent Mars and Venus. In reality they portray Isabella d’Este, marchioness of Mantua, and Piero di Lorenzo de Medici (not Isabella’s husband Francesco II Gonzaga, as some art historians suggest).

Piero is portrayed as a Roman soldier, similar to the prominent soldier that appears in Mantegna’s Bearers of Trophies and Bullion, one of a series of nine paintings based on the Triumphs of Caesar and part of the Royal Collection at Hampton Court, England.

Mantegna has made the connection for a reason. The helmet worn by Piero is a pointer to the Battle of Fornovo between French forces that had invaded Italy and a coalition of armies gathered in support of the Republic of Venice. The battle took place southwest of Parma on July 6, 1495. The outcome was never really decided. Both sides claimed victory, although the Leaague of Venice forces suffered tremendous losses compared with those of the French.

However, the French king Charles VIII did manage to lose the spoils of war, treasures of all kinds collected during his invasion of Italy, hence Mantegna’s reference to his Trophies and Bullion painting. One special trophy that had been in possession of the French king was said to be his personal, jewelled helmet and a gilded sword. Another was a book illustrating the French ruler’s amourous conquests during the invasion of Italy. Both were eventually returned to Charles by Francesco II Gonzaga.

It’s one of the reasons why Mantegna has portrayed Isabella as a companion to Piero de Medici, who sided with the French and had earlier caved in to the French king’s demands when his soldiers threatened Florence. The outcome was Piero’s expulsion from the city and exile for the rest of his life. The naked Isabella is a reference to Charles’ album of Italian conquests. The golden rod in Isabella’s right hand refers to the gilded sword. It also represents the stemma that appears between the lily leaves featured on the Florentine coat of arms.

Another reference to the love-life of Isabella are the French colours of red and blue worn by Piero and draped over the wooden seat. The wooden seat is portrayed as a horse and a reference to the Trojan Horse used by the Greeks to penetrate the city of Troy. Close inspection reveals the knotted outline of Leonardo da Vinci hitched to the bedpost!

These references are symbolic of betrayal, and one of the narratives disguised in Botticelli’s Young Man Holding a Roundel. In fact Botticelli is featured as the humerous winged protector on Piero’s breastplate, echoing his own painting of Mars and Venus where he portrays himself as a mischievous chubby satyr. The depiction of the sleeping figure of Mars for the earlier Botticelli version is matched to the likeness of Leonardo da Vinci, hence the reason why Mantegna has indicated that Piero was not the first in line for Venus’ favours!

The topiary hedge screen is shaped to represent Rubino (Ruby), Isabella’s treasured lapdog, symbolic of protecting the Medici hedge fund seen growing on the bush.

These are just a few of the pointers to Piero the Unfortunate that Mantegna has made in the Parnassus painting. I will explain more in my next post and how they specifically relate to Botticelli’s Young Man Holding a Roundel.

Mantegna also pastiched the work of other Renaissance artists in the Parnussus painting, notably by Leonardo da Vinci. Whether Isabella d’Este, who commissioned the work, was ever truly aware of what Mantuan court painter was up to “is lost to history”. If she did, then her good humour is to be applauded.

Young Man Holding a Roundel

Young Man Holding a Roundel by Sandro Botticelli, to be auctioned at Sotheby’s New York

I’m looking foward with interest to the outcome of the auction of the Botticelli painting titled: Young Man Holding a Roundel. The auction is part of Sotheby’s Old Master sales series scheduled for January 28 in New York, and the painting is expected to sell for around £60 million. It was previously auctioned at Christie’s London in 1982 and bought for £810,000.

There’s a mystery about the subject. No one knows who the young man is or the name of the saint featured in the roundel. I have my own ideas and intend to post on this before the Sotheby’s auction sale at the end of the month.

Portrait of a Boy, 1475, Giovanni Bellini
The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

The image alongside is by Giovanni Bellini. Titled Portrait of a Boy, it is dated at 1475 and housed at the Barber Institute in Birmingham.

The subject is said to be a son of Angelo Probi who died in 1474 and was ambassador to Venice for the KIng of Naples. Like the Botticelli portrait, the boy’s name is unknown.

There are similarities between the two paintings, perhaps enough to suggest that the Bellini portrait could be viewed as a younger version of the youth painted by Botticelli.

Sotheby’s has published an interesting online catalogue to accompany the sale which can be viewed at its website.

The ‘Three Crowns’

Detail from the Panel of the Friars, with references to Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio.

Here’s more information about the Panel of the Friars, the first of six sections that make up the polyptych known as the St Vincent Panels and now housed at the National Museum of Antique Art in Lisbon Portugal.

As explained in earlier posts, each of the six figures have been given mutliple identities, seemingly four. This is a clue to the artist Hugo van der Goes’ emulating a similar method of construction used by Jan van Eyck when he applied four indentities to each of the ten riders in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpice.

Aside from any other suggested identities provided previously, the three men standing on the back row can be identified as the group known as the Three Crowns, major writers associated with the early Italian Renaissance: Francesco Petrarch, Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Boccaccio. The latter is probably best known for his collection of tales known as The Decameron, and subtitled Prince Galehaut.

Boccaccio is ‘twinned’ or paired with Dante Alighieri for the reason that it was Boccaccio who dubbed Dante’s Comedy “Divine”, so prompting The Decameron to be nicknamed “the Human Comedy”.

Another clue to Boccaccio’s identity is the translation of his name as “big mouth”, depicted by the rim of the hat worn by the man placed in front of him, on which is a fiery sun symbol. In this instance the symbol refers to the location where The Decameron tales take place – Fiesole (fire sun) –“twin hills” that overlook Florence in Italy.

The sun motif also connects to Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Fourth Sphere of Paradise, the so-called sphere of the sun where Dante and Beatrice meet the teachers of Wisdom, Saint Thomas Aquinas being one of them, and who is another identity shared with the figure of Dante.

In my previous post I mentioned that the likeness of Aquinas was sourced from a painting by the Italian artist Sandro Botticelli. Hugo van der Goes makes another connection to Botticelli through the Dante figure. The Florentine artist also produced a series of illustrations – 92 still survive – to be included in a manuscript of the Divine Comedy. Another connection is the vast influence the work of Aquinas had on Dante.

More on this in my next post.

More on the Panel of the Friars

In my previous post I stated that a section of Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi was the inspiraton behind the composition Hugo van der Goes applied to the Panel of the Friars in the St Vincent polyptych.

For example, the figure in the top left corner and the figure of the friar beneath it are based on two-heads in the Botticelli painting that depict Bernardo Bandini Baronelli, one of the assassins in the Pazzi Conspiracy who cleaved the head of Giulianio de’ Medici, and the Italian poet and scholar Angelo Ambrogini, better known as Poliziano, who later wrote a commentary about the dramatic event. He is seen with his head turned looking directly at the viewer in a similar fashion to the friar in the Panel of the Friars.

Detail from Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi, and the Panel of the Friars (St Vincent Panels).

The friar with the full head of wavy hair has multiple identities, one being João Álvares, a Portuguese chronicler held captive for several years alongside the royal prince Ferdinand who died in captivity at Fez. Five years after Ferdinand’s death, Álvares was succesfully ransomed, returned to Portugal and then commissioned by Ferdinand’s brother Henry (the Navigator) to chronicle his younger sibling’s life and deeds. This account was a source Hugo likely utilised for producing one of the themes in the St Vincent Panels, just as Botticelli used Poliziano’s account as a basis for his painting.

Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch of Bernardo Bandini Baroncelli, hanged for the asassination of Giuliano de Medici.

There are two references in Botticelli’s painting to Bernardo Bandini – eventually captured in Constantinople after his flight from Florence and brought back in chains by Antonio de Medici. He was hanged on December 29, 1479. Present at the time of Bandini’s execution was Leonardo da VInci who made a drawing of the hanged man. Part of this drawing is represented by the head of Bandini tucked behind Poliziano. This is to make clear that the account of Baldini’s execution was not part of Poiliziano’s report written soon after the attack on the Medici brothers. But Leonardo was still in town and recorded the event in one of his notebooks. Observe the reference to the rope, a vertical line which has been emphasised as part of the column in the background.

So how does this hanging man image connect to Pontius Pilate. There is a visual likeness – the red skull cap – and so a pointer to Golgotha, the place of the skull where Jesus was crucified or hung from a tree. The bark on the lower part of the tree behind the head of Bandini has been stripped, as Christ was stripped of his clothes, and above this area are the dangling legs of a man depicting the Crucifixion. Hugo van der Goes has matched this by depicting Pilate’s right ear as the lower half of Christ crucified.

There is another component that links to Baldini, the line that joins the two halves of Pilate’s tunic and falls in behind the head of Àlveres. This echoes the line that represents the rope seen behind the head of the assassin in the Botticeli painting. It’s a device applied by Hugo van der Goes to introduce another identity given to the friar and which, in turn, will eventualy lead back again to Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi. The new identity appears in one of the cycle of frescoes known as the Legend of the True Cross, attributed to Piero della Francesca, and located in the San Francesco church in Arezzo, Italy.

The Torture of Judas the Jew, part of the the fresco cycle known as the Legend of the True Cross, attributed to Piero della Francesco and Giovanni da Piamonte. Church of San Francesco, Arezzo.

The particular fresco, attributed to Piero’s assistant Giovanni da Piamonte, is the sixth in a series of thirteen and referred to as The Torture of Judas the Jew. Judas is seen being lowered into a well with a rope tied around his waist, although at first glance it appears the rope is attached to his neck. This is done in an effort make Judas reveal the location of the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. After seven days of torture Judas relents and reveals the location in Jerusalem where the True Cross is buried.

Judas’ curled hair is similar in style to the curls applied to Álvarez. To make any further connections between the two men, we now have to focus on one of the identities given to the second figure in the back row, Thomas Aquinas, and his portrait painted by Sandro Botticelli which I pointed out in a previous post.

St Thomas Aquinas, Botticelli, c1481-82, Riggisberg.

After Aquinas had died on March 7, 1274, an Enquiry into Canonisation was held at Naples between July and September 1319. One of the witnesses, an elderly priest known as Peter of Montesangiovanni, was asked if he knew of any miracles worked by Thomas in life or death or after death.

He replied that during his stay at Maenza, Thomas’s health declined and his socius (comrade), seeing his weaakness, begged him to take some food: whereupon Thomas said, ‘Do you think you could get some fresh herrings?’ The socius repied, ‘Oh, yes, across the Alps, in France or in England!’ But just then a fishmonger called Bordonario arrived at the castle from Terracina with his usual delivery of sardines; and the socius (Reginald of Priverno) asked him what fish he had and was told (sardines). But on opening the baskets, the man found one full of fresh herrings. Everyone was delighted, but astonished too, because fresh herrings were unknown in Italy. And while the fishmonger was swearing that he had brought sardines, not herrings, brother Reginald ran off to tell Thomas, crying, ‘God has given you what you wanted – herrings!’ And Thomas said, ‘Where have they come from and who brought them?’ And Reginald said, ‘God has brought them!’

This incident later became known as the “Miracle of the Sardines”. Close inspection of Botticelli’s painting of Thomas Aquinas reveals the cuffs of the saint’s tunic and his collar depicted as herrings. The hood of the Cistercian friar below is also meant to match the herring form.

Detail fro the Panel of Friars, St Vincent Panels, National Museum of Antique Art, Lisbon.

As for any reference to sardines, look no further than the shape and cut of the friar’s hair seemingly presented seemingly on a head-plate, the latter also a reference to John the Baptist whose head was presented on a plate to Salome. This alludes to the mirror Panel of the Relic where the kneeling cardinal is shown presenting part of a skull shaped as a dish.

Detail from the Panel of the Relic (St Vincent Panels), National Museum of Antique Art, Lisbon.

Another connection Hugo van der Goes makes is to Botticeli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. Botticelli is depicted standing on the extreme right edge of the panel with his hands covered. To his right stands the bearded Hugo van der Goes. This combination of the two artists is matched in the Panel of the Friars to the bearded friar and the friar crowned with sardines, the latter being another identity given to the figure – Botticelli – a nickname meaning “Little Barrel”. Hugo has playfully returned the jibe directed at him in Sandro’s painting, which inferred he worked at a snail’s pace. Hugo has presented Botticeli as a “little barrel” of sardines.

More about the Panel of the Friars and its connections in my next post.

Panel of the Friars – a link to Botticelli, Leonardo and Florence

In my previous post I presented two paintings which connected to the Panel of the Friars. One was the portrait of St Thomas Aquinas painted by Sandro Botticelli which Hugo van der Goes utilised for his figure of Aquinas (back row, centre). However, Hugo had given Aquinas the eyes of Botticelli. It was his way of directing the viewer to another painting by the Florentine artist – the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi and, in particular, to the group of figures on the left side of the frame as shown below.

Hugo was also inspired by two other artworks in creating his compostion – two frescoes – The Good and the Bad Judge, still to be seen in the old town hall of Monsaraz, Portugal; and a section of the cycle depicting the Legend of the True Cross in the church of San Francesco, Arezzo, Italy.

More about the connecting details in the Panel of the Friars in my next post

Detail from the Good and Bad Judge fresco at Monsaraz, Portugal.
Details frrom the fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross, Arezzo, Italy.

Dissecting the Panel of the Friars

One of the challenges for anyone attempting to identify the 60 persons contained in the six sections representing the St Vincent Panels, is realising the artist has applied more than one identity to many of them. Very rarely is any figure a stand-alone representation of who they appear to be at surface level.

The artist – and my preference is Hugo van der Goes, not Nuno Gonçalves – took his lead from Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, particularly the Just Judges panel in which four identities are applied to each rider.

Perhaps in this way Hugo not only intended to pay homage to Van Eyck but also echo the emergence of Portugal’s “Age of Discoveries” which began at the start of the 15th century, and so invite the viewer to explore and navigate their way around the altarpiece, panel by panel, increasing their knowledge and understanding of the artist’s mapping and connectivity techniques as they do so.

I have commented about the Panel of the Friars in previous posts and mentioned that one of the identities given to the figure standing extreme left in the back row is Pontius PIlate, the Roman governor who gave up Jesus to the Jews to be crucified.

The figure also represents Pope Boniface VIII. Alongside him is Saint Thomas Aquinas. Not only can these two figures be identified from other paintings but also by the iconography Van der Goes has embedded and connected to the group.

I can’t date the painting of Pope Boniface VIII shown below; neither do I know the name of the artist. But excluding the papal tiara there is a distinct resemblance to the first man on the back row.

Another person who can be added to the mix is St Ambrose of Milan. He is the third identity applied to the first figure in the back row. Like Pilate, Ambrose was also a Roman Governor. To complete the set of Roman governors – all men of authority – is Pope Boniface VIII, consecrated bishop of Rome in 1295.

The second figure in the back row can be matched to the Thomas Aquinas portrait by Sandro Botticelli dated 1481-1482. Of course, date attributions are not always accurate, but if this is close to the mark then it also helps to date the Panel of the Friars to a period after Botticelli’s painting and probably before a time Hugo is thought to have died around 1482. There is no record of Hugo’s death except a vague mention without a date in a chronicler’s journal said to have been written between 1509 and 1523.

There is a noticeable difference in the eyes of the two portraits. Hugo’s version has embedded the eyes of Botticelli from another painting – the Monforte Altarpiece. He did this not only to make a connection to Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi because it portrays Van der Goes, but for two other reasons which link the work to the Panel of the Friars.

The identity of the Aquinas figure can be confirmed by iconography that forms part of the white-haired Cistercian friar who, in this instance, is another saintly figure, Bernard of Clairvaux. The same applies to the portrayal of Boniface VIII. He too is connected to the Cistercian figure, not only portrayed as Bernard of Clairvaux but also as Bartolomeo Platina , the Vatican librarian who compiled and wrote a book on the Lives of the Popes (1479).

I shall explain more about these group of figures and how they connect to each other in my next post.

Choral clues to attribution date?

When Hugo van der Goes set about including choristers in two panels of the St Vincent polyptych there can be no doubt he was inspired by the two prominent panels of singing and musical angels that Jan van Eyck had painted in the Ghent Altarpiece. However, instead of angels, Hugo preferred Flemish painters in the guise of choristers.

Left: The Singing and Musical Angels panels from the Ghent Altarpiece, matched with the Knights and Relic panels from the St Vincent Panels.

Another reason was to point to the period in his life after he joined the Rood Klooster, an Augustinian community, in 1475 and suffered a mental breakdown some five years later. To aid Hugo’s recovery the prior Thomas Vessem arranged regular choral sessions as part of the painter’s therapeutic treatment. This rationale was based on the biblical account of David playing his harp for Saul who was plagued by an evil spirit. Whenever the evil spirit bothered Saul, David would play his harp, Saul would relax and feel better, and the evil spirit would go away. (1 Samuel 16 : 14-23)

Death of the Virgin, 1639, etching and drypoint by Rembrandt.

Rembrandt picked up on this in his etching referred to as Death of the Virgin (1639), except that the person in the bed is Hugo van der Goes and not the Virgin Mary! Hugo is surrounded, not by choristers or musicians, but by the many characters from the paintings he produced after his recovery.

Centuries later, and based on a chronicle account by Gaspar Ofhuys, a monk who resided at the Rood Klooster during Hugo’s time there, the Belgian artist Emile Wauters created a painting in 1872 showing a manic Hugo seated and listening to four choristers and two musicians.

The Madness of Hugo van der Goes. Wood engraving, 1890, from a painting by Émile Wauters, Wellcome Collection.

The work even drew comment from the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh in letters he wrote to his brother Theo, stating he likened his own appearance to the depiction of Hugo.

So does Hugo’s pointer in the St Vincent Panels to the treatment he received after his breakdown suggest that the polyptych was completed after his recovery, sometime during the years he was at the Rood Klooster, between 1475 and the less-than-certain date of 1482 given for his death?

The faceless cross-bearer

The detail below is taken from Rembrandt’s etching Death of the Virgin (1639). It’s a profile view of the head of the kneeling cross-bearer.

The profile is unusual in that it doesn’t feature an eye, a nose or a mouth. The head is practically faceless.

However, close inspection of the man’s ear reveals two of the facial features – an eye and an open mouth with a protruding tongue doubling up as the ear lobe. The composite represents the adage “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”.

Rembrandt took his lead from the same saying embedded in the Panel of the Friars, the outer left wing of the St Vincent Panels painted by Hugo van der Goes. Hugo’s inspiration came from Jan van Eyck’s version found in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece. Details about this are published in a previous post.

It’s very likely that Van Eyck’s inspiration stemmed from a section of a fresco titled the The Good and Bad Judge which is located in the old court house at Reguenos de Monsaraz. The fresco was also a source for some of the features Hugo van der Goes included in the St Vincent Panels. More about the fresco here.

The shorn and almost-faceless cross-bearer shows up again some thirty years later in Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son, as do other figures from this section of the etching.

Interestingly, another faceless, cross-bearer – Christ – is also depicted in the Good and Bad Judge fresco.

The art of homage

Earlier this year I posted an item revealing that a section of a Rembrandt etching – Death of the Virgin, 1639 – was based on one of the panels from the St Vincent Panels. The etching is, in fact, a tribute to Hugo van der Goes and does not represent the death of the Virgin Mary.

Seemingly Rembrandt considered Hugo the painter of the St Vincent Panels and not the Portuguese artist Nuno Gonçalves to whom the work is currently attributed.

Rembrandt also “translated” another section from the St Vincent Panels into his etching, the Panel of the Friars. The two sections are shown below for comparision. The section from the etching later served as the basis for the famous work Rembrandt painted late in life, The Return of the Prodigal Son. The third panel (right) shows detail from Dieric Bouts’ Last Supper painting which Van der Goes used as the basis for the Panel of the Friars.

Left: Detail from Rembrandt’s Death of the Virgin… Centre: Panel of the Friars from the St Vincent Panels… Right: Detail from Dieric Bouts’ Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament.

Seeing double

The St Vincent panels attributed to Nuno Gonçalves, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga

Why do the St Vincent Panels show a double image of the martyred deacon in the two centre frames, and almost identical in presentation? What or who inspired this ‘mirror’ effect. Is it designed to prompt the viewer to contemplate and ‘reflect’ on a particular mystery, or does it simply relate to two episode’s in St Vincent’s life and perhaps those who surround him?

Standing near to the deacon in the Panel of the Prince is the Hugo van der Goes (right), and probably the Flemish artist responsible for the painting and production of the St Vincent Panels, and not Nuno Gonçalves the Portuguese artist the work is currently attributed to.

I would go as far as to say that the St Vincent Panels may be the painting the German humanist Hieronymous Münzer mentioned 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 did not mention Hugo by name, but historians generally agree that Münzer was referring to Van der Goes who suffered a breakdown late in his life.

Hugo has made several references in the St Vincent Panels to the work of Jan van Eyck – also to other Flemish painters. Jan and his two brothers Hubert and Lambert are presented in the Panel of the Relic.

Van der Goes has sourced the Ghent Altarpiece for his two versions of St Vincent, deacon and martyr. Jan van Eyck included two tonsured deacons standing next to each other in the central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, walled in between a line of three popes and a row of seven bishops (right). The two deacons are St Stephen and St Lawrence. The latter shares a common birthplace with St Vincent. Both were born in Huesca in Spain.

St Stephen, who was stoned to death, is identifiable by the rocks gathered in his dalmic vestment, and the collar resting on his shoulders, studded with precious stones. St Lawrence holds a Gospel book but can be more readily recognised by the pattern on his collar, a reference to the manner of torture he suffered when he was placed on a gridiron with hot coals underneath. Another clue is that Lawrence is turned facing away from the direction most of the group are looking toward. This is a reference to the length of time he was being roasted and quipped to his torturers: “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over!”

Van Eyck placed these two particular deacons together for a reason, St Stephen was martyred in Jerusalem but eventually his relics were brought to Rome and laid to rest alongside those of St Lawrence, martyred in Rome. It is said that when Stephen’s bones were reinterred, Lawrence’s relics miraculously moved to one side to accomodate those of Stephen’s – perhaps another reason why Lawrence is shown turned towards his neighbour. The two deacon’s remains are interred under the high altar in what is now known as the Basilica Papale di San Lorenzo fuori le mura.

Although there is much mystery about the origin and history of the St Vincent panels, the assumption that the six sections formed part of a larger altarpiece dedicated to St Vincent in Lisbon Cathedral is widely promoted and referred to as the “Vicente thesis”.

At some time during its history, the six panels were presumed lost – as was the rest of the Lisbon Cathedral altarpiece – until they were discovered in the 1880s at the monastery of Saint Vicente de Fora in Lisbon. This find has led some researchers to consider the six panels were never part of the Cathedral altarpiece dedicated to St Vincent, and instead formed a single work commissioned solely for the São Vicente de Fora monastery. The monastery was founded in the 12th century by Portugal’s first king Alfonso Henrique for the Augustinian Order. It was rebuilt between 1582 and 1629, which may explain why the St Vincent panels were discovered “covered in dirt and soot” among scaffolding some 300 years, perhaps having been relocated during the reconstruction of the monastery – the monastery descibed as being “outside the walls”, just as the Basilica of St Lawrence in Rome is also descibed as being “outside the walls” (San Lorenzo fuori le mura).

So has the artist who painted the St Vincent Panels provided a clue to the location the polyptych was originally commissioned for by linking the two deacons in Van Eyck’s work to the double image of St Vincent and the fact that the two churches are referred to as being “outside the walls”?

Although a Vicente theorist, the Portuguese art historian Reynaldo dos Santos (1970) proposed the retable was destined for the monastery of São Vicente de Fora because he considered the only obvious relics of St Vincent depicted in the panels were the skull fragment and coffin, which were in possession of the monastery and not Lisbon’s cathedral.

Another point to consider is that Hugo van der Goes – if he was responsible for painting the St Vincent Panels – was also a lay brother from 1477 at the Rood Klooster (Red Cloister), an Augustinian priory near Brussels. It was around this period that he suffered a breakdown and attempted to self-harm. The method and instrument he used is illustrated in at least three of his later paintings including the St Vincent Panels.

The Red Cloister takes its name from the red tiles of the roof which could explain why the two St Vincent figures are wearing red hats – the artist confirming the work was produced during the time he lived at the priory. Or is this simply a hat-tip to Jan van Eyck’s self portrait of a Man in a Red Turban, shaped as a red rooster and a pun on Red Klooster? Perhaps both.

St Vincent’s red hat could also be viewed as a pointer to another painting by Jan van Eyck – the Arnolfini Portrait and its prominent mirror on the wall. Not only does it reflect the backs of the two main subjects but also shows two or possibly three other obscure figures in the room, one of whom is considered to be Van Eyck in the process of painting the couple and wearing his red hat.

This famous painting was echoed in a manuscript illumination attributed to Loyset Liédet and forrms part of a book titled Histoire de Charles Martel. The compiler of the text is thought to have been Jean Wauquelin, but the minature actually features David Aubert who transcribed or translated the text, and is shown wearing a similar red hat to St Vincent. His pose is also reminiscent of the saint as seen in the Panel of the Archbishop.

This folio provides the link to identifying two more of the figures in the St Vincent Panels. The man holding a book and standing at the right end of the line is Jean Wauquelin. Turning his head toward Wauquelin is David Aubert, minus his red hat. Van der Goes has ‘translated’ the hat onto the head of the figure in front who is Anthony of Burgundy, Aubert’s main patron and the favourite bastard son of Philip the Good. Anthony also features in the Loyset Liédet illumination. He’s the figure in the blue gown, wearing a gold chain and pointing to Aubert’s work.

The facial features of St Vincent are adapted from the Good and Bad Judge fresco in the old town hall of Monsaraz, where Van Eyck visited during his year-long diplomatic excursion to Portugal. The judge’s double-face or turned head was probably another feature what partly inspired Jan’s portrayal of the two deacons in the Ghent Altarpiece.

End of the line… part two

My previous post pointed out the connection between the two end panels of the Merode Altarpiece and the two end sections of the St Vincent Panels.

Detail from the St Joseph panel of the Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin – The Met Cloisters

Another link is the pair of pincers seen on the workbench in the St Joseph Panel, used to identify the figure standing next to the coffin in the Relic Panel. He is Jan van Eyck’s brother, Hubert. On Hubert’s left is another brother, Lambert van Eyck. The three brothers, Jan, Hubert and Lambert were all artists.

Detail from the Panel of the Relic, St VIncent Panels, Nuno Gonçalves – MNAA, Lisbon

The circumstances of Hubert’s death are unknown. He died in September 1426 and was buried in St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, next to his sister Margaret. Wikipedia states that one of his arms was preseved in a casket above the portal of St Bavo. Hubert never married and it is thought he may have belonged to a minor order of the Church.

When Jan van Eyck died in July 1441 he was buried in the graveyard of St Donatian’s church in Bruges. A year later, his brother Lambert organised for Jan’s body to be exhumed and reinterred inside the church next to the baptismal font.

Rogier van der Weyden, a contemporary of Jan van Eyck, recorded this new place of rest in the Seven Sacraments Altarpiece. In fact, Jan is depicted in all of the seven scenes. Hubert and Lambert also show up, standing behind Jean Jouffroy – the duke of Burgundy’s almoner at the time – between the two scenes depicting Baptism and Confirmation. The third figure alongside Jouffroy is Jan van Eyck to complete the trio of brothers.

Hugo van der Goes has repeated this arrangement of the four figures in the Panel of the Relic.

Another painting attributed to Van der Weyden and his workshop that features the three Van Eyck brothers is The Exhumation of Saint Hubert, housed at the National Gallery, London. Hubert is shown wearing a cotta over his red cassock, and in conversation with the Burgundian prince Charles the Bold. But seemingly Hubert’s left arm has been overpainted in a neutral grey colour, covering the cassock’s red sleeve.

Could this overpaint signify and confirm the claim that Hugo’s left arm was removed and put on display in a casket after his death?

So where does the pair of pincers come into this? Hugo van der Goes has matched them, to the shape of Hubert’s collar. They also double up as the shape of a bow – hence the ‘double collar’. The doubling-up reference is a pointer to the legend of the conversion of Holy Hubertus, or St Hubert.

When Hubert’s wife died giving birth to their son he retreated from court life for a pastime of hunting in forests. One Good Friday morning while pursuing a stag, the animal turned to face Hubert who was shocked to perceive a crucifix fixed between the stag’s antlers. A voice then warned Hubert that he needed to turn back to God and directed him to seek out Lambert, a bishop at Mastricht, who became his spiritual director.

Hubert van Eyck’s red collar represents both a hunter’s bow and the stag’s antlers. The anguished face of Van Eyck represents his final agony shared with the suffering Christ on his Cross. Jan van Eyck was away on ducal business, possibly in England, when his brother Hubert died. So the burial arrangements were most likely undertaken by Lambert van Eyck. It was Lambert who also arranged for the translation of Jan’s remains to be moved inside St Donatian’s church.

The Three Marys at the Tomb, Hubert van Eyck – Museum Boijmans Beuningen, Rotterdam

There are very few extant examples of Hugo’s work. He was commissioned to produce the Ghent Altarpiece but after his death the work was offered and completed by his brother Jan. Another painting considered to be by Hubert is The Three Mary’s at the Tomb. What is noticeable in this work is the wooden coffin lid laid across the open stone tomb. Christ has already risen.

The Resurrection theme, the open coffin and lid is echoed in the two end frames of the St Vincent Panels, the lid and coffin both upright. Van der Goes has placed the coffin lid next to the figure of Robert Campin in the Friars Panel, while the upright coffin stands beside Hubert van Eyck in the Relic Panel. There is a reason for this placing, Van der Goes is acknowledging a similar Resurrection scene (right) from Campin’s Sielern Triptych which shows Christ stepping out from his stone tomb, its lid askew, and suggesting that perhaps this was the inspiration for Hubert’s version. And instead of Three Marys portrayed beside the tomb, Hugo has shown three Van Eyck brothers.

A common theme throughout the St Vincent Panels is the translation of relics, of bodies and bones, and not just those of St Vincent. This theme is also extended to translation in other senses – of words and languages –crypt to cryptic – visual to verbal, of shifts in power and authority, of inspiration, both human and divine.

Although the St Vincent Panels are generally attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves, my choice for the painting the Panel of the Relic would be Hugo van der Goes. It’s the same choice that Dutch painter Rembrandt made some 170 years later when he ‘translated’ many references to Hugo’s work in his etching known as The Death of the Virgin.

End of the line – for a reason

The St Vincent panels attributed to Nuno Gonçalves, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga

The two end frames of the St Vincent Panels – the Friars Panel (left) and the Relic Panel (right) are similar in composition. Their “end of the line” positioning is a pointer by the artist, be it Nuno Gonçalves or Hugo van der Goes, to another painting known as the Merode Altarpiece and attributed to Robert Campin. Art historians generally agree that its two end panels were painted at a later date, and possibly by a young Rogier van der Weyden.

The Merode Altarpiece, Robert Campin, The Met Cloisters, New York City

In the two St Vincent Panels the bearded friar represents Robert Campin, while the pilgrim or hermit figure is portrayed as Jan van Eyck, aka Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary, (a carpenter’s saw hangs from his belt), as explained in a previous post.

In the Merode Altarpiece the so-called ‘messenger’ in the left panel, standing beside the garden door has never been identified, but I would suggest that he represents Robert Campin, the same bearded ‘messenger’ patting the wooden plank in the Friars Panel.

The other end panel in the Merode Altarpiece sees a busy St Joseph in his workshop drilling or ‘tapping’ holes into a plank of wood – a pointer to the holes seen in the plank alongside the beared friar (Campin).

Another Campin connection seen in the Relic Panel is the figure dressed in black supporting the holy book. He is the French prelate Jean Jouffroy. The likeness is based on a portrait by Robert Campin titled Portrait of a Stout Man, now housed at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.

More on this in my next post which will identify the two men placed on the back row of the Relic Panel.

Hugo’s hat-tip to Jan van Eyck

In my previous post I pointed out that Rogier van der Weyden’s ‘Joseph’ portrait was adapted from Jan van Eyck’s self-portrait – Man in a Red Turban.

Another Netherlandish artist went a step further and amalgamated features from both portraits to create his own version of Jan van Eyck and feature him as a pilgrim in the St Vincent Panels. Although the panels are currently attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves, they also reveal iconographic evidence that Hugo van der Goes had a major role in the work.

In his portrait of Van Eyck as a pilgrim seen in the Panel of the Relic, Hugo has mirrored Van der Weyden’s ‘Joseph’. The hats are similar, so are the facial features. The muzzle of the ‘Lamb of God’ feature is outlined in the pilgrim’s hat.

A subtle ‘God the Father’ feature is applied to Jan’s temple, to mirror the Christ image which is seen on the temple of the man wearing the red turban. Just below the ‘Father’ feature is the suggestion of ‘Christ Crucified’, another detail which appears on the red turban in Jan’s self-portrait.

Hugo has also echoed the vacant aedicula in Rogier’s painting by placing an empty coffin behind Jan the pilgrim.