Confession of a ‘conversus’

According to the chronicle of Gaspar Ofhuys, he joined the Red Cloister monastery at the same time as Hugo Van der Goes, sometime in 1475. In later years he became prior of the monastery and wrote in The Chronicle of the Red Cloister about an event in Hugo’s life when the artist suffered a breakdown and made an attempt to take his own life.

Although Ofhuys states that this occurred “perhaps five or six years after his [Hugo’s] profession” (1480-81), historians date the actual recording in the chronicle between 1509-1513, possibly as much as three decades after Hugo’s traumatic experience. Ofhuys also wrote in the chronicle: “In the year of the Lord 1482, Brother Hugo the conversus, who made his profession in this house, died.”

Ofhuys didn’t elaborate on how Hugo attempted to self harm, but the artist has shown the method and weapon he used in at least four of his extant paintings. The St Vincent Panels also gives witness to the steps taken by Hugo to injure himself. This is located in the section known as the Panel of the Prince where Hugo van der Goes is placed in a very prominent position of honour, immediately behind King João 1 of Portugal.

Hugo uses a ‘jigsaw’ technique to build relationships with surrounding figures, so parts of the Hugo ‘piece’ will have a connection to parts of the figures around him. The cheek-to-cheek arrangement with the man on his right works in two ways: as a connection to his spiritual ‘father’ or director, Thomas Vessem, and also pointing to the source for the arrangement and narrative, the double-head relationship from the Monsaraz fresco of The Good and Bad Judge, where the devil and temptation lurk in the background.

For whatever reason, Hugo’s half-brother Nicholas may have been a thorn in Hugo’s side. He was also a brother at the Red Cloister, a donatus, and a step up from Hugo who was classed as a conversus. He was with Hugo and other fellow monks returning from a visit to Cologne when Hugo is said to have attempted to kill himself. Ironically, it was Nicholas who was the source for Gaspar Ofhuys’ report in the chronicle. Offhuys confirmed the this when he wrote: “As I learned from the account of brother Nicholas […] he [Hugo] even tried to do himself bodily harm and to kill himself had he not been forcibly restrained with the help of bystanders.”

So here’s how Hugo reveals his version of the incident– a kind of confession – and placing his account on record long before the Ofhuys chronicle report of what had happened.

Firstly, Hugo has confirmed he suffered with depression. The circled depression in his hat is an analogy of Hugo’s state of mind.

Hugo is also portrayed as a male falcon, a tercel (from the Latin tertius) a pointer to his “third order” status as a lay member of a religious order. There are also two other reasons why he is depicted as a falcon, one which links to the Dieric Bouts’ Altarpiece of the Blessed Sacrament, and the other to the genus term for birds of prey (including the falcon), Falco, derived from the Latin falcis, a sickle, and referring to the claws of the bird.

The claws reference is a pointer to the devil’s hand on the shoulder of the Good Judge in the mentioned fresco, while the sickle is the weapon Hugo used to self-harm.

The falcon portrayal is enhanced by the habit’s hood or cowl, just as a hood is used to cover the head of the bird to keep it in a calm state.

I’ve also colourised part of Hugo’s cowl to emphasis its curved shape as a sickle, the tool Hugo used to cut his neck. Although the necks of the other heads show wrinkles, the white line on the left side of Hugo’s neck is a sign of a healed scar.

The part of the hood resting on Hugo’s left shoulder, colourised orange, replaces the devil’s claw and represents a pelican at rest. “In medieval Euope, the pelican was thought to be particularly attentive to her young, to the point of providing her own blood by wounding her own breast when no other food was available. As a result, the pelican became a symbol of the Passion [and atoning sacrfice] of Jesus since about the 12th century” (Wikipedia).

Did Hugo plan his own passion? If so, where did he keep the sickle hidden? Could it have been in the hood, symbolic of the pelican’s pouch?

Hugo’s pelican is positioned as resting, crouched facing the collar and chest of the man on his left. Close inspection of the white collar suggests it represents a shrouded figure in its tomb, and so the pelican now symbolises a sphinx-like tomb guard.

Could this piece of iconography refer to the man on Hugo’s left as being dead and buried, someone very close to Hugo? Another painter, perhaps?

Probably the most telling painting of Hugo’s attempt at self harm and recovery is the Adoration of the Shepherds dated at 1480. I shall post a presentation on the iconography in this painting at another time, but for now I show one significant feature in the painting that points to Hugo cutting his neck. The gangling shepherd arriving on the scene on one leg is Hugo. In his right hand he draws back the sickle-shaped cowl to reveal blood marks around his neck. The blood has also dripped onto the shepherd kneeling below him.

Unfortunately, during the process of the painting’s recent restoration, the blood marks have been completely removed from Hugo’s neck and the kneeling shepherd. Thankfully there is a digital copy of the painting published online before its recent restoration, and so preserving Hugo’s own ‘confession’ and account of his breakdown.

Seeing humility in a mirror

Difficult to decide which direction to take after revealing the identity of Thomas à Kempis in the Hugo van der Goes painting Death of the Virgin in my previous post. There are options to go a clockwise route, direct south, or go west. Kempis connects in all ways.

I mentioned in the last post that the painting had a bookish theme. Another theme is that of reflection, both in the sense of meditation and mirroring. The mirror theme may be another instance of Hugo expanding on the Kempis book, The Imitation, where the author states: “Learn to see yourself as God sees you and not as you see yourself in the distorted mirror of your own self-importance.” Or, perhaps, Hugo may have just been imitating or paying tribute to Jan van Eyck and his famous mirror featured in the Arnolfini Portrait.

But there is another painting from which he has taken his mirror theme, one very similar in content to his own as it also features the twelve apostles: The Last Supper panel by Dieric Bouts. Both works show the apostles placed in two ‘camps’, so to speak, and the gap clearly visible nearest the viewer.

Detail from the Last Supper panel from the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament by Dieric Bouts.

Let’s go west! Before taking the straight road along the top of the headboard that starts from the figure of the two Thomases, remember that the apostle Thomas was a man of doubt and uncertainty. When Jesus told the apostles that they knew the way to the place he was going, Thomas responded: “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5).

Detail from Death of the Virgin by Hugo van der Goes, Groeninge Museum, Bruges

The reference to John’s gospel is important. Not only is John the apostle placed at the other end of the headboard, but his namesake, John the Baptist, figures prominently in the opening chapter of John’s gospel, along with the calling of the first disciples. In fact, Hugo makes several references in the painting to events in the first four chapters of John’s gospel.

In this particular instance Hugo is referencing the Baptist’s words of the prophet Isaiah: “Make a straight way for the Lord” (1:23) – the straight way being the straight and level path along the top of the headboard.

As to Thomas à Kempis, the feature showing his hands on the corrner of the headboard – its shoulder – refers to an experience recorded by Thomas in his biography of Florent Radewijns, a founder of the monastery at Windesheim and a major influence on the development and expansion of the Brethren of the Common Life.

When Thomas was twelve years old he left home to attend a Latin school in Deventer in the Netherlands. His brother Johan was already a student there. Radewijns was the senior canon and despite ill health would occasionally sing with the choir. Thomas wrote: “At that time I used to go into the Choir with the other scholars… and as often as I saw my Master Florent standing there – though he did not look around – I was careful not to chatter, for I was awed by his presence because of the reverence of his posture. One time it when I was standing near to him in the Choir he turned to share our book for the chanting, and he, standing behind me, put his hands on my shoulder –but I stood still, hardly daring to move, bewildered with gratification at so great an honour.”

Versions of Thomas à Kempis portrayed as a youth and an old man.

The young Kempis is reflected in the features of John the evangelist and youngest of the disciples called by Jesus; his pronounced lift of the head, sharp nose and strong chin with a faint beard. This is meant to be Kempis portrayed as a young man. The figure behind is “Master Florent” who is also portrayed as Andrew, one of the Baptist’s two disciples who were first to become followers of Jesus, the same Andrew who said to Jesus, “There is a small boy here with five barley loaves and two fish; but what is that between so many? (John 6:9).

It could be interpreted that the five fingers extending from John’s shoulder represent the five loaves, while John’s two hands represent the fish. However, the two hands with the extended thumb are symbolic of the Holy Spirit, while the hand extending from from the sde of the evangelist’s shoulder represents a spear-shaped lily, mirroring the lily motif on Peter’s collar. But also note that the hand is placed in the valley made by John’s arm. Combined they represent the flower known as the Lily of the Valley, sometimes referred to as Mary’s Tears.

But that’s not all, it also refers to the incident of Thomas á Kempis and “Master Florent” sharing the chant book in the Choir, The book motif that appears on the right side of the headboard is repeated or mirrored as a ‘shared’ book in the panel next to John and above the praying hands of the Florent figure. The hands representing a lily and the valley made in John’s arm now combines to represent another book written by Thomas à Kempis: The Valley of Lillies. Kempis explains that many lilies of exceeding whiteness are planted in the valley of humility.

The hands representing the lily and the Holy Spirit are motifs which Hugo has mirrored from the Last Supper painting by Dieric Bouts.

Finally, there is a third identity that can be applied to the figure representing both Andrew and “Master Florent”, that of Johann (John) Hammerlein, the elder brother of Thomas à Kempis by fifteen years. It was Johann who first sent Thomas to the care of Florent Radewijns. After his schooling Thomas made a “straight way” to join the monastery of Mount St Agnes where his brother was prior. The name Agnes is taken from the latin Agnus, meaning Lamb, and another reference to John’s gospel and the text where John the Baptist points out the “Lamb of God”. (John 1:29)

More revelations about the Dormition painting in a future post.

Identifying the Dormition Apostles

Detail from the Death of the Virgin (The Dormition), Hugo van der Goes, Groeninge Museum, Bruges.

The arrangement of Apostles in The Dormition of Mary echoes The Last Supper panel produced by Dieric Bouts between 1464-1468. Hugo’s painting of the Virgin Mary on her deathbed and surrounded by the twelve apostles of Jesus was completed at least a decade later.

Some of the Apostles are easily recognised, Peter and John, for example, but the whole group, it seems, has never been clearly identified by art historians. Jesus had a habit of renaming his disciples and giving them new identities, which may have partly inspired Hugo to take the same approach and apply more than one identitity to each man. But he does provide visual clues and each figure is usually placed to connect in some way to one next to it. This was the approach Dieric Bouts took with The Last Supper. So did Jan van Eyck when he painted the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

First the identities of the twelve Apostles as placed by Hugo in the painting. Starting with the figure gripping the headboard and moving clockwise around the bed, they are: Thomas, Peter, Philip, Jude, Matthias (the replacement for Judas Iscariot), Simon (the Zealot), James (the Lesser), Matthew, James (the Greater), Bartholomew, John, and Andrew.

• More on this and some of the other identities in my next post.

Together in eclectic dreams

The Great Sphinx of Giza, partly under the sand, ca. 1870s

The top section of Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi shows the Virgin Mary presenting the Infant Jesus on her lap to Cosimo de’ Medici, the Elder. Behind her stands Joseph, while above the group the Star of Bethlehem shines through the rafters of the temporary dwelling portrayed in a state of ruin and collapse.

What remains of the walled structure is divided into three distinct sections, the bricked corner walls to the right of the group; the dark and craggy rock that forms the back wall; and the pale outcrop which Joseph rests on. Then there is the raftered roof supported by two tree trunks.

A time to cast away stones, a time for gathering them together… (Ecclesiastes 3 : 4)

The left half of the bricked walls section is shaped to represent the sejant erect heraldic lion, the symbol of Florence known as the Marzocco. Placed alongside the infant Jesus representing the sacrificial Lamb of God, it becomes the Lion and Lamb peace symbol.

Sculpted from the rock shelf which Joseph is leaning on is a head representing Leonardo da Vinci. When this is merged with the lion feature it produces a sphinx-like form of half-man and half-lion. Botticelli is specifically drawing attention to the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt, and Leonardo’s claim in one of his notebooks that he travelled to Egypt and further East. However, historians put this down to fantasy on Leonardo’s part.

The Taurus bull and Lion of Babylon

The shape of the dark rock that forms the back wall is a bellowing bull, its horns are represented as part of the roof’s rafters. The bellowing represents thunder, the horns, lightning (next to the light from the Star of Bethlehem breaking through the darkness). The bull is Taurus and another pointer to Leonardo’s travelogue and the mysterious draft letter letter to “the Decatdar of Syria, Lieutentant of the Sacred Sultan of Babylon” found in one of his notebooks, detailing his time spent in Armenia and describing the Taurus Mountains.

The dark rock also represents the sculpted Lion of Babylon that depicts a man pinned underneath (Leonardo). Its inclusion is another reference to Egypt but particularly to a part of Cairo at the time known as Babylon. The motif may also refer to the biblical “Babylon Captivity” of the Jews and so a symbol of oppression. Leonardo as the pinned man under the lion points to the polymath’s of oppression by the Florentine authorities and the likely false and malicious charge of sodomy made against him, hence his desire to leave the city when an opportunity arose and move to Milan. The mayhem and random slaughter of citizens following the assassination of Giluiano de’ Medici was another likely factor in Leonardo’s desire to leave Florence.

The Lion of Babylon, with a man pinned underneath

That Joseph is depicted leaning on the flat cap of Leonardo’s sculpted head, seemingly asleep, reinforces the dream and journey theme. After the departure of the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream warning him of Herod’s intention to slay the new-born child, and that he should escape into Egypt. (Matthew 2 : 13-15)

Adding support to the premise that Leonardo is portrayed in his familar peaked flat cap as the Great Sphinx are the two tree trunks supporting the timbered roof of the building. They form the Roman numeral IV –four – and refer to a period in the Sphinx’s history and that of the short reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose IV.

It was Thutmose who, as a prince, was out hunting one day and decided to rest in the shade of the Sphinx which was buried up to its neck in sand. Wikipedia explains: “He soon fell asleep and had a dream in which the sphinx told him that if he cleared away the sand and restored it he would become the next Pharaoh. After completing the restoration he placed a stone tablet, now known as the Dream Stele, between the two paws of the Sphinx. The restoration of the Sphinx, and the text of the Dream Stele would then be a piece of propaganda on Thutmose’s part, meant to bestow legitimacy upon his unexpected kingship.” (Peter Clayton, Chronicles of the Pharaohs)

This propoganda theme likely mirrors the motive and steps taken by Lorenzo de’ Medici to enhance his reputation following the Pazzi consiracy. The de facto ruler of Florence soared in popularity among the people of the Republic after the brutal murder of his brother Giuliano.

Like the Sphinx, Leonardo’s head is buried from the neck down. The shadowed area falls behind the head of Lorenzo de’ Medici. He is also in a dream-like state and focused on the face of the Child Jesus. This particular feature is a defining link to Deiric Bouts’ painting of the Last Supper from which Botticelli has adapted features to include in his Uffizi Adoration. Bouts also included Thutmose IV and the Dream Stele and linked the pharaoh to the apostle Jude Thaddeus and the Image of Edessa, the so-called Mandylion. Botticelli makes the connection to the Last Supper painting and the raising of the Host (the time during the Mass when Giuliano de’ Medici was assassinated in the Duomo) by identifying Lorenzo with Jude Thaddeus who is said to have brought the Mandylion (the cloth miraculously imprinted with the face of Jesus) to king Abdar of Edessa.

Comparing Lorenzo de’ Medici to the Apostle Jude Thaddeus in Diriec Bouts’ Last Supper

In icons of St Jude, one of his attributes is a flame around his head to indicate his presence at Pentecost. This is shown as a ‘tongues of fire’ symbol on the top of Lorenzo’s hat. Lorenzo is also draped in a cloak meant to represent the Shroud of Jesus on which the covered face of Christ is depicted. Notice also the features of the face and beard of the turbaned man to the left of Lorenzo’s hat, intended to match the profile of Jude in the Bouts painting. The fold on Jude’s left arm represents the head of the Sphinx while there is also a suggestion of the shrouded face of Christ on his back, similar to that shown on Lorenzo.

Leonardo da Vinci portrayed as the Great Sphinx

The stone carving of Leonardo is shaped as a double head. It may represent two aspects of Leonardo as well as the double-headed eagle, facing East and West, and perhaps a pointer to Leonardo’s flight frrom Florence to Milan as well as the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. It’s just possible to make out the shape of an angel (above Cosimo’s head). This winged angel is also likely a reference to the ‘winged’ shape of a nemes crown, the striped extended head cloth worn by pharaohs. The left side head of the rock is formed from the other wing of the nemes.

Another link to Leonardo being portrayed as a sphinx was his fondness for composing riddles. The mythical Greek sphinx that guarded the city of Thebes would devour any traveller unable to answer its riddle. It was classed as female with the wings of an eagle and considered malevolent, while the Egyptian sphinx was portrayed with a man’s head and seen as benevolent.

The main profile of the sculpture shows Leonardo facing two figures connected with the East, the drooped head of Bernardo Bandini del Baroncelli who escaped to Constantinople after assassinating Giuliano de’ Medici, only to be brought back to Florence and hanged while still dressed as a Turk. The other figure is the turbaned man alongside Leonardo, representing both King Agbar of Edessa and Mehmed II, Sultan of the Ottaman Empire, who sanctioned the extradition of Baroncelli back to Florence. He also represents Epicurus, the Greek philosopher. More about him and his connection to the painting in a future post.

My next post will deal with how Leonardo and this particular section of Botticelli’s painting links to the Parnassus painting produced about 12 years later by Andrea Mantegna, and how it shows evidence which points to Bianca Giovanna Sforza as La Bella Principessa in the painting said to be by Leonardo da Vinci.

When Botticelli went to Leuven

The Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament (1464-68) by Dieric Bouts, St Peter’s church, Leuven

In my previous post I revealed how the portraits of Sandro Botticelli and Hugo van der Goes featured in corresponding versions of the Adoration of the Magi, suggesting that Van der Goes may have visited Florence in connection with his painting of the Adoration of the Shepherds, commissioned for the church of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova.

Further research has produced evidence to suggest that Botticelli likely travelled to Flanders and, in particular, to the Flemish region of Brabant and the city of Leuven, now part of Belgium.

While in Louven, for whatever reason, it appears that Botticelli visited St Peter’s church and laid eyes on the famous altarpiece (still displayed there) painted by Dieric Bouts – the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament. The triptych was commissioned in 1464 and completed four years later in 1468.

As Bouts died in May 1475, it is likely that Botticelli’s visit would have occurred sometime during a seven year span between 1468 and the early part of 1475.

Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi incorporates in detail some of the iconography and ideas embedded in the Bouts triptych, particularly in the centre panel depicting the Last Supper. I can only assume that this detailed knowledge was given to Botticelli by Dieric Bouts himself, which may further explain why Hugo van der Goes, a close associate of Bouts, placed portraits of the two artists side by side in his Adoration triptych known as the Montforte Altarpiece.

A look of admiration and appreciation from Sandro Botticelli for Dieric Bouts in the Monforte Altarpiece painted by Hugo van der Goes.
Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, inspired by not only by the works of Leonardo da Vinci but also the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament painted by Dieric Bouts, still displayed in St Peter’s church in Leuven.

More hand signs

More on the relationship between the two figures portrayed as the disciples Simon the Zealot and Philip in The Last Supper painting by Dieric Bouts.

I previously mentioned that Philip represents the painter Jan van Eyck, and Simon the Zealot is Petrus Christus, who worked under Jan before taking over his studio after Van Eyck died in 1441.

When the contract to produce the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament was drawn up and signed in March 1464, it stipulated the assignment of two theologians to assist the painter Dieric Bouts. Johannes Varenacker and Egidius Bailuwel were associated with the Old Leuven University and are featured in the top left panel of the altarpiece.

Bouts has also portrayed Varenacker in The Last Supper panel, in the guise of James the Less sat at the table corner opposite Philip. The figure also represents an older version of Jan van Eyck. So there are two representations of Jan at the table – as Philip, and as James the Less. There is a specific reason for Bouts doing this and likely that Varenacker played his part in constructing the links, hence the reason for portraying the theologian a second time in the altarpiece and in this particular section.

But the combined figure of Van Eyck and Varenacker portrayed as James the Less isn’t just speculation on my part. The connection is confirmed by an associate of Bouts, Hugo van der Goes, in his Adoration of the Kings panel of the Monforte Altarpiece.

Johannes Varenacker and Jan van Eyck in multiple guises

The humble figure of St Joseph is a representation of Varenacker shown with a depiction of Christ’s Shroud on his shoulder, a pointer to Van Eyck’s fascination for what is now known as the Turin Shroud. Notice Joseph has cap in hand as also Varenacker and Van Eyck in the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament.

One of the New Testament references connected to the figures of Simon and Philip is from John’s gospel. The passage about the miracle of the loaves describes how five barley loaves and two fish were enough to feed 5,000 people who had sat down to eat on a hillside (6 : 1-15).

Verse 5 reads: “Looking up, Jesus saw the crowds approaching and said to Philip, ‘Where can we buy some bread for these people to eat?’”

Such was the size of the crowd that Philip answered “ Two hundred dinari would only buy enough for a small piece each.”

Another disciple, Andrew, whose brother was Peter, said a small boy had five barley loaves and two fish but it wouldn’t be enough to feed everyone, estimated at 5,000 people.

Sitting next to Philip in The Last Supper panel is the mentioned Andrew (in red) alongside his brother Peter (in green).

Philip and Simon the Zealot are portrayed with their mouths open. They are in a conversation which represents the question asked by Jesus and Philip’s answer. Simon in the role of Christ (as in Petrus Christus) is portrayed “looking up”.

Simon the Zealot and Philip, aka Petrus Christus and Jan van Eyck… multiple hand signs.

When taking the loaves, Jesus gave thanks – a blessing – before giving the bread out to the people. Simon’s (Christus) right hand is raised in blessing. It also represents the tail end of a fish, as does the joined hands of Philip, in regard to the two fish presented with the five loaves. The three-hand, dove-like formation represents the descent and action of the Holy Spirit in blessing the offering.

On the table are six pieces of bread, not five. However, two are half-cuts, the pieces in front of James the Less and Simon the Zealot, or Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus. In the case of the latter pairing this points to the two painters sharing in some way, perhaps Jan passing on his knowledge and experience to the younger artist, or even his studio after his death.

The juxtaposition of the knife and half-cut bread placed in front of Simon refers to the Zealot’s type of death and martyrdom when his body was reputed to have been sawn in half. It also points to the breaking of bread (Christ’s body) during the celebration of the Eucharist. The knife is positioned on a trajectory pointing to the figure of Jesus blessing the communion wafer in his hand with the words: “This is my body which will be given for you.” (Luke 22 : 19)

Elements of the Philip and Simon pairing (Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus) are reflected in two figures on the opposite side of the table, with the large dish echoing the famous mirror feature in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait painting. Already mentioned is the elderly depiction of Van Eyck sat at the corner of the table. Next to him is Matthew, the tax collector.

More on how these two figures connect with each other, and with those opposite, in a future post.

Mirror images

More on the identity of the disciples and artists portrayed in The Last Supper panel painted by Dieric Bouts… Seated on the left side of the table are the apostles James the Great, Simon the Zealot and Philip. For this presentation the focus is on Simon and Philip and how they connect to each other.

The two men mirror a similar group portrayed in A Goldsmith in his Shop, a work attributed to Petrus Christus and dated 1449, some 18 years prior to the completion of The Last Supper. In turn, for the Goldsmith painting, Petrus adapted some of the features and narratives from the Ghent Altarpiece produced by the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck and completed in 1434. Bouts’ version is a composite of the two groups with added narratives.

There are several visual matches for Simon (Petrus Christus): the burgundy skull cap, the red robe, both men looking up, transfixed, and the three-hand triangle formation are the most noticeable pairings. Simon’s hands can also be matched – one rests on the table edge, the other is raised.

In both the Goldsmith and Last Supper paintings, Jan is portrayed with his eyes looking down over the shoulder of the figure of Petrus sat beside him. This defines the relationship between the two artists. Petrus studied under the watchful eye of Jan in his studio and later took over the workshop after Van Eyck’s death in 1441.

The self portrait of Jan in the Ghent Altarpiece is also a representation of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. – and this makes the connection to Philip the Apostle. So, in fact, the figure in The Last Supper represents three people, Philip the Apostle, Philip the Good, and Jan van Eyck. Already mentioned is the relationship between Jan and Petrus, so what is the relationship between the apostles Simon and Philip? What is the relationship that unites the figures when portrayed as Petrus and Philip the Good?

More on this in a future post.

Who do you say we are?

So who are the twelve disciples sat around the tabel in The Last Supper painting by Dieric Bouts?

Running clockwise from Jesus, they can be identified as follows: John, Thomas, James the Less, Matthew, Bartholmew, Jude, Judas, James the Great, Simon the Zealot, Andrew, Philip, and Simon Peter.

John the Evangelist

John is the easiest to identify as he is generally considered to be the youngest of the disciples and usually portrayed without a beard. In the two images above, the left a section of The Donne Triptych by Hans Memling (National Gallery), John can be easily matched with the clip from The Last Supper, probably because Memling is the model in both paintings.

John is often depicted in paintings holding a chalice or with one close to him, sometimes containing a snake, as shown below. Notice the twist pattern on the lid of the silver chalice lid and the ‘snake’ handle.

The disciples are not seated at random. Each man connects in some way with the one on his left. So there is a specific link between John and Thomas, the disciple next to him. It is this: John has his eyes focused on the bread which Jesus says is his body, Thomas hasn’t. His appears to be deep in thought, “somewhere else”. This scenario points to the time when Jesus appeared in the same room after his Resurrection. Thomas was not present. He was “somewhere else”. When he did return the other disciples said to Thomas “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas doubted the claim until Jesus later appeared a second time to the disciples, Thomas included. This account only appears in John’s Gospel and is the link.

Thomas

Some of the iconography identifying Thomas was pointed out in a previous post, but there is more.

Thomas was also known as Didymus – meaning “twin”. Bouts has interpreted “twin” as meaning “two-fold” – the folding of Thomas’ hands and the folding of the table cloth on which his hands are placed.

Thomas was a builder by profession, so one of his attributes in art is a builder’s square. To the left of his head is a pattern of square floor tiles. He is also seated at the corner of the table, and the fold in the table cloth forms a 45 degree angle. Thomas was the first disciple to profess his faith in Jesus by acknowledging the resurrected Christ as his Lord and God, a cornerstone and foundation of faith.

The link from Thomas to the next figure of James the Less is ritual cleansing, and the iconography identifying James, as well Matthew and Bartholomew is for my next post.

The art of homage

In earlier posts I revealed how the hands of four of the disciples sat alongside Jesus in The Last Supper painting by Dieric Bouts, represent the emblems of four colleges associated with the Old Louvain University.

Mention was also made that some of the disciples represent artists, Jan van Eyck being one of them. Another is Hugo van der Goes, portrayed as Judas. It begs the question, why would Dieric Bouts have chosen Van der Goes for the role of the disciple who ‘sold out’ on Jesus?

Following the death of Dieric Bouts in 1475, Hugo van der Goes went on to produce the Monforte Altarpiece. The surviving panel, Adoration of the Magi, references elements and themes from The Last Supper panel produced by Bouts; in particular, the four emblems associated with the Old University of Leuven: the Castle, the Falcon, the Lily, and the Boar (pig), as shown below.

The Old University of Louven and emblems of its four colleges represented in the Adoration of the Magi (Hugo van der Goes) and the Last Supper (Dieric Bouts).
The Castle, the Falcon, the Lily, and the Boar.

Hand servants

More on The Last Supper panel of the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament painted by Dieric Bouts for St Peter’s Chuch, Leuven. Its Dean at the time the painting was produced was Dominic Bassadonis who also served as Chancellor of Leuven’s Old University, founded by Pope Martin V in 1425. The University’s four boarding schools were named: the Castle, the Falcon, the Lily, and the Boar (or Pig).

College crests… The Boar or Pig, the Lily, the Castle, the Falcon… Louvain Monumental

Each school had its own coat of arms or emblem, as shown above. These are referred to in The Last Supper painting, “assigned” to hands of the four apostles alongside Jesus. From left to right they are St Andrew (castle), St Peter (falcon), St John (lily) and St Thomas (boar or pig).

Hand signs… Castle, Falcon, Lily and Boar (or Pig)

Probably the most difficult to distinguish, but more meaningful, are the hands of Thomas. The four fingers of his left hand form the boar’s head, the thumb its ear. Thomas’ right hand covers his left for a reason. He had doubted the resurrection of Jesus and refused to believe unless he could touch the wounds of the risen Lord.

The French translation for boar is sanglier. However, Bouts splits the word in deference to Van Eyck’s use of word play in his paintngs. Jan is seated next to Thomas. When sanglier is split into two words – sang and lier – a new meaning evolves: blood and bond. So Thomas’ right hand represents a seal over the wound made in Christ’s hand when he was nailed to his cross – a reminder of a new covenant bond with God, sealed with the blood of Jesus. It was at the Last Supper that Jesus shared the cup of wine with his disciples and said to them: “This is my blood, the blood of the new covenant, to be poured out on behalf of many.”

There is another narrative that connects to both the boar sign and the issue of blood. In Judaism, physical contact with blood or a boar (pig) is considered unclean and requires the person to be ritually purified. Above the figure of Thomas at the door entrance is a receptable for washing. A basin and towel are also under the cupboard beside Van der Weyden.

For the hands of Thomas to represent uncleanliness at the table is a pointer to the teaching of Jesus when the Pharisees complained about his disciples breaking traditions by not washing their hands before eating food, and what is understood by a man being clean and unclean (Matthew 15 : 1-20). Thomas’ doubt was not washed away by ritual cleansing but by being invited to touch the wounds of Jesus.

A communion of artists and saints

This is the central panel of a triptych known as the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament. The work was commissioned in 1464 by the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament for St Peter’s church in Leuven, where it is still displayed, and completed in 1468.

There are four other paintings attached in pairs either side of the centre panel, all related to the Last Supper and its Institution of the Eucharist narrative.

The Flemish Primitives website provides a comprehensive biography about the artist Dieric Bouts and a visual description of the Altarpiece of the Last Supper painting, as well as access to view the painting in a large format.

It is possible to identify the apostles around the table with the iconography clues embedded by Dierec Bouts, but less obvious are some of the second identities Bouts has also included. They are mainly artists, his contemporaries. But Bouts picks out one artist in particular, Rogier van Weyden, the figure standing on the right side of the frame who historians generally describe as one of the servants on hand.

Historians are also uncertain about the identities of the two men framed on the back wall, peering through a serving hatch. Generally thought to portray “members of the confraternity responsible for commissioning the altarpiece” they are, in fact, two artists: Dieric Bouts (left) and Hans Memling (right). The German painter is said to have spent time working in Van der Weyden’s Brussels workshop, while Bouts was also influenced by Rogier who died in 1464, just three months after Bouts had agreed the contract to produce the altarpiece.

Another artist said to have greatly influenced Bouts was Jan van Eyck. He is the figure in red, seated in front of Van der Weyden and portrayed as St James the Lesser, a pointer to the quatrain on the Ghent Altarpiece in which Jan acknowledges his brother Hubert as the greater artist.

Variations of Hans Memling: As Jan van Winckele, as a servant, St John and St Michael

But what about Hans Memling’s contribution to the altarpiece, if any? Memling was probably the youngest among the group of featured artists and so it would not be unreasonable to focus on the youngest of the disciples, John, sat on the left of Jesus. There is a resemblance to the Memling portrait in the serving hatch but a more convincing connection are components from The Last Judgment triptych painted by Memling between 1467 and 1471. The faces of the two St Michael figures (Membling?) resemble St John, probably because the writing of the Book of Revelation is attributed to the Evangelist, while Memling’s group of artists as heavenly apostles is seemingly inspired by the group of artists as apostles in the Bouts painting.

A section from Memling’s Last Judgment showing Jesus and his apostles in heaven.
National Museum, Gdansk, Poland

The Memling portrait in the serving hatch is adapted from an earlier portrait by Bouts painted in 1462 and located in the National Gallery, London. The sitter is questionably said to be Jan van Winckele. The gallery’s description explains that it is “the earliest surviving dated Netherlandish portrait to include a view through a window, although such views were included in Netherlandish paintings with religious subjects.”

Dieric Bouts alongside Hans Memling, and the National Gallery’s ‘Jan van Winckele?’

By linking the two paintings in this way, and then portraying Memling alongside his own portrait, but looking in the opposite direction, was Bouts suggesting that both men had been working on producing triptychs at the same time that shared a similar narrative – the apostles as artists – but viewed from different perspectives, apostles on earth and apostles in heaven? Bouts as the ‘master’ and Memling as the ‘disciple’ he favoured?

As to the other standing figure beside the serving hatch, he is not an artist but a patron. The clue to his identity is that Bouts has placed him standing behind the apostle Peter who represents the foundation of the Church. He shares the same name as the apostle – a second Peter, so to speak. He is Peter II, a member of the influential Adornes family of merchants from Bruges. He is represented as a deacon attending to Jesus in his role as priest, the Last Supper being the first Mass.

There is a particular reason why Bouts has depicted Peter II Adornes and Rogier van der Weyden as standing figures. Both men died in 1464, the year the painting was commissioned. Not only is Bouts suggesting that they were upright and respected figures in society, but their standing is symbolic of being raised up and resurrected. A communion of saints.