Jan van Eyck was here!

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, by Steve Crisp

This view of Shaftesbury’s famous Gold Hill was painted by artist Steve Crisp. It’s one of the ‘postcard’ scenes used in a wide range of jigsaws produced by Gibson Games.

It can also be said that “Jan van Eyck was here!” as he made telling references to the hill and Shaftesbury itself in the Ghent Altarpiece.

Not only that, the elevated view from Gold Hill is a pointer to the high persective position Van Eyck adopted for the five inner panels in the lower register of the Ghent Atarpiece.

Is it possible that the expansive panorama from the height of Shaftesbury inspired these viewpoints?

The elevation theme also points to Henry Beaufort, one of four identities designated by Jan to the rider on the white horse in the Just Judges panel. A second identity is Jan’s brother Hubert who died in 1426, coincidently, the same year Henry Beaufort was elevated to the rank of Cardinal by Pope Martin V.

Could it be that Jan van Eyck was in England that same year, commissioned to paint the Cardinal’s portrait?

Canterbury, Cirencester and Wells are other English towns referenced in the Ghent Altarpiece. All were popular pilgrimage destinations at the time. It is known that Jan was sent on pilgrimage on behalf of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good. The ducal accounts show in August 1426 that Jan was paid for a pilgrimage he made in lieu of the duke, but the destination is not recorded.

Earlier that year, on March 12, Henry Beaufort was forced to resign as Lord Chancellor of England. Two months later he was created Cardinal on May 24. The Ghent Altarpiece reveals that Van Eyck was in Shaftesbury the same month. Could it be that it was around this time that Van Eyck painted Beaufort’s portrait, not in his cardinal’s robes which were presented to him in Calais the following year, but in a red ‘woolsack’, a sort of symbolic ‘sackcloth’ to acknowledge his faults while Lord Chancellor?

It’s interesting to note that the sleeves of the robe are shaped as donkey’s ears, the humble donkey on which Jesus entered Jerusalem. It was around this time that Beaufort had expressed a desire to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But the ‘ears’ also probably point to Beaufort’s reputation of stubbornness and refusal to always listen. It’s not without reason that Van Eyck depicted Beaufort as one of the Just Judges with his ears covered! In the portrait painting he is shown with his hair razored and shorn – a sign of repentance – and prepared to listen with his ear uncovered. The donkey’s ears also show up in the pattern of the gown of St Cecilia depicted in the Musical Angels panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

Image: Steve Crisp

The marriage of Cardinal Henry Beaufort’s illegitimate daughter

A Goldsmith in his Shop, Petrus Christus 1449, Oil on oak panel
Robert Lehman Collection, 1975, Met Museum, New York

Further investigation of The Goldsmith in his Shop by Petrus Christus leads me to advocate a new scenario for this painting, and one which relates to Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. It introduces three new identities not mentioned in my earlier presentation.

The first is Jan van Eyck, the gentleman central in the frame; the second is Joan/Jean Beaufort, illegitimate daughter of Henry Beaufort; the third is Edward Stradling, the man chosen by Henry Beaufort (represented by the goldsmith) as a husband for his daughter. Stradling is represented in the guise of Jan van Eyck who referred to the marriage in the Ghent Altarpiece.

Just as van Eyck used several identies for each rider in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, so Petrus has done likewise.

Genealogists identify Jean’s mother as Alice Fitzalan, whose husband John Cherleton died in 1401. But Jan van Eyck knew different and both the Ghent Altarpiece and the Petrus painting identify the mother as someone other than Alice.

Hope to reveal all in the New Year!

Jan van Eyck… another sighting

The 13th Station of the Cross, Jesus is taken down from his Cross. Frans de Vriendt

Frans de Vriendt (1829-1919) was a sculptor who lived and worked in Borgerhout, Belgium, making monumental statues in stone, bronze or wood. He also produced bas reliefs. The example above is one of a set of 14 Stations of the Cross he produced for churches in Belgium, England, France and Holland. He also taught at the Acadamy of Fine Arts in Antwerp.

There is no doubt it was the series of Stations in the Antwerp Cathedral of Our Lady that inspired De Vriendt to create his own set as he copied some of the features. The Antwerp stations were painted by Louis Hendrix and Frans Vinck between 1864 and 1868. It wasn’t long after that De Vriendt began producing his own bas-relief versions.

Below is the 13th Station – Jesus is taken down from his Cross – attributed to Louis Hendrix. The general scene and composition of the central figures is typical. However, there are a couple of figures in the Hendrix version, one of which is repeated in de Vriendt’s panel, that command closer inspection.

Antwerp Cathedral, 13th Station, Jesus is taken down from his Cross, Louis Hendrix

In the Hendrix panel, the figure on the right edge of the frame clasping the jar of oil is meant to be Jan van Eyck, an early master of oil painting. In the bas-relief the figure of Jan is transferred to the left edge and the jar of oil passed to the man alongside. Nicodemus is portrayed with his head is turned towards Jan in acknowledgement.

If there is any uncertainty that the Hendrix figure isn’t Jan, then compare it to the Sybil in red and black, portrayed at the right edge of the frame in Van Eyck’s Crucifixion painting and its deposition scene.

Jan van Eyck, The Crucifixion, Met Museum, New York

The other figure in the Hendrix panel referred to earlier is the man on the left of the frame holding the Crown of Thorns. This is likely to be Jan’s brother Hubert. His yellow cape and grip on the thorns define him as a goldfinch, a sign of Christ’s passion and Resurrection. It may also link to the quatrain on the Ghent Altarpiece in which Jan acknowledged his brother as greater than himself, and therefore deserving of Christ’s crown.

Matching numbers

There are 24 panels in the Ghent Altarpiece. There are 24 stories in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, some of which are alluded to in the altarpiece.

Coincidence, or intended at the planning stage when Hubert van Eyck was commissioned by the Ghent mayor Jodocus Vijd to produce the work?

The number four is the common denominator for most of the numeric references in the Ghent Altarpiece.

Brothers by half

Here’s another profile of Henry Beaufort that can be found in the Ghent Altarpiece. Again it’s based on the original drawing of the cardinal by Jan van Eyck, although this version presents him as a younger man with a full head of hair – and there is a reason for it being so.

This image is part of the right-hand-side group of men on the central panel. Beaufort appears distracted. His head is turned towards the edge of the frame, perhaps wistfully looking back on his past, or could his gaze be directed at the man on his left – possibly Hubert van Eyck or even another brother, Barthélemy?

If the figure in the fur hat is one of the Van Eyck family it’s likely to be Barthélemy. Here’s why.

The red hat worn by Beaufort and loose strands of hair beneath is a reference to the figure in the red coat placed on the extreme left of the group of riders in the Just Judges panel. In this instance the faceless figure is of Henry IV (Henry Bolingbroke), half-brother to Henry Beaufort through their father John of Gaunt. In his later life the English king was said to have suffered severe disfigurement, hence his hidden face as one of the judges. This would explain why Van Eyck has shown what appears to be a younger version of Beaufort in the group above. He is saying “this isn’t the cardinal but the King of England (before his disfigurement), Beaufort’s half-brother Henry Bolingbroke… see the family resemblance on his father’s side!”

This also explains why Jan Van Eyck has turned the Bolingbroke head to face the edge of the frame. He is referring to a section of the Just Judges group at the edge of the frame and the man in the fur hat inbetween the figure of Jan himself and the rider at the point of the group, John, Duke of Berry, who commissioned the Limbourg brothers to illuminate the Très Riche Heures. They were never able to complete the work, having all died with the plague in 1406. Nevertheless, work on the book continued and art historians attribute some of the pages to Barthélemy van Eyck. His relationship to Jan and Hubert van Eyck has never been established, but in this central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece Jan has possibly clarified this uncertainty in his usual cryptic style by creating this half-brother analogy.

As for the half-brother connection between Beaufort and Hubert van Eyck, the men are two of the four identities given to the figure on the white horse in the forefront of the Just Judges panel.

Could the central figure in this group from the Just Judges panel be Barthélemy van Eyck,
half-brother to Jan and Hubert van Eyck? The figure in the top right corner is a familiar  and shared profile of the Limbourg brothers in the Très Riche Heures.  Another manuscript produced for the Duke of Berry is the Turin-Milan Hours, for which some leaves are attributed to Jan and Hubert van Eyck. So is Barthélemy the ‘bridge’ between between the two manuscripts. Is Jan also saying that just as Bartélemy worked on completing the TRH following the death of the Limbourg brothers, so also he was commissioned to complete the Ghent Altarpiece following the death of his brother Hubert?

More at this link: Not Niccolò Albergati but Henry Beaufort

Images: closer to van eyck


Like Father, like Son

Succession is a prominent theme in the Just Judges painting, most obvious in Jan van Eyck succeeding his brother in completing the Ghent Altarpiece after Hubert’s death in 1426.

The two rows of riders can also be viewed as being placed in succession, one following another, akin to each pilgrim’s story in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Hereditary examples of succession also feature – kings and princes – as do talents and trades passed down through families.

Charles-VIJan van Eyck makes these connections through ‘groupings’. For example, I pointed out in the previous post that the principal identity he assigned to the central rider in the Just Judges panel is the French king Charles VI (d. 1422). Other identities are Philip’s court painter Jan Maelwael (d. 1416), the sculptor Claus Sluter (d. 1405/06), and his nephew Claus de Werve (d. 1439)

A key ‘connector’ in this grouping is the relationship of uncle:
• Jan Maelwael was the uncle of the three Limbourg brothers whose work is referenced elsewhere in the panel.
• Claus Sluter was the uncle of Claus de Werve. Their work is also alluded to in the painting.

The ‘uncle’ key also helps unlock the grouping and one of the identities of the rider in black next to Charles VI as being Philip the Bold, an uncle of the French king.  When Charles inherited the French throne at the age of 11, the government was entrusted to a regency council comprising his four uncles until he reached the age of 21.

Another point Van Eyck is making about succession is that what follows each rider is the certainty of death and a final judgment.

He illustrated this point (or was it his brother Hugh?) in the Prayer on the Shore illumination, an earlier work that forms part of the Turin-Milan Hours. As in the Just Judges the composition is based on a procession of riders. The main group is followed by three men with visors closed on their skull-shaped helmets. They are a personification of death.

With the coming of evening that same day, Jesus said to them, “Let us cross over to the other side.” Mark 4 : 35

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Prayer on he Shore by Hand G, Turin-Milan Hours,
Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino

There is a season…

In a recent post I pointed out the connection between the poet Geoffrey Chaucer and the painter Hubert van Eyck having both died before they completed projects in hand – The Canterbury Tales and the Ghent Altarpiece; and in another post the Limbourg brothers who all succumbed to an early death in 1416 and whose illuminations in the Trés Riche Heures were a source of inspiration for the Just Judges panel.

The TRH was also work unfinished when the Limbourg brothers died. One of the artists said to have assisted with the manuscript’s completion was Barthélemy d’Eyck, a blood relative of the brothers Jan and Hugh van Eyck.

In his book The Art of Illumination, Timothy B Husband reveals: “He [Barthélemy d’Eck] most likely knew the Limbourg brothers’ work, for in mid-century he in all probability completed the Très Riche Heures Calendar pages for March, June, July, September, October, and December, which the Limbourg brothers had underdrawn and partially painted before their deaths,”

March_400

There are at least four folios from the Très Riche Hours that Jan van Eyck has utilised in the Just Judges. The most significant is the Calendar illumination for March showing a ploughman at work in the foreground and the Châteux Lusignan in the background (right).

If Barthélemy did finalise this folio, then its completion date would be before 1432 when the Ghent Altarpiece was presented.

There is a fourth reference in the Just Judges alluding to incompletion. It relates to Chaucer’s Plowman’s Tale. Although Chaucer described a Plowman in the general prologue of The Canterbury Tales, he never assigned him his own tale. Later, however, two versions of the Plowman’s Tale were added from other sources, not by Chaucer’s hand.

The rationale for Barthélemy’s inclusion in the Just Judges, apart from him being a blood relative, is this: Just as Barthélemy was called upon to complete some of the folios of the TRH after the death of the Limbourgs, so Jan was asked to complete the Ghent Altarpiece following the death of Hubert.

For the incomplete Chaucer work, the two tales added later are also visualised in the Just Judges panel and connect to Barthélemy d’Eyck.

Jan van Eyck has taken and grouped the four ‘incomplete’ references to point to the four-line rhyming scheme found in the incomplete Canterbury Tales, and to mirror the quatrain on the frame of the Ghent Altarpiece. Some of Chaucer’s tales are disguised in the pairings or visual glyphs Jan creates of the riders, a pointer to the pairing of birds in another Chaucer work, the dream poem Parlement of Foules.

The Just Judges can also be considered a “dream poem” of Jan van Eyck, hand-written in a hieroglyphic style, echoing not only the sacredness of the altarpiece but also the hierarchical theme expressed in the panel.

The Narrators… Geoffrey and Hubert

Narrators

In my previous post I named one of the riders in the Just Judges panel as the poet Geoffrey Chaucer. His poems, The Canterbury Tales and Parlement of Foules (also known as The Parliament of Birds) are two sources for the painting’s concept. There is third major literary work, not by Chaucer, which I shall refer to at another time.

The narrator of The Canterbury Tales is generally considered to be its author Geoffrey Chaucer. Parts of the poem are incomplete because Chaucer died before he could finish the work.

This scenario runs parallel with the circumstances of Hubert van Eyck who was first commissioned with the painting of the Ghent Altarpiece sometime during the early 1420’s. Hubert died in 1426 and his brother Jan was requested by Joos Vijd to complete the altarpiece.

So whose idea was it to draw on The Canterbury Tales as inspiration for the line-up of Judges – Hubert’s or Jan’s? If it was Hubert then Jan obviously adapted the panel to take his brother’s death into account, and the later events related to Joan of Arc who arrived on the scene after Hubert had died.

If Hubert had come up with the idea of incorporating Chaucer’s work, did he place himself in the frame as the narrator on the near wing of the group, or was it Jan’s inspiration in recognising that both the poet and the painter died before they could complete their particular masterpiece?

Hubert has long been identified as the rider in front on the white horse. Perhaps he can now be also recognised as the narrator of his own magnum opus. What better judge could there be? Even Jan professed in the quatrain written on the frame of the altarpiece that he was second best in the art to Hubert.

Next post: Birds of a feather…

Judging the Canterbury Tales

Jan van Eyck’s paintings are formed by applying layers of colour with resulting levels of transparency and vividness. He employs a similar technique for unfurling his creative narrative. His method of placing objects is precise and deliberate, and the ‘hidden’ meaning sometimes obvious, other times not so apparent or even visible. And it doesn’t stop there. Jan utilises wordplay in a novel way to surprise and wonder what else might be beneath the surface.

This is most noticeable on the quatrain that appears on the outer frames of the Ghent Altarpiece. The fourth line of the Latin inscription conceals the date when the painting was presented.

The quatrain and its wordplay is a foretaste of what is inside when the frame is opened, particularly with the Just Judges panel. Much has been written about the quatrain by art historians, especially its acknowledgement of Hubert van Eyck being the better painter than his brother Jan. This is the first instance in the work where Jan pays homage to Hubert. It continues inside – and in the form of wordplay and quatrains.

Jan van Eyck’s disposition to ‘paint’ or pun with the written word shows up again in a later work, the Arnolfini Portrait. On it shutters was the name Hernoul-le-fin. A later inventory recorded the name Arnoult fin. Historians didn’t pick up on the word play and settled on the name as Arnolfini, an Italian merchant living in Bruge at the time. My understanding of the name is that Van Eyck was referring to the end of a dynastic line known ast the Arnulfings, and paying homage to Charles Martel who started a new line that became known as the Carolingian dynasty. More about this here.

Three-riders_980

The group of ten riders in the Just Judges panel are strategically placed alongside each other and represent multiple identities, but they also read as chapters in a book, one following on from the other. Each figure is linked in some way to the person next to them, whether it is in front or behind, or even alongside.

To make more sense of this it, let’s look at the figure in front of Joan, the bearded man dressed in red. In the first instance, this is WIlliam de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, and a favourite councillor of the English King, Henry IV. Joan of Arc confronted him when he led the English forces at the seige to Orleans. He retreated as far as Jergeaux pursued by the Maid and eventually surrendered.

There is a conversation alluded to between these two figures which I shall explain at another time, but at this stage it is better to move on to make the next connection and reveal a second identity Van Eyck has designated to the rider in red.

The Earl of Suffolk remained a prisoner of the French king Charles VII for three years and was eventually ransomed in 1431, but before his release he married a woman named Alice Chaucer in November 1430. Alice was the granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer poet, philospher and astronomer, and author of The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer is the second identity. His role as a philospher and astronomer connects to the third identity of the man in red – Claudius Ptolomey, a second century astronomer, mathematician, geographer and poet. A further connection between the second and third identities is that Ptolomey is mentioned in The Canterbury Tales (The Wife of Bath’s Tale).

Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales is the connection to the quatrain attached to four of the outer panels of the Ghent Altarpiece, a quatrain being a type of stanza or poem consisting of four lines.

Moving forward to the next figure ahead of Chaucer. Again it has more than one identity, but for the time being I’ll name one: John, Duke of Berry, and second son of the French king, John II. Here’s how Van Eyck puns the word Canterbury to connect the two figures.

Berry was a region (canton) in France administered by John. Canton and Berry = Canterbury. There is also a second pointer to the word Canton. In heraldy a canton is a charge usually placed in the upper dexter (right) corner of a shield, and so corresponding with the top right corner of the group where Van Eyck has positioned the Duke of Berry.

The fact that Van Eyck has applied more than one identity to each figure creates even more connections that are not always obvious at surface level. It’s a journey of discovery, similar in a way to the pilgrimage theme and shared experience of the travellers outlined in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. There is always more to come…

Hand G… Jan or Hubert van Eyck?

A couple of days ago I made mention of Jan van Eyck paying homage to another artist when he painted the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece. In fact, it may have been one or even three artists known as the Limbourg brothers, famous for the illuminations they produced for the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry manuscript.

The Van Eyck brothers, Jan and Hubert, are also said to have worked on illuminating manuscripts, in particular some of the pages that formed what is is now referred to as the Turin-Milan Hours, although there is no certainty as to which folios belong to which artist. The various artists are categorised as “Hands” A to K. Hand ‘G’ is considered by most art historians to be Jan van Eyck; others say his brother Hubert, while there is also an opinion that Hand G is neither of the brothers.

One of the folios from the TMH is known as The Prayer on the Shore by Hand G. It was destroyed by fire in 1904, but a photographic copy exists and is reproduced below. It is one of the leaves attributed to Hand G. What is interesting is that many of its features are replicated in the Just Judges painting, which suggests that it was produced before the completion of the Ghent Altarpiece in 1432

In a previous post, I posited that the Just Judges was painted by Jan and not his brother, on the basis that one of the riders is Joan of Arc, who did not arrive on the scene until 1429, three years after Hubert had died.

It’s very probable that the Prayer on the Shore was produced by one of the Van Eyck brothers, but which one? I propose the page was painted by Hubert and that Jan has repeated elements to acknowledge and pay homage to his brother in the same way he has adapted features from a leaf attributed to the Limbourg brothers: Christ Led to the Praetorium shown below. In a sense, this tribute, is Jan’s way of identifying his brother’s contribution to this section of the Ghent Altarpiece

There is another illumination attributed to the Limbourg brothers that Jan has referenced in the Just Judges. It also helps identify Hubert van Eyck as the rider depicted in the forefront.

More on this in another post.

Folios

• The Prayer on the Shore, by Hand G, Turin-Milan Hours
• Christ Led to the Praetorium, Limbourg Brothers, Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

Maid by Jan van Eyck

Two-Joans

There are several pointers to the identity of Joan of Arc as one of the riders in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

• Of the ten featured riders Joan is is the only figure with her head uncovered.
• Her hair is cut short. It was cropped in May 1428, at the same time when she was made to dress in men’s clothes to disguise her femininity before journeying to Chinon to meet with the dauphin Charles.
• Her blue mantle is symbolic of heaven and holiness. Other figures in the frame wearing the colour blue also have a religious significance.
• The figure of Joan is fashioned to represent her family’s coat of arms, “Azure, a bow or in fess, thereon three arrows crossed …, on a chief argent a lion passant gules.”

Azure is the blue coat, on which is a bow-or – the gold chain shaped as a bow. The three arrows are the three pointed segments of her collar, the fess. The chief is a charge that runs across the top edge of the shield, in this case the white, argent, fur trim of the blue mantle, while the lion passant gules refers to Joan’s shorn red mane. “En passant” (in passing) is also a pawn capture move in the game of chess and points to Joan’s capture at Compiègne on May 23, 1430. The pawn reference also connects to another figure elsewhere in the painting.

There are more references in the painting that point to Joan. Her inclusion is down to Jan van Eyck and not his brother Hubert who died in 1426, and at least two years before Joan set out on her misssion to have the dauphin Charles crowned as King of France.

So what prompted or inspired Jan to profile Joan in this way so soon after her death? Was he making a point of some kind about her trial conducted by an ecclesiatical court. Is this one of the reasons for the latin title of the panel “Iusti Iudices” (Just Judges), and could it refer to Psalm 94 (The Justice of God), in particular, verse 20-21?

You never consent to that corrupt tribunal
that imposes disorder as law,
that takes the life of the virtuous
and condems the innocent to death.

More details that connect to the identity of Joan of Arc in a future post.

references: history.com and heraldica.org

Disguising Joan of Arc

Goldsmith-in-his-Shop
A Goldsmith in his Shop, Petrus Christus 1449, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975,
on view at The Met Fifth Avenue

So why in 1449 did Petrus Christus choose to ‘disguise’ Joan of Arc and the reference to the siege of Orleans in his painting, A Goldsmith in his Shop, apart from the historical fact that the “Maid” dressed in male attire to conceal her identity?

It wasn’t until seven years later in 1456 and 25 years after being burned at the stake that a posthumous retrial declared Joan innocent of the charges brought against her. Before then, the official line was that Joan was guilty, not only of heresy, but of cross-dressing.

So producing a painting gloryfying the deeds of Joan before her posthumous trial carried risks. Hence the reason for the surreptitious approach taken by Petrus Christus in 1449.

But Petrus was not the first painter to “immortalise” Joan in this way. Jan van Eyck did so shortly after her execution in May, 1431. In fact, just 12 month’s after the Maid was put to death at Rouen, Jan unveiled her image to the public on May 6, 1432.

Joan-of-ArcIt’s unlikely that many who came to admire the Ghent Altarpiece would have recognised Joan in her male attire and featured as one of the riders in the Just Judges panel. She is the hatless figure wearing the blue mantle.

Pterus Christus knew this, as was likely did other contemporaries of Jan. Petrus reworked the Just Judges concept for his Goldsmith presentation. Much of the iconography created by Jan is repeated and adapted for the Petrus painting and explains just why Petrus was inspired to include Joan of Arc in his work. He is paying homage to a predecessor and mentor, Jan van Eyck.

The iconography in the Just Judges panel is heavily woven into several themes and there is a multi-level of identities. Most of the figures represent three different people and each is connected to an identity alongside.

The much researched Quatrain featured on the closed section of the altarpiece is a major clue to unravelling the principal narrative in the Judges panel which links to other panels in the altarpiece.

More to come on this.

The Christ-bearer

pilgrims_980

This is a section from the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece painted by Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert. It represents a group of pilgrims queueing behind St Christopher, patron saint of travellers, waiting to be assisted across dangerous waters.

It was St Christopher who once carried a child on his shoulders across a swollen river and discovered afterwards that the boy was Jesus. It’s likely that the youth in red is intended to represent that child.

However, there is an unusual aspect about this group of pilgrims. Only the youth in red is shown with an ear exposed. All the other figures, including St Christopher, have their ears covered.

So what could be the possible explanation for this seemingly intentional peculiarity?

And the grinning woman at the back of the group, who could she be? Is there a connection between her and the boy?

Assuming his brother’s mantle

serpent_600

It’s hardly noticeable, but there is a reason for it being there. Hubert van Eyck is draped in a full length coat. Its colour is blue. A pointed toe protrudes from beneath the white hem of the garment. It appears to be directed at the heel of one of the front legs of the horse alongside.

Hubert-VE_300Hubert’s robe is full length and represents the blue mantle of the Virgin Mary. The toe is the head of the serpent that tempted Adam and Eve in the biblical story of Genesis, and refers to the words spoken by God to the serpent: “I will make you enemies of each other – you and the woman – your offspring and her offspring. It will crush your head and you will strike its heel. (Genesis 3 : 15).

In the painted copy the serpent’s head is not as well-defined as in the photo-copy of the original panel of the Just Judges. Conversely, the heel of the horse is more visible in the Veken copy than in the photographic version.

Mary’s Mantle is a symbol of protection. A mantle is is also symbolic of an important role or responsibility that passes from one person to another. Following the death of his brother Hubert in 1426, Jan van Eyck was handed the responsibility of completing the Ghent Altarpiece.

Colour-coded judges

Riders_900image source: closer to van eyck

The sky is blue and so its colour symbolises heaven and holiness. In the Just Judges panel there are five figures that bear the colour blue. Two riders wear blue coats and two others are given blue hats. The fifth figure, the rider at the corner point of the group, wears a hat with a band of blue circles.

Blue is also the colour associated with the Virgin Mary.

Seemingly Jan van Eyck has colour-coded the four riders to associate them with some aspect of holiness.

The bearded figure placed behind Jan’s brother Hubert in the forefront has four identities. All of them are associated with “holiness”. At this stage I’ll mention just one: St Bavo, patron saint of Ghent and the Cathedral Basilica where the painting is housed.

St Bavo was a soldier said to have led a disorderly early life. After hearing a sermon by St Amand preaching against a life based on riches, he became a Christian and later a monk.

If not Jan, then who?

Jan-van-Eyck_600
image source: closer to van eyck

It’s generally accepted that the face gazing out of the Just Judges panel is Jan van Eyck, Hubert’s brother. The pose is like a modern-day ‘selfie’ and portrayed to make eye contact with the viewer – a common technique adopted by artists to identify themselves and their work.

However, in this case Jan has given a second identity to the man in black, that of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy. Van Eyck has also applied multiple identities to some of the other figures in this section of the Ghent Altarpiece.

There are a couple of reasons why the duke and his court artist are coupled and positioned leaning into the figure wearing the red hat. Firstly its about conversation, or more precisely, gossip. Secondly, Jan is presenting a mirror effect, repeated two years later in his famous Arnolfini Portrait, and for a similar reason. So where or what is the mirror feature in the frame?

More on this in my next post.

If not Hubert, then who?

Hubert_680
source: closer to van eyck

There is a consensus among art historians that the figure on the white horse in the forefront of the Just Judges panel is Hubert van Eyck (brother of Jan) and who was first commissioned to produce the Ghent Altarpiece? But is it?

Hubert-lineMost of the drawings said to be of Hubert were produced at a later date and modelled on the features shown in the Just Judges panel. No-one really knows what he looked like, Jan excluded.

But could the man on the white horse be someone else, or even represent two people, perhaps Hubert and another person, a kind of coupling to link the next rider?

Imagine the front-line of horsemen (see previous post), coupled together, shoulder to shoulder, as if oxen under one yoke ploughing a field, heading in the same direction and serving a common purpose – a crusade, perhaps?

For sure there are multiple identities among the ten riders, but who exactly are the Just Judges and in what sense could Hubert van Eyck be considered a Just Judge?

Just Judges panel down to Jan

Art historians generally attribute the initial work and concept for the Ghent Altarpiece to Hubert van Eyck and credit his younger brother Jan with painting the panels between 1430 and 1432.

just-judgesHowever, my research to identify the horsemen featured in the Just Judges panel confirms that this particular section relates to events after Hubert’s death in 1426 and therefore both the concept and the painting of the Just Judges can only be attributed to Jan and was likely the final panel completed before the altarpiece was unveiled in May 1432.

In 1934 two of the altarpiece panels were stolen, the Just Judges and St John the Baptist. The latter was soon returned but the Just Judges is still missing.

In 1939 the Belgian art restorer and copyist Jef Van der Veken began making a copy of the stolen panel, working from an earlier photograph and also a copy made in the 16th century by Michiel Coxcie. However his work was interrupted by the Second World War until 1945. It is this copy that now forms part of the original altarpiece that can be seen at St Bavo Cathedral in Ghent.


• Image source: Closer to Van Eyck