Revisiting the Très Riche Heures

During the past two years I have posted several times about the January folio from the Très Riche Heures calendar section. More recently I have uncovered some interesting features about the painting which, as far as I know, have not come to light in any other commentaries concerning the miniature.

Detail from January folio in the Calendar section of the Très Riche Heures de Duc de Berry

The Très Riche Heures (Very Rich Hours) was commissioned by John, Duke of Berry and assigned to the Limbourg brothers to produce illustrations for the calendar section and collection of prayers. However, both the sponsor and the brothers died in 1416 before the work was completed. The book was inherited by René of Anjou and further pages were completed in the 1440s, attributed to Barthélemy d’Eyck, a relative of the brothers Hubert, Jan and Lambert van Eyck. The Duke of Savoy acquired the book in the 1480s and more pages were finished by the painter Jean Colombe.

Some historians attribute the March, September (part of), October and December calendar pages to Barthélemy van Eyck and refer to him as the “Master of the Shadows”. However, there is evidence to postulate that the January folio was also painted by Bathélemy d’Eyck.

In previous posts made about the January folio, I referred to Pol Limbourg as being the painter. He does feature in the scene, as does Barthélemy, who I now believe painted the banquet scene celebrating the feast of the Epiphany which occurs on January 6.

Sat at the table is a priest wearing a white alb which symbolizes purity of the soul, so the banquet can also be considered as a celebration of the Catholic Mass, the Eucharist, which is a memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection. The host of the occasion is the Duke of Berry, clothed in royal blue and sat before the host-shaped fireguard. Christ’s death is denoted by the duke’s hat, a crown of thorns. The table represents an altar and the cloth is depicted as the shroud that covered Jesus in his tomb.

Parts of the picture are based on the Three Marys at the Tomb painting attributed to Jan van Eyck or his brother Hubert, which indicates that the folio was completed after the attribution date of 1425-1435 given to the Three Marys by the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam and where the painting is housed. If this is the case then it rules out Pol Limbourg or one of his brothers as having produced the January folio.

Most of the guests at the banquet are assigned with double identities. For instance, the kneeling figure in the bottom right corner of the frame is portrayed as both Richard II and St Bartholomew, the latter as a pointer to the artist, Barthélemy d’Eyck. The iconography relating to Richard ll was published in a previous post.

St Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. He is also identified as Nathaniel, the disciple brought to Jesus by Philip (John 1 : 43-51). Tradition holds that he was martyred by being skinned alive for proclaiming the Gospel. His skin was cut into strips and then peeled back to expose his inner flesh. The body was then allowed to bleed for some time before Bartholomew was eventually beheaded. Most representations of the saint show him holding his peeled skin along with a flensing knife.

The illustration alongside shows the hem of the Duke of Berry’s gown peeled back to reveal the patterned strips of the dias beneath. The figure’s gown also hangs in a manner to suggest a piece of loose flesh. In his hand is a knife, seemingly carving strips from a piece of meat (notice the very faint suggestion of strips). The loop of his chaperon is shaped as a sickle, indicating the saint’s decapitation.

The knife also represents a bull’s horn. This connects to the black hood of the chaperon that hangs down and doubles up as the face of a cow and also a shield which both connect to Edward the Black Prince, father of Richard ll. The bovine reference echoes a similar attribute depicted in the Three Mary’s at the Tomb, as do the four men standing left of Richard ll who doubles up as Barthélemy d’Eyck. The group of four men also have two identities.

Interestingly, Barthélemy has painted both the January and December folios, the beginning and the end of the year, when one looks back on the past and forward to the future. The month of January is named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, transitions and duality. He is usually depicted as having two heads. The bear-like figure of the Duke of Berry is the head looking back on the past, while the bear perched on the boat-shaped ‘nef’ is shown facing the opposite direction, looking forward into the future and the new year.

The painting is designed to entertain and amuse, an occasion to ‘spot the historic celebrities’ among the crowded scene, even though all of the ‘faces’ are practically identical, making it somewhat a puzzler for art historians and researchers, especially as the painting is also embedded with word play features and riddles.

For instance: why are two kittens allowed to eat on the banquet table, and why are some of the guests seemingly warming their hands at the fireplace?

My next post will present more details about Barthélemy d’Eyck’s connection to the Très Riche Heures, revealed in one of the folios attributed to Jean Colombe.

Themes of Threes

In the Three Marys at the Tomb painting the trinitarian theme, or theme of threes, also extends to the guards representing the Magi, the Three Kings or Wise Men who brought gifts to the Infant Jesus at Bethlehem.

The Three Mary’s at the TombMuseum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Traditionally they are named as Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar but in this representation the figures share several identities. The artist, be it Hubert van Eyck or his brother Jan, has sourced a collection of writings attributed to the Pseudo-Bede (Excerptiones Patrum, Collectanea, Flores ex diversis, Quaestiones et Parabolae) in which a Latin description of the three kings is given.

The second king, Caspar, is described as a youth without a beard and ruddy, which goes some way to describing the face of the guard wearing upper body armour. Melchior is stated to be aged and hoary, with a long beard and hair, while Balthazaar is said to be sallow (dark) in complexion and full bearded.

The “youth without a beard and ruddy”, and no mention that he has long hair, seems a good match to the artist’s depiction for the central king. Beards and long hair also fit well for the other two figures.

That they are kings is clue to a third level of identities, but can they be linked or identified in other ways? The oversized golden helmet for a seemingly large head, placed alongside Casper is pointer. Its crest is a wyvern, a legendary bipedal winged dragon adopted by Thomas Crouchback, titled Earl of Lancaster and Leicester. The Wyvern is still incorporated in the Arms of the City of Leicester. Another animal probably more associated with Leicester is the fox. To locate the fox look closely at the top of the outcrop of rock on painting’s right side.

In a letter to Scottish barons, Crouchback signed off with the pseudonym “Arthur” as in King Arthur, inferring that he was the rightful ‘king’ of England and not his cousin Edward II who he was at war with. The final outcome for Thomas was he was captured and beheaded, hence the lighter colour of his blade-shaped neck and his helmet on the ground.

As to the other two kings they are Thomas’s father Edmund Crouchback (right) and uncle, King Edward 1.

More about the identities of the three guards in a future post and how they link to other narratives in the painting.

A Trinitarian theme

There is somewhat of a Trinitarian theme detectable in the Agony in the Garden miniature (folio 30v in the Turin-Milan Hours) attributed to Jan or Hubert van Eyck.

Turin-Milan Hours folio 30v, Agony in the Garden, Museo Civico d’Arte Antica of Turin, digital copy: Closer to Van Eyck

There are three apostles, Peter and the brothers John and James, each wearing one of the primary colours related to physics that when mixed or overlapped produce a white light; there are three trees to the right of Jesus representing three crucifixions on Calvary; three principal figures are grouped behind the fence and represent the cohort arriving to arrest Jesus; there are three main grouping of stones among the apostles; and in the bible account relating to the Agony in the Garden Jesus returned to his sleeping followers three times.

Another painting attributed to either of the two Van Eyck brothers and which takes its inspiration and translates some of the iconography from the Gethsemane miniature is the Three Marys at the Tomb: three being the number of women and also the men guarding the tomb who, like the three apostles, are sound asleep. The three guards are also positioned in a similar fashion as the disciples: one is lying down as John; the guard suited in plated armour sleeps with his back against the tomb as Peter; and the third guard as James has his back resting against a rock at the far corner of the tomb.

The Three Mary’s at the TombMuseum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

There are also three other features that connect the guards to the three apostles. James’ hands are crossed, the guard, his legs; Peter’s hands rest on his lap while the armoured guard’s hands are arranged in a similar position; John’s hands act as a pillow under his head, so do those of the guard lying down.

Detail from the Agony in the Garden, folio 30v, Turin-Milan Hours

The three guards at the tomb also connect to the three men behind the fence in the Gethsemane miniature. The armoured guard’s ear is mutilated, and has the appearance of having been sliced. This refers to the armoured figure behind the fence who represents Malchus. The servant of the high priest Caiaphas had his ear cut off by Peter’s sword. 

Caiaphas is the central figure in the group of three men behind the fence. His red pointed hat, its wreath or torse, and the long hair covering his neck, are translated as the hat worn by the sleeping guard lying down. The hat is pointed, its green peak represents the wreath, and the neck protector the long hair. The third figure in the group behind the fence is Judas and is matched to the guard in green with his hand gripping the side of his jaw.

This feature is meant to mirror the heavy stubble or shadow on the jaw of Judas. The shape of the guard’s hat matches the bottle shape of the blue hat of the figure behind Judas. But its circular pattern is also designed to reflect the roped hat worn by Judas – and both the pseudo text and the extended peak is perhaps symbolic of the false heart of Judas and his lying tongue. 

Another meaning the artist – Hubert or Jan – has applied to the guards at the tomb is they represent the three churches that share custody of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic.

The trinitarian theme also extends to the guards representing the Magi, the Three Kings or Wise Men who brought gifts to the Infant Jesus at Bethlehem. I shall explain the connection in my next post.

The Lamb and the Ram

Following on from my previous post, this version of the Resurrection is by another Flemish artist, Dieric Bouts. It’s unusual in that the medium used is distemper on linen. The painting is displayed at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

Resurrection by Dieric Bouts, Norton Simon Museum. Repro source: Commons Wikipedia

Dieric Bouts is portrayed as one of the soldiers guarding the tomb, the figure depicted awake with his arm raised in astonishment at seeing the Risen Christ stepping out of the sarcophagus. Notice that his legs are crossed, similar to the guard seen in the Three Marys at the Tomb painting attributed to either Hubert or Jan van Eyck. There is a reason for this. The artist is identifying himself by his boots, as in Bouts. Notice also the facial expression on—in the folds of one of the boots – a good-natured smile similar to a modern-day ‘smiley’ face.

Another interesting feature is disguised in the folds of the white tunic worn by the guard lying flat on the ground. It depicts both a lamb and a ram, meant to represent two sacrifices: Jesus as the Lamb of God, and the ram sacrificed by Abraham in place of his son Isaac. However, to recognise the iconography the shape has to be rotated in two directions, 90º clockwise to see the Lamb and its foreleg (accompanied by his mother the Ewe), and 90º to make out the head and horn of the ram. Half-closing one’s eyes helps in visualising the shapes.

Ringing the changes, part two

Following on from my previous post – Ringing the changes – I’ve come across another version of the Three Mary’s which connects to both the Turin-Milan Hours folio 30v depicting Christ’s Agony in the Garden and the painting titled The Three Mary’s at the Tomb.

The Three Maries at the Tomb and the Resurrection, attributed to Niccolò Antonio Colantonio

Unfortunately, I have only been able to locate a black and white copy of this new find titled The Three Maries and attributed to the 15th century Italian painter Niccolio Antonio Colantonio, but the copy shows enough detail to see that the artist has made a composite of the two mentioned works in the previous post.

The three Marys are clearly modelled on the Tomb version (Hugo or Jan van Eyck?). While it shows only a single guard lying awake at the tomb, the figure is a blend of the three disciples depicted in the Gethsemane folio while it also references the three guards in the Resurrection painting.

Here’s how: The guard is bearded, as is the disciple St Peter; his legs are crossed as is the guard in the Tomb painting, which in turn referenced the crossed hands of St James in folio 30v. He is turned on his side as is St John and also the guard sleeping in front of the stone tomb.

The rock in the bottom left corner is meant to match the rock that appears in the same position in the Gethsemane painting. It has a biblical reference:  “It was the stone rejected by the builders that became the cornerstone” (Matthew 21:42). There are several other scripture passages embedded in the rocks in all three paintings.

The three lozenge shapes on the front of the tomb are references to stones of another kind – diamonds. They represent the colours worn by the three disciples and which are repeated in the three women visiting the tomb: red and blue represent sapphire, and green, emerald. The disciples and the women are considered as precious stones embedded in the rocks – the bedrock and foundation of the Christian Church.

More on this in a future post.

Ringing the changes

The Three Mary’s at the Tomb, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

The painting above – The Three Marys at the Tomb – is generally attributed to Hubert van Eyck, but there is an opinion that the work may be by his brother Jan, or even a shared production as the Ghent Altarpiece was.

Another painting, Folio 30v from the Turin-Milan Hours depicting Christ’s Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, also has an uncertain attribute. Generally classed as by Hand G, but considered to be the work of either Hubert or Jan van Eyck, the miniature shares many similarities with the Three Marys

Turin-Milan Hours folio 30v, Agony in the Garden, attributed to Hand G, Museo Civico d’Arte Antica of Turin, digital copy: Closer to Van Eyck

So are the two paintings the work of the same artist and if so, by Hubert or Jan? It’s not hard to see how the artist has rung some of the changes in the Three Marys picture, using the Gethsemane folio as the original source of inspiration.

For starters, the composition is very similar; three men asleep against a stone tomb. The central figure of Jesus has been replaced by an angel facing Mary the mother of Jesus and announcing his resurrection, similar in style to paintings of the angel Gabriel announcing to the `Virgin Mary that she was to conceive and bear a son. 

The three Marys are substitutes for the three main figures behind the fence in the Gethsemane painting, the red, blue and green colours matched to the colours given to the three disciples asleep by the rocks.

The cohort led by the high priest Caiaphas arrive at the Gethsemane to arrest Jesus.

The cohort coming to arrest Jesus are depicted against a background representing the Mount of Olives. One man’s hat is shaped and coloured as an olive. This corresponds to the three Mary’s bringing oil to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus.

A sleeping guard at the tomb of Jesus.

The figure asleep at the right of the tomb has his legs crossed. This echoes the sleeping disciple James (the brother of John) whose hands are crossed. Both men are dressed in green and placed at the edge of the frame. The shape of the guard’s hat is matched to the blue hat of the mysterious figure behind the fence in the Gethsemane painting, and his bandaged legs and knee protector links to the helmeted soldier and the torse supporting the red-peaked hat of the man alongside.

Another link to this group is the guard’s left hand pointing to his right ear. It’s a pointer to the armoured guard behind the fence seen with a pronounced ear protector attached to his helmet. The figure represents Malchus, the servant of the high priest Caiaphas. It was Malchus who had his right ear sliced off by Peter when the Jewish guards came to arrest Jesus, and that’s why it is hidden behind the ‘bandaged’ torse on the head of Malchus and explains why the crossed legs of the guard in the Three Marys painting are bandaged.

Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Jesus

On the right shoulder of Caiaphas is Judas Iscariot wearing a hat depicted as a coiled rope. It has two representations: The betrayal and binding of Jesus in Gethsemane and the rope Judas used later to hang himself. In the Three Marys painting the rope feature is echoed in the lining of the red gown worn by the kneeling Mary Magdalene. It was this Mary who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and wiped them with her hair before anointing them with ointment. The other connection to Judas is when he complained about Mary using the expensive pure nard when it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. But Judas was also a thief and robbed the common purse of which he was in charge of.

There are several other connections between the two paintings, enough to confirm that the artist who painted The Three Mary’s at the Tomb had detailed knowledge of the disguised and hidden iconography in the Gethsemane folio, enough to postulate that both works were produced by the same artist. My assumption is that the artist was Hubert van Eyck, as his brother later translated some of the features in both paintings to the Ghent Altarpiece as a tribute to Hubert who was the artist commissioned originally to produce the polyptych. Hubert died in1426 before he was able to finish the project and It was then given to Jan van Eyck for completion.

More on this in a future post.