Battles and beards

This Portrait of a Carthusian Monk was painted by Petrus Christus in 1446 and is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

It was this painting, along with another work by Petrus, that was the inspiration for the bearded Carthusian figure in the Panel of the Friars, the first of six frames that make up the St Vincent Panels.

The long-bearded monk is holding an upright plank of wood – upright as in the sense of righteous (a righteous or just judge). This contrasts to the first figure on the back row, Pontius Pilate, who sentenced Jesus Christ to death by crucifixion after telling the Jews he could find no fault in the man.

It’s not just the beard and white robe that Gonçlaves adopted from the Carthusian painting. The orange, fiery background is echoed in the fiery cross on the monk’s black hat, while the box edge that runs top and right of the frame is represented by the box standing behind Jan van Eyck in the Panel of the Relic.

The plank of wood as representative of the Cross is forefront in another painting by Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop, and forms the counter on which various items are displayed. This, too, was incorporated by Nuno Gonçalves into the Panel of the Friars.

A Goldsmith in his Shop, by Petrus Christus. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Researcher Clemente Baeta has identified eleven holes in the plank featured in the Panel of the Friars. The eleven holes match the number of round items grouped on the shop counter, excluding the red ribbon and the mirror. In the Petrus painting they represent the positions of the English forces when it laid seige to Orleans in 1428. The seige was relieved the following year when French forces led by Joan of Arc attacked and overpowered the English positions.

Gonçalves has linked this to reference the siege and conquest of Ceuta by Portugal in 1415 and its successful defence when Moroccan forces counter-attacked in 1419.

Notice also how the right hand of both St Eligius and the monk rest on the panel of wood.

There is another detail in the St Vincent Panels that links to a third painting by Petrus Christus. More about this in a future post.

The St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves.

Several Flemish painters are shown in the St Vincent Panels. The long-bearded monk is meant to represent Roger Campin. Hugo van der Goes shows up in the Panel of the Prince, as does Petrus Christus (see below). Jan van Eyck is the pilgrim featured in the Panel of the Relic, while Dieric Bouts, Rogier van der Weyden and Jaques Daret line up in the Panel of the Knights.

Left: Petrus Christus as portrayed in the St Vincent Panels and (right), probably twenty years earlier, as St Eligius in A Goldsmith in his Shop.

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.

Hugo told it as it was

The man looking directly at the viewer in this detail from the Panel of the Prince, one of six sections that make up the St Vincent Panels, is the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes. He wear a habit because around 1477 he became a lay brother (third order) at the monastic community based at the Red Cloister (Rood Klooster) near Auderghem, and which was part of the Windesheim Congregation. As an established painter he was allowed to continue his work, accept commissions, and even receive eminent visitors.

A fellow monk and chronicler, Gaspar Ofhuys, recorded some decades later that Hugo suffered from a bout of depresion and made a suicide attempt in 1482 while returning from Cologne with some fellow monks, stating at the time that he was damned. The Ofhuys chronicle, supposedly produced between 1509 and 1513, is said to be the only written source for the claim that Hugo suffered with depression and had attempted suicide, although art historians point to a change of style in some of his paintings that indicate all was not well with the artist.

Ofhuys’ chronicle states that Hugo died soon after his breakdown and thefore the date is generally put at 1482 or 1483. But there is no official record of the painter’s death and the question that needs answering is just how many paintings did Hugo start and complete in the short period between his breakdown and time of his death, likely to be less than a year if the Ofhuy’s record is to be taken as gospel.

What historians haven’t taken into account is Hugo’s own version of his depression and attempt at self-harm, expressed in at least four of his extant paintings as well as the St Vincent Panels attributed to Nuno Gonçalves.

If the date of Hugo’s breakdown in 1482 is accepted as accurate then it follows that any work he produced after his recovery should not precede 1482, even the St Vincent Panels. In this painting and four others I know of, Hugo demonstrates the method he used to self-harm. Whether this could be considered a serious attempt at suicide or just a cry for help during a bout of depression, I cannot judge. What is known is that Hugo made a recovery, confirmed in the Ofhuys account and by Hugo himself. How long he lived after that is open to speculation.

More on this and the method Hugo used to self-harm in my next post.

UPDATE: June 21, 2020

In a previous post I described how the three men to the left were probably related, Hugo’s father cheek-to-cheek with his son Hugo, and behind them Hugo’s half brother, Nicholas. I also suggested that Hugo’s father may have been in a spiritual sense, perhaps the prior of the Rood Klooster, Thomas Vessem, who took care of Hugo after his breakdown.

What I hadn’t picked up on at the time was the the connection between the St Vincent Panels and The Good and Bad Judge freso at Monsaraz which portrays one of the judges with two heads. The left head was the basis for the St Vincent figure while the the head in profile was applied to the so-called kneeling prince in the Panel of the Prince.

However, the motif is repeated for another group in the same panel, the one shown alongside. The two front men are joined at the cheekbone, the father figure being the good and compassionate judge, the profiled head being the judge tempted by the devil at his shoulder, except that instead of the head being shown in profile it is depicted face on – the face of Hugo. As for the tempting devil behind him, there’s a choice of two. My preference is for Nicholas (an apt name), Hugo’s half-brother! Notice also how the devil’s head in the fresco is cropped at the top, just as Nicholas is. It is also worth noting that Fr Thomas Vessem is placed immediately behind St Vincent, sharing in his light, and suggesting that Hugo considered the priest a saintly man, perhaps for the reason he was instrumental in the painter’s recovery.

Made in Portugal, or Flanders?

I’m now beginning to consider that the St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves may instead be by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes who had “been driven mad and melancholy” in his attempt to “equal the Ghent Altarpiece in his own work”, according to what the humanist Hieronymous Münzer wrote when he visited Ghent in 1495.

Be it Gonçalves or Van der Goes who had brush in hand, there is certainly a strong Flemish influence to be found in the St Vincent Panels. Not only are there portraits of at least seven Flemish artists, the panels also incorporate several references to the Ghent Altarpiece and other Flemish works.

A close associate of Hugo van der Goes was Dieric Bouts (pictured), one of the Flemish portraits in the SVP. Bouts was famous for his work known as the Altarpiece of the Blessed Sacrament, produced for and still housed in St Peter’s Church, Louvain. Hugo, or was it Nuno, adapted one of the triptych’s panels (shown below) as the basis for the Panel of the Friars in the St Vincent Panels.

The two men fitted out as friars are in fact two theologians associated with the original Louvain University, Johannes Varenacker and Egidius Bailluwell, who were assigned to assist Dieric Bouts on theology content in the painting.

The bearded friar was inspired by the biblical figure of Abram whose right hand is raised in blessing (as in the SVP). Even his cream-coloured cloak is matched. The cloak covers Abram’s left hand. This motif has been transferred to the central friar portrayed as Varenacker. The foremost friar is represented by Bailluwel.

The ‘twins’, the two lookalikes behind the bearded friar, are mirrored by the men guarding the armoured king of Sodom and his white horse – two Dieric’s, like father, like son – both artists!

The king of Sodom is also name-checked in another of the St Vincent Panels, the Panel of the Archbishop. He’s the kneeling knight to the right of St Vincent.

More on this in a future post.

See, hear, speak no evil

Detail from the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece – mouth covered, and uncovered.

In October 2018 I posted an item titled Brim of Extinction, pointing out that the repainted verson of the Just Judges panel in the Ghent Altarpiece was missing an important detail that was present in the stolen original.

Recently, I discovered that the missing detail represents part of the maxim: “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”, an appropriate expression for the Just Judges.

The detail is a hat brim which coverered the mouth of one of the central riders, the French king Charles Vl who, at times, was inclined to shout his mouth off, so to speak, during his frequent bouts of psychosis. It’s there on the original version but missing on the copy painted in 1945 by the Belgian art restorer Jef Van der Veken.

More detail from the Just Judges panel meant to portray the maxim, “hear, see, speak no evil”.

“Hear no evil” is depicted by the front rider’s hat covering his ears, and “see no evil” is the self portrait of Jan van Eyck looking out from the picture directly at the viewer. Was Van Eyck saying he saw no evil in anyone, or was this just another “mirror” technique like that in his famous Arnolfini Portrait?

A painter very much influenced by the work of Jan van Eyck was Hugo van der Goes. He lived in Ghent and would no doubt have studied the Ghent Altarpiece in detail. Both Van Eck and Van der Goes are featured in a six-panel altarpiece known as the St Vincent Panels. Like the Ghent Altarpiece there is mystery about some of the detail in the painting and who the sixty figures are or represent.

The six St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves.

The St Vincent panels are attributed to the Portugues artist Nuno Gonçalves but there is also some speculation that Van der Goes may have had a hand in the work or contributed to it in some way. It so happens that the “hear, see, speak no evil” maxim also appears in the first frame of the St Vincent Panels (referred to as he Friars Panel), as it does in the first panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

Detail from the Friars panel of the St Vincent Panels, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga , Lisbon.

The three men standing at the top of the panel, depict the maxim in the order of: “hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil”. The latter is easy to recognise, his mouth, like the French king, is covered by a hat. Next to him is the man who sees no evil, because he does not see the plank held by the the bearded man. The plank also represents part of a crucifixion analogy.

The third man is Pontius Pilate who does not want to hear the cries of the crowd chanting for Christ’s crucifixion. Close inspection of his ear reveals it is shaped as the lower half of Christ’s body on the cross and the overlap of white hair represents his Spirit he offered to the Father. And the reason for Pilate being placed in the corner is that he cannot escape the crowd’s will to have Jesus crucified because of their threat to report him to Ceasar.

This three-part maxim can be applied as an attribute of Pilate’s judgement. He didn’t want to HEAR the demands of the people; he didn’t SEE anything wrong in what Jesus had done; and he didn’t SPEAK evil of him.

This three-man motif is mirrored on the far right panel of the altarpiece, except that only two men appear in the back row lineup. The third place is occupied by an empty coffin.

Detail from the Relic Panel of the St Vincent Panels, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga , Lisbon

Like Pilate, the man in the corner has no choice. His windswept hair is symbolic of the Holy Spirit coming down and resting on him – “Do not be surprised when I say you must be born from above. The wind blows wherever it pleases; you hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from of where it is going” (John 3 : 7-8). This is the man who hears the good and not evil.

The windswept hair representing the resting of the Holy Spirit.

Next to him is the man who sees no evil. Like the Van Eyck self portrait he is staring out directly to the viewer. Is he blind?

Finally, the third place ocupied by the coffin represents the maxim of not speaking evil of the dead. Simple as that!

All is well

Detail from ADORATION OF THE SHEPHERDS (c1480), Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Staying with Hugo van der Goes and his self portrait in the Adoration of the Shepherds.

On visiting Ghent in 1495, some years after Hugo’s death in 1482(?), the humanist Hieronymus Münzer wrote that the Ghent Altarpiece had no rivals and “another great painter” who had attempted to equal the Ghent Altarpiece in his own work had been “driven mad and melancholy”. Art historians assume that Münzer was writing about Hugo van der Goes.

Whatever pressures Hugo put himself under which may have affected his mental state, it appears that he came through his crisis and all was well at the end. So well that he was able to recognise and accept the reasons for his affliction and record his ordeal and recovery in his latter paintings – the Adoration of the Shepherds being one of them.

It would be surprising that living in Ghent and able to admire the Ghent Altarpiece at any time, Hugo would not be influenced by the exceptional creativity of Jan van Eyck and, like oter artists of the time, he incorporated and acknowledged Jan’s influence in his own work – a hat-tip, so to speak. He did so in the Adoration of the Shepherds. The Joseph figure represents Jan van Eyck, but the motif is borrowed from the work of Rogier van der Weyden, another admirer of Van Eyck.

Top row: Hugo van der Goes. Bottom row: Jan van Eyck and Philip lll, Duke of Burgundy.

The self-portrait of the well-again Hugo looking upwards to heaven is borrowed from Van Eyck’s self portrait of himself as a young man that appears in the centre panel (Adoration of the Lamb) of the Ghent Altarpiece. Jan is also looking up. As Augustine heard the voice of a child saying “Take and read” (the bible), so Hugo is listening to the voice of the young Van Eyck to take and read his paintings. And that’s why, like Van Eyck, Hugo’s paintings encompass so many Scripture references.

Another self-portratit of Hugo is found the Vienna DiptychThe Fall and Rise of Man, mournful and repentant as the crucified Christ is taken down form his cross. Hugo has matched this pose with the so-called Mr Arnolfini from Van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini Portrait. In fact the man has a dual personality (notice the cleft chin): Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, as a repentant sinner, combined with the features of Jan van Eyck who sometimes acted as the duke’s proxy, especially when making pilgrimage. Notice also how Hugo has featured the fur trim and the hand that seems to be making a blessing.

Finally, Hugo’s red skull cap, is a match for the ‘skull’ portrait of Philip the Good, a traditional symbol usually featured at the foot of the cross to remind the viewer that life is short, but the red strap of Hugo’s cap also indicates his despair when he declared himself unworthy and damned while returning from visiting Cologne – a pilgrimage – with members of his community. The hand sign is the action of a cut across his throat. Such is Hugo’s self-loathing and lack of peace that he looks down towards the place he is convinced he is heading for.

Fortunately for Hugo he was brought through his crisis of faith and self-doubt, as witnessed by his transformation depicted in the Adoration of the Shepherds.

More on Hugo’s Adoration of the Shepherds in a future post.

Angelic inspiration

CONVERSION OF ST AUGUSTINE (c1430-35) by Fr Angelico, Musée Thomas Henry, Cherbourg

In an item posted here in January about Fra Angelico’s painting, Conversion of St Augustine, I mentioned that Hugo van der Goes had referenced the work in his Monforte Altarpiece. At that time I wasn’t aware that Hugo had done the same in two other paintings he produced following his ‘breakdown’, thought to have been after 1480.

In yesterday’s post I pointed out the crib connection to St Augustine in Hugo’s painting of the Adoration of the Shepherds and the link to Fra Angelico’s painting of Augustine’s conversion. But there’s more. Hugo’s composition is actually based on the scene painted by Fra Angelico – a conversion process in itself.

ADORATION OF THE SHEPHERDS (c1480), Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Sometimes described as Old Testament prophets, the two men either side of the frame pulling back the green curtain are Hugo van der Goes (left) and Thomas Vessem, Prior of the Rood Klooster, who helped care for Hugo following his breakdown.

Hugo has depicted himself as the peacock, a symbol of pride, while Thomas Vessem represents the humble ‘desert father’, standing at the entrance of his cave – a ‘“little nook” – in Fra Angelico’s scene. Augustine and his friend Alipius (two converts) are matched by the two shepherds entering the cave where Jesus is born, symbolising two conversos entering the Rood Klooster monastery.

As for Hugo being seen as a figure of pride, he can also be viewed at the Prodigal Son whose father welcomed him and instructed his servants to bring out the best robe and put it on his son.

Notice also that Hugo and Thomas Vessem are each embedded in the lower corners of the picture – another example of Hugo’s fascination for the words of Thomas à Kempis: ““I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not, save in nooks and in books.”

More on this in my next post.

More on Rembrant’s ‘turnaround’ etching

Detail from The Deathbed of Mary, Rembrandt van Rijn, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

To enable to see and recognise some of the iconography in Rembrandt’s etching shown above, the viewer has to adopt a different view and turn the work 90 degrees clockwise. Was this Rembrandt’s own idea or did he take his lead from elsewhere? As the etching is primarily focused on the work of Hugo van der Goes, so is the answer. Rembrandt has imitated a feature from Hugo’s painting titled Adoration of the Shepherds, which he produced after recovering from his ‘breakdown’ and attempt to self-harm.

Adoration of the Shepherds (c1480), Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

The painting records the Nativity of Jesus – the occasion when Christ became incarnate, the Word made flesh. The scene also became a life-changing occasion for the magi and shepherds who were called to witness, pay homage and proclaim the birth of Christ. The magi returned home a different way (conversion) and the shepherds repeated all they had seen and heard to everyone they could.

Another conversion narrative Hugo has blended into the scene is that of St Augustine. Like Hugo, he wrestled with God at times until one day he heard a child’s voice singing and repeating the words, “Pick it up and read it”. This prompted Augustine to pick up a Bible and open it. The first passage his eyes settled on was part of Paul’s letter to the Romans, urging them to be Children of the Light:

“Let us live decently as people do in the daytime: no drunken orgies, no promiscuity, or licentiousness, and no wrangling or jealousy. Let your armour be the Lord Jesus Christ; forget about satisfying your bodies with all their cravings” (Romans 13:13-14).

Augustine’s heart was flooded with light and he changed his ways. He was baptised a Christian and later became bishop of Hippo.

The painting not only represents the Nativity of Jesus and the conversion of Augustine but also the rebirth and “turnaround” of Hugo van der Goes after his breakdown.

This experience of being overcome by heavenly light can been seen in the top right corner of Hugo’s painting. So powerful is the light and the angel’s message that one of the shepherds is bowled over. Another is brought to his knees. This is mirrored in the main scene. One shepherd is depicted on his knees while the other is almost bowled over.

So where is the clue that Hugo has referred to Augustine’s moment of conversion? It’s within the crib, but the crib and all it holds requires to be turned 90 degrees anti-clockwise (going back in time, so to speak), as Rembrandt did with his etching.

When turned round the cloth on which the infant is placed takes on the outline form of Augustine, sitting on the ground and reading his bible. The open pages of the book are seperated by the child’s right arm, resting on the spine as a bookmark. This is the reference to the child (the Word) instructing Augustine to pick up the book and read it – the word of God. The pointed corner fold on the cloth above the infant’s left hand represents a bishop’s mitre. The other end of the cloth overlapping the edge of the crib and pointing downwards represents the descent into darkness and imprisonment, hence the crib’s cage-like features.

Left: St Augustine by Fra Angelico, matched with Hugo van der Goes’ self-portrait.

Hugo has adapted the shape of the Augustine symbol from the painting by Fra Angelico, Conversion of St Augustine. He also repeats the posture in his painting Death of the Virgin, portraying himself seated on the floor in the same way. Notice as well the similarity in colours of the garments, and the extended ‘tail’ feature which is repeated in the crib detail.

Finally, the turnaround feature can be linked to the Thomas à Kempis quote: “I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not, save in nooks and in books.” – often adapted to a shorter version: “In a little corner with a little book”.

Rembrandt’s rhyming riddle

The painter Hugo van der Goes, seen here in Rembrandt’s etching being nursed back to health, suffered from depression, not helped by his fondness for alcohol. When returning from a visit to Cologne with a group of brothers from the Rood Klooster monastery, Hugo suffered a breakdown and made an attempt to self-harm, claing he was damned. Was it a suicide bid? Possibly. But he was prevented from killing himself by the men he was travelling with.

While art historians provide no further information about the attempt on his life, or the method used, Hugo does – as does Rembrandt.

Hugo used a bill-hook or sickle to slash himself on the left side of his head and neck (which suggests he was right-handed). Was this an attempt to cut off his ear and eradicate any ‘voices’ he might have heard in his head; or in his confused state did he associate himself with Malchus, the servant of the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas, whose ear was cut off by Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane?

There is evidence in Hugo’s painting of Death of the Virgin, to suggest this, and in Rembrandt’s etching and his painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son. Hugo also referred to his breakdown in at least four of his other paintings.

So how did Rembrandt concoct the name of Hugo van der Goes in the details from his etching shown below? He created a rhyming riddle – rhyme as in his name Rijn.

Hugo’s last name, Goes, is pronounced “Hoose”, hence being rhymed with Goose, the shape of the pillow Hugo’s head rests on. The “hand” on the pillow is rhymed with “van der” (on the). So now we have “hand on the Goose” – van der Goes. His first name is matched to Hugo’s Portuguese ancestry and the word “jugo”, meaning “yoke”. The yoke is the pillow beneath Hugo’s head and refers to the passage from Matthew’s gospel (11:28-30):

Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

At the time of Hugo’s breakdown he was burdened by the weight of having so many paintings to complete, a heavy load. The soft goose-down pillow is the light and easy yoke.

To see and understand the riddle more clearly, Rembrandt invites the viewer to look at the scene in another way, to turn the sheet around and see things from a different perspective. The turnaround represents not only Hugo’s recovery after his attempt at mutilation and self-destruction, but also an occasion of conversion for his soul, a return of the Prodigal Son to hs father’s arms, the father in this instance being God working through the prior Thomas Vessem who took charge of Hugo’s care when he was brought back to the Rood Klooster .

Detail from an early 18th century image of the Rood Klooster (Red Cloister).

The yellow stripe along the goose’s neck not only represents the lacing on the pillow but also symbolises the stitching applied on Hugo’s neck by the hand of the Prior. The snake-like stitching also represents a goose horn – both symbolising deceit – and also the horn of a beast and its yoke,

The green strip also has more that one meaning. It serves as a coupling or washer between the goose-shaped yolk and the father figure sharing Hugo’s burden. It also represents a swan’s neck and serves as a reference to the Rood Kloster which was located at Soingnes – pronounced Swanyay. Another identity is that of a serpent meant to symbolise the temptation to self-doubt and self-harm Hugo succumbed to.

The orange cowl with its liripipe represents the choristers and musicians at the monastery called on by Prior Thomas to help calm Hugo’s anxiety and revive him from his slumber. It also connects to the swan feature and points to Hugo’s last painting – Death of the Virgin – as his swansong.

Finally the shape of the monk’s cowl also takes on the appearance of a sickle, the tool or weapon of a reaper that Hugo utilised to slash his own neck.

My next post will reveal what prompted or inspired Rembrandt to want the viewer to turn the etching on its side and be able to see and understand the iconography more clearly.

Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?

Detail from The Deathbed of Mary, Rembrandt van Rijn, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

In my previous post I pointed out that the title applied to Rembrandt’s signed and dated etching, Death of a Virgin (1639), is a misnomer, and it isn’t the Virgin Mary who is depicted dying in her bed.

In fact, the person is actually recovering from a near death experience, both in a physical and spiritual sense, thanks to the intercession and tender care of those in attendance.

So who is the sick person in the bed being cared for if not the Virgin Mary? Are they a woman or a man, perhaps a mother or a brother, saint or a sinner, or, more likely, both?

For Rembrandt, the person lived a common life some two centuries beforehand and, like Rembrandt, their name, reputation and achievements live on.

He is HUGO VAN DER GOES.

Rembrant has carved out Hugo’s name in section of the etching, not in normal handwriting like his own name, which can be found in the bottom left corner of the print, but in a symbolic way.

The references to Hugo go further, and there are at least thirty that Rembrandt has taken from what is considered the last painting produced by Van der Goes, Death of a Virgin, in which he portrays himself as the Prodigal Son, the same subject Rembrandt has presented with this etching and in the acclaimed Return of the Prodigal Son, painted before his own death in 1669. This work also pays tribute to Hugo van der Goes whose features are portrayed in the elder brother. Like the etching, there are several references that can be matched to Hugo’s Death of the Virgin, as many as fifty.

My next post will explain the iconography that reveals the name of Hugo van der Goes in Rembrandt’s etching.

In a little corner with a little book

Sometime in the mid-1470s Hugo van der Goes left Ghent and moved to the Roode Klooster (Red Cloister) near Brussels to become a lay brother in a religious community known as the Brethren of the Common Life, founded in the latter part of the 14th century by Gerard Groote. The priory contained an impressive library as well as a workshop for producing and illuminating books, and Hugo was allowed to continue with his painting there.

Books and their influence is one of the themes in Hugo’s painting of The Dormition (or Death) of the Virgin, while the group of Apostles reflect the pious way of life adopted by the brothers of the community, and referred to as Devotio Moderna (the Modern Devotion).

An early follower of the Modern Devotion was Thomas á Kempis, who wrote the popular book on Christian meditation, The Imitation of Christ. He is portrayed in The Dormition as Thomas the Apostle.

One of the quotes attributed to Thomas is: “I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not, save in nooks and in books.” – often adapted to a shorter version: “In a little corner with a little book”. This quotation is a key to locating his place and confirming his identity in the painting. The figure of Thomas à Kempis also serves as the figure of the apostle Thomas who doubted the resurrection of Jesus.

Detail from Death of the Virgin, revealing Thomas à Kempes twinned with Thomas the Apostle.

Hugo connects the two identities in this way. The family name of Thomas à Kempis was ‘Hammerlein’ meaning “little hammer” and appertained to his father’s profession as a blacksmith. Kempen was the town where his family lived. Hugo has portrayed Thomas’s hood or ‘cowl’ uncovering his ‘unkempt’ hair in the shape of a ‘little hammer’.

Switching identities to the other Thomas who refused to believe his companions had witnessed Jesus alive after being crucified, the doubting disciple said he would only believe if he could see and put his finger into the holes made by the nails that crucified Christ to his cross, and his hand into the wound in his side made by a soldier’s lance. Thomas is shown gripping the side of the headboard and his other hand resting on its beam. The beam is representative of the cross, a path to salvation, and referring to the words of John the Baptist taken from John’s gospel: “Make a straight way for the Lord” (John 1:23)

Like Jan van Eyck, Hugo was not adverse to including word-play in his paintings. For ‘straight way’ read ‘straight line’ – ‘line’ as in the German pronunciation for ‘lein’ taken from Hammerlein.

So in all of this where are the nails? They can be seen in the decorative crown embroidered on Peter’s green collar – ªthe green wood” (Luke 23:51). The four nails are shaped as fleur-de-lys, stylized lilies, and symbolic of the Virgin Mary. The sword-shaped petal is a reminder of Simeon’s prophecy to Mary: “And a sword will pierce your soul too – so that the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare” (Luke 2:35). However, Hugo has implied another meaning to the four fleur-de-lys and their spear-shaped petals. In the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, the apostle was described as being martyred by four soldiers who each speared him. And the lance that pierced the side of Jesus is symbolised by combining the ‘hammer’ feature of Thomas’s cowl with the white triangle inside Peter’s collar. A cowl or ‘yoke’ serves as a cover or ‘protector’ for head, neck and shoulders, and so connects to the collar or ‘yoke’ worn by Peter in his priestly role as a pastor protecting his flock, hence his stance shielding the Thomas figure behind him.

Thomas the apostle was also known as ‘the Twin’ and this explains why Hugo has ‘twinned’ the two men. But there is a third identity given to the figure by Hugo – Simeon, the “upright and devout man” on whom the Holy Spirit rested and prophesied to Mary. This explains the ‘unkempt’ hair of the man – “the wind blows wherever it pleases” (John 3:8) – and why he is gripping the headboard to stay upright. Like Thomas à Kempes, who was at least 90 when he died, Simeon was well on in years and reaching the end of his life when his eyes had seen the salvation promised to him by God, the same sight of salvation witnessed by Thomas à Kempes above him.

Returning to the Thomas à Kempis quotation mentioned earlier: “In a little corner with a little book”, note the panel in the corner of the headboard next to Thomas’s left hand. It’s design is shaped to represent an open book and one of many references in the painting to the “Imitation of Christ”.

Thomas à Kempis and a late 17th century printing of his book: The Imitation of Christ.

• More on revealing The Dormition’s many identities in my next 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.

The Dormition of Mary

My next study project is the Hugo van der Goes painting: Death of the Virgin, also referred to as The Dormition, dated 1470-80. It’s housed at the Groeninge Museum in Bruges.

Wikipedia has a page about the painting and so does the Flemish Primitives website which dates the work as 1470-72.

The scene depicts Mary the mother of Jesus on her deathbed surrounded by his twelve apostles, and relates to an account from the Golden Legend by the Italian chronicler Jacobus de Varagine.

But there was a more local source that also inspired Van der Goes, the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck. In Hugo’s version the ‘just judges’ are the twelve apostles appointed by Jesus to judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19 : 28).

On visiting Ghent in 1495, some years after Hugo’s death in 1482, the humanist Hieronymus Münzer wrote that the Ghent Altarpiece had no rivals and “another great painter” who had attempted to equal the Ghent Altarpiece in his own work had been “driven mad and melancholy”. Art historians assume that Münzer was writing about Hugo van der Goes.

A feature of Jan van Eyck’s Just Judges panel is the multiplication of identities – four– given to each of the ten judges. Hugo adopted a similar approach of creating multiple identities for The Dormition.

Fathers and Sons… part 2

Continued from the previous post…

A father and sons… detail from the Panel of the Prince section of the St Vincent Panels.

This trio of men featured in the St Vincent Panels are related. The older man is the father of Hugo van der Goes, and also of the half-hidden figure behind him, Hugo’s half-brother Nicholas. Hugo is placed at his father’s left shoulder, almost cheek-to-cheek, and looking straight at the viewer – a sign of recognition. Did Hugo, or even the father contribute in some way to this section of the painting, or was the artist Nuno Gonçalves perhaps paying tribute to the men for some personal reason?

The other men in the line-up also represent family groups, fathers and sons. The three men to the right of Hugo are two sons with their father. Left of Hugo’s father are two men hat can be considered a son and his father, while to their left the three men represent another family group, possibly the Gonçlaves family with Nuno looking out from the edge of the frame next to his brother and both positioned behind their father.

So what other evidence is there that points to Hugo and his father among the group of men in the Panel of the Prince? There are two extant paintings attributed to Hugo van der Goes and housed in New York’s Met Museum that provide the answer: Portrait of an Old Man can be matched to Hugo’s father, while Portrait of a Man, possibly a self-portrait of Hugo, and probably cut down to size from a larger scene, has a particular feature – the praying hands – that Gonçalves has repeated for the hands of the father. Is this a statement by Gonçalves to say that both Hugo and his father had a hand in the painting of this panel?

Potrait of an Old Man, and Portrait of a Man, attributed to Hugo van der Goes, Met Museum.

What is a more likely scenario is that the old man isn’t actually the paternal father of Hugo and Nicholas, but can be considered instead as a pastoral or spiritual father, guiding the two men during their formation and time as lay brothers in the monastic community of the Roode Klooster which Hugo joined around 1477. Could he be Father Thomas Vessem, Prior of the Roode Klooster during Hugo’s time there as a lay brother?

The relationship between the two men shown in the Panel of the Prince is undoubtedly a close one, and the portrait of him painted by Hugo is not the only time he was portrayed by the artist. The same man features in Hugo’s Death of the Virgin, as shown below left. He also appears in the Justice Panels attributed to Dieric Bouts: Justice of Emperor Otto lll – Beheading of the Innocent Count and Ordeal by Fire. One was completed, and the second started by Bouts before he died in 1475. Van der Goes is said to have completed some of Bouts’ unfinished paintings. Was this one of them, and which artist included the ‘father’ figure associated with Hugo, shown below right alongside the Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden as part of the beheading panel?

The praying ‘father’ figure from Death of the Virgin, and the ‘father’ alongside Rogier van der Weyden.

And not by coincidence, a portrait of Van der Weyden (left) is also included in the St Vincent Panels, alongside Dieric Bouts (below).

Rogier van der Weyden and Dieric Bouts, Panel of the Knights of the St Vincent Panels.

And this brings the circle back to Hugo van der Goes who also placed the portrait of Dieric Bouts at the edge of the frame in the Monforte Altarpiece, but not alongside Van der Weyden, preferring to subsitute him with the Italian artist Sando Botticelli. And why should he do this? Because Botticelli included the figure of Hugo alongside himself in his own version of the Adoration of the Magi now housed in the Uffizi, Florence.

Hugo van der Goes stands in front of Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, Uffizi Galleries.

More on this and Hugo’s Death of the Virgin in my next post.

Fathers and Sons

Panel of the Prince, St Vincent Panels, Nuno Gonçalves, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon.

I made mention in an earlier post that it was likely Hugo van der Goes had access to another altarpiece now known as the St Vincent Panels, attributed to Nuno Gonçalves. Elements of the Portuguese painter’s panels are echoed in Hugo’s Monforte Altarpiece. Did the two painters know each other? Could they even have worked together at some time? It has been suggested by some researchers that Gonçalves could have spent time learning his craft in Flanders.

The Monforte Altarpiece (Adoration of the Magi) by Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

Francisco Filipe Cruz wrote in his Facebook summary on the St Vincent Panels: “…the style of the painting shows some very clear influences from the Flemish “primitives” school. Among the suggested influences are Jan van Eyck, Dieric Bouts, Rogier van der Weyden and Hugo van der Goes, and contemporary Flemish-influenced Iberian painters like Bartolomé Bermejo and Jaume Huguet. Indeed, it is sometimes conjectured that a foreign painter (perhaps even van der Weyden or van der Goes), rather than a native Portuguese, was the original artist, and some have even gone so far as to speculate that the painting is not Portuguese at all, but was made in Flanders for the Burgundian court, and represents a Burgundian scene. As we have practically no details of the life of Nuno Gonçalves, there has been much conjecture of when and where he learned or developed his style and technique. It seems almost certain he must have gone abroad at some point. Some have speculated that the youthful Nuno Gonçalves met Jan van Eyck when the latter visited Portugal in 1428, and travelled back to Flanders with him in 1429, as part of the retinue of Isabella of Portugal, Duchess of Burgundy. He probably spent a few years there in the circle of the Flemish primitives, absorbing their style and techniques. It has been suggested that Gonçalves spent some time in Tournai, apprenticed in the atelier of Robert Campin.

There is also a curious reference on Gonçalves’ Wikipedia page suggesting the father of Hugo van der Goes may have “collaborated in the painting” adding “but there is no concrete proof.” Unfortunately the compiler doesn’t provide a source for the claim.

However, Clemente Baeta, who has spent the last eight years researching and studying the St Vincent Panels, suggests the claim may have arisen from an article in Diário de Lisboa, published in January 1963, which speculated on a possible connection between a Hospitaller Prior named Nuno Gonçalves de Gois (or Goes) and the family of Hugo van der Goes.

Nothing is known of Hugo’s family except that he had a half-brother, Nicolaes

In both the Monforte Altarpiece and the St Vincent Panels there is a shared theme – the transition of power and hereditary rights, and relationships between fathers and sons.

In what is referred to as the Panel of the Prince, St Vincent reveals a passage from Scripture – John 14 : 28-31– in which Jesus attests that his Father is greater than himself, and “the world must be brought to know that he loves the Father and that I am doing exactly what the Father told me.” Jesus also warned that the prince of the world is on his way but has no power of Him.

It is this example of the Son’s obedience to his Father that is the basis for identifying the scenario painted by Nuno Gonçalves, which also pinpoints the reason why Hugo was inspired by this painting when he later included a similar Father and Son theme in the Monforte Altarpiece.

Another feature in the Panel of the Prince that may throw some light on the speculation about Hugo’s father having “collaborated” in the St Vincent Panels is the group of men in the background – a line-up of fathers alongside their sons – among which are Hugo van der Goes, his half-brother Nicolae, and his unnamed father!

• My next post will deal with the identification of Hugo van der Goes and his father in the Panel of the Prince.

Full and short measures

More on the Monforte Altarpiece… When Hugo van der Goes suddenly became agitated on his journey back from Cologne, he kept insisting he was a lost soul and bound for eternal damnation. He made an attempt to self harm – some say to commit suicide. Whatever, his actions revealed a sense of deep despair and hopelessness.

Hugo expressed this fatalistic notion in his painting, alongside the belief that life is determined by celestial signs, just as the rising star followed by the Magi signalled the birth of the infant king of the Jews. But astrology was not just for men from the East. The underlying identities of the Magi – Pope Sixtus IV, Frederick III, Maximilium I and Ludovico Sforza – all used the services of astrologers in decision-making and to determine their future plans.

Moriah, the place where God determined a sacrifice be made of Isaac – represented by the rock, or altar – also links to Hugo’s idea of fatalism. ‘Moriah’ is a pun on ‘Moirai’ or ‘Moerae’, the three goddesses of Fate in Greek mythology who “controlled the mother thread of life in every mortal from birth to death.” The three Moirai are Clotho who spins the thread of life from her distaff onto the spindle; Lachesis who measures with her rod the thread of life given to each person; and Atropos who cuts the thread of life with her shears.

The Virgin Mary is sometimes depicted in paintings spinning wool with a distaff and spindle. This iconography is based on a passage from the Protovangelium of James which describes how Mary was chosen to spin the ‘true purple’ for the temple veil and the scarlet cloth for the serving priest. In Hugo’s painting, the thread of life is spun from the Infant Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’ seated on Mary’s lap. Her purple garment defines her as the ‘Temple of the Lord’.

The serving priest is the kneeling figure in scarlet who represents both Pope Sixtus IV and Pope St Gregory the Great. Prior to the birth of Jesus, Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth whose husband Zechariah was the principal serving priest at the Temple. However, he was unable to fulfil his duty after being struck dumb because he doubted the angel who told him his barren wife would conceive a child. His place was taken by Samuel. For Zechariah read Sixtus IV and for Samuel, St Gregory the Great. For Clotho, the “mother thread of life”, read Mary, Mother of God.

The scarlet figure of Pope Sixtus IV dominates the central section of Hugo’s painting. This is not without reason and is explained later. The remnant or what is left of the pontif’s life is the trailing length of cloth. It is measured out by the pointed foot of Emperor Frederick III, as if to suggest he has the measure of the Pope. The boot is shaped as a snake’s head and this is part of another theme in the painting associated with the Three Fates that links to the men from the East and pagan belief and worship. The Holy Roman Emperor is presented in the role of Lachesis.

The third Fate, Atropos, is illustrated by combining the figures of Maximilian I and Ludovico Sforza. At first glance it appears that the sword close to the hem of the red robe belongs to the standing figure of Ludovico. In fact it hangs from the waist of Maximilian. The sword is there to cut the thread of life, hence its placement next to the hem of the Pope’s garment, and also alongside the fringe of the green overcoat worn by Ludovico. Notice the shortened length of the front compared with back of the garment trailing on the floor. And this links back back to St Vincent the Deacon, his short dalmatic vestment, and shortened life by martyrdom.

The pommel on the sword’s grip is a pointer to an unexpected death in the life of Maximilian, while his left knee is positioned next to the deadly nightshade plant, whose latin name is shared with the Third Fate, Atropos! Together with the white edge of the scarlet robe (hem-lock) Hugo presents a lethal poison for cutting the thread of life.

Observe also the ‘keystone’ symbol that ‘cuts’ through the fringe of the garment, a reference to the hypocrisy and vanity displayed by the scribes and Pharisees recorded in Mathew’s Gospel (23 : 1-12), and to Jesus being the keystone rejected by the builders (1 Peter 2 : 6).

It also refers to Moriah as the place where Solomon built his temple on the plan of a trapezoid shaped as a keystone.

A date with destiny

More about the Monforte Altarpiece… This detail from the left edge of the painting is another indicator that it was produced later than its current attribution date of c1470.

The man wearing the burgundy-coloured jacket and standng next to the black horse has just crossed over the bridge with a small entourage following him. He is Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy who died at the Battle of Nancy fighting against an army of Swiss mercenaries employed by Rene ll, Duke of Lorraine.

The date of his death is significant, January 5, 1477, the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany which commemorates the visit of the Magi to pay homage to the new-born Christ, depicted as the main scene in the painting.

The bridge represents Charles’ crossing over from life on earth to face whatever justice awaited him. For certain he was a debtor, as were the other three men represented by the Magi: Pope Sixtus IV; Frederick lll, the Holy Roman Emperor; and Ludovico Sforza, Regent of Milan; their common creditor being the powerful Medici Bank. It was Charles death and massive debt that instigated the closure and eventual liquidation of the bank’s Bruge branch in 1478.

A possible consequence could also have been that artists like Hugo van der Goes may not have been paid for pictures they were comissioned to paint, especially by Tommaso Portinari who managed the Bruge branch and made extravagant loans to Charles the Bold in an effort to ingratiate himself at the Duke’s court.

He commissioned several paintings, including the famous Adoration of the Shepherds painted by Hugo van der Goes and which was finally delivered to its Florentine destination after the painter’s death – possibly because Hugo may not have been paid and had held on to the work.

Another connection in the painting to Charles the Bold is the kneeling figure of Maximilian I, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick lll. After Charles was killed, Maximilian married the Duke’s daughter and only heir, Mary of Burgundy.

There is an illustration in her Book of Hours that depicts Mary being chased by Death while out hunting. She is riding a white horse. Is this the riderless white horse being escorted past Charles in the detail at the head of this post? And is this ‘pale horse’ representative of the horse from the Book of Revelation that signifies death, and the black horse that which is said to represent the scales of justice?

Clothed in splendour

The Monforte Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

In the Monforte Altarpiece the painter Hugo van der Goes has grouped the ‘Three Kings’ and the figure of Joseph to represent the Four Latin Doctors of the Church: Joseph as St Ambrose; Melchior as Pope St Gregory the Great; Caspar as St Jerome; and Balthazar as St Augustine. This is qualified by the liturgical colours of their ‘vestments’ worn by priests for celebrating Mass. Ambrose wears Rose, Gregory wears Red, Jerome is in Black (his attribute, the kneeling ‘lion’ alongside, is draped in Purple), while Augustine is robed in Green.

The focus on the distinct coloured vestments also serve a purpose: to highlight the cloth manufacturing industry of Bruges and Florence. In his book The Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice, Luca Molà writes:

“In the second part of the fifteenth century, the silk industry, driven as usual by Italian entrepreneurs, pressed its triumphal march further north, reaching Flanders. It found fertile ground in Bruges, a city that specialised in the production of a light fabric in which silk was mixed with other fibres. This ‘satin of Bruges’ was of considerable renown in European markets during the Renaissance, and in 1496 its manufacturers were numerous enough to found a guild of its own.”

His name is John… one of the embroidered
vestments depicting the life of John the
Baptist, designed by Antonio Pollaiuolo.

TEMPLES AND THREADS
There is another vestment allusion in this section of the painting which connects to Florence and its famous baptistery of San Giovani: the gold strands on the floor beside the large stone. They refer to a famous set of gold-embroidered liturgical vestments designed and produced by another Florentine artist Antonio Pollaiuolo between 1466 and 1479.

The vestments depict the Life of St John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence. They were for use in the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, situated next to the Battistero di San Giovani. Nineteen of the embroideries survive in various condition, but not the vestments.

Just as Pollaiuolo embroidered the life of the Baptist on vestments, so Hugo van der Goes paints a variety of narratives on his panel, threading and fusing a tapestry of themes and events which relate to a key period in his life. “Clothes maketh the man” and so Hugo spins, measures and cuts the cloth to drape his figures who, like the infant Jesus, were all born naked into the world. The garments are designed to be admired and to express the wearer’s status in life, but Hugo also uses them to depict the measure of the man and what fate has in store, revealing possibly that the artist may have had a fatalist temperament which contributed to his instability and uncertainty in later life.

This self harm attempt probably explains Hugo’s inclusion of the quatrefoil and its reference to the Sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham’s hand was held back from killing his son Isaac by an angel’s intervention. Likewise when Hugo made what is said to be a suicide attempt he was prevented from doing so by the group of monks he was travelling with after visiting Cologne. This excursion or ‘pilgrimage’ was likely to have been to Cologne Cathedral which houses the Shrine of the Three Kings and where there is a reliquary said to contain their bones. Also displayed in the cathedral at the time was Rogier van der Weyden’s triptych known as the St Columba Altarpiece (Cologne Cathedral is dedicated to St Columba). Its central panel portrays the visit of the Magi. Van der Weyden’s painting may also have served as inspiration for Hugo’s version of the Adoration of the Kings.

Another pointer to the Florentine cloth industry is the gold ciborium placed on the large stone in the foreground. In this instance its quatrefoil shape relates to a design feature that frames a series of panels on a set of bronze doors of the Battistero di San Giovani in Florence. This particular set of doors was commissioned by the Arte di Calimala, the cloth importers guild, and made by Lorenzo Ghiberti, the famous Florentine goldsmith and sculptor. A trial panel was commissioned by the guild who specified it should depict The Sacrifice of Isaac within a quatrefoil surround.

This biblical narrative, also known as the Binding of Isaac, is found in the Book of Genesis 22. God sends Abraham to the land of Moriah and asks him to sacrifice his son Isaac. After making an altar and binding his son, an angel appears and prevents Abraham from taking Isaac’s life and a ram is used as the sacrifice instead.

So in this scenario we see why Hugo has depicted the Infant Jesus staring directly at the ciborium on a stone altar, and why he is seated on a white cloth that features the outline of a ram in its folds. The Child is portrayed as the Redeemer, the unblemished Lamb of God.

More on the Monforte Altarpiece

As mentioned in a previous post Hugo van der Goes applied several identities to the figures in the Montforte Altarpiece, probably inspired, as other artists of his era, by Jan van Eyck who created various identities for the riders in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

The Monforte Altarpiece was likely commissioned for display in the monastery of San Vincento do Pino. The saint is one of the identities given to the tall man on the right who, at surface level represents one of the magi, Balthazar. Local tradition has it that there was a pine tree in the old monastery dedicated to St Vincent and so the Dominican building became known as San Vicente do Pino.

But the saint is better known as Vincent of Saragossa (where he spent most of his life), or Vincent the Deacon, patron saint of Lisbon and Valencia. He was martyred during the reign of Emperor Diocletian early in the 4th century. Wikipedia describes his death in this way:

“He was stretched on the rack and his flesh torn with iron hooks. Then his wounds were rubbed with salt and he was burned alive upon a red-hot gridiron [its bars were framed like scythes, reports another account]. Finally, he was cast into prison and laid on a floor scattered with broken pottery [shells, in some accounts], where he died… Vincent’s dead body was thrown into the sea in a sack, but was later recovered by the Christians and his veneration immediately spread throughout the Church… According to legend, after being martyred, ravens protected Vincent’s body from being devoured by vultures, until his followers could recover the body. It was taken to what is now known as Cape St. Vincent; a shrine was erected over his grave, which continued to be guarded by flocks of ravens. In the time of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula, the Arab geographer Al-Idrisi noted this constant guard by ravens, for which the place was named by him “Kanīsah al-Ghurāb” (Church of the Raven). King Afonso I of Portugal had the body of the saint exhumed in 1173 and brought it by ship to the Lisbon Cathedral. This transfer of the relics is depicted on the coat of arms of Lisbon.”

The most obvious reference which links the figure to the monastery of San Vicente do Pino is the gold, pine-cone-shaped vessel containing myrrh, given by Balthazar as a homage gift to the new-born infant Jesus.

Vincent was a deacon of the Church and so the front part of his green garment is shortened to represent a dalmatic vestment worn by deacons. The position of the sword below the edge of the garment also points to his life being cut short when he was martyred. It has been mentioned that the bars of the gridiron he was tortured on were framed like scythes. Notice the scythe shape of Vincent’s collar. Then there is his elongated body and long neck, indicating the time he was stretched and tortured on the rack.

There are two references to Ravens. The first is Vincent’s dark hair, shaped to represent the wing and head of one the ravens that protected his body after he was martyred. The Lisbon coat of arms depicts two ravens, one at each end of the ship that transported Vincent’s body to the Portuguese city. The second raven appears on the sleeve cuff of Vincent’s left arm, above which is a string of looped pearls, meant to represent the looped sails seen on the ship’s mast.

There is another reason why Van der Goes has drawn attention to Vincent’s left arm in this way. It is still displayed as a relic in Valencia Cathedral (see below).

It’s likely that Van der Goes had access to another painting relating to St Vincent, that known as the St Vincent Panels said to have been produced by the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves between 1450 and 1471. There are parts of his painting that are echoed in the Monforte Altarpiece. The orginal retable consisted of more than twelve panels and was on display in Lisbon Cathedral until near the end of the 17th century. The remaining six panels are now housed in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga.

The two centre panels of six remaning, featuring St Vincent.

There are more references to St Vincent but they crossover into the figure’s other identities and so probably best left to present at another time. This post was simply to point to some of the iconography that confirmed the identity of San Vicente do Pino in the Monforte Altarpiece.

Levels of insanity

It is documented that Hugo van der Goes suffered from mental health issues towards the end of his life and that he unduly worried about completing his paintings. He had spent most of his life working in the Flemish city of Ghent, in the shadow of the great Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert’s most famous work, the Ghent Altarpiece.

On visiting Ghent in 1495, some years after Hugo’s death in 1482, the humanist Hieronymus Münzer wrote that the famous Ghent Altarpiece had no rivals and “another great painter” who had attempted to equal the Ghent Altarpiece in his own work had been “driven mad and melancholy”.

Art historians assume that Münzer was referring to Hugo van der Goes.

In the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly on the Just Judges panel, Van Eyck applied mutiple identities to some of the figures, as many as four in some instances. Van der Goes did the same when he painted the Monforte Altarpiece, obviously influenced by Van Eyck, as were other artists of the time.

In the Monforte Altarpiece Hugo also acknowledges his mental health issues and his period of “insanity”. He makes it very clear that time is running out for him and he is close to death. To be able to portray this in his painting suggests Hugo was of “right mind” and completely prepared for his death in 1482 when, I believe, this work of art was probably completed.

In my previous post, I mentioned that the painting was likely commissioned by the Ist Count of Lemos Pedro Alvarez Osario, possibly for display in the Dominican monastery of San Vincento do Pino adjacent to the Castle of the Counts, and in memory of his first wife Beatriz Enriquez de Castella who had died in 1455.

The count’s coat of arms and those of his first wife Beatriz can still be seen on the castle tower known as the Homage Tower as seen in the image below.

Hugo has referenced the sets of arms in an unique way using the four figures placed behind the wooden fence (not those seen on the hill in the background – that’s another story.)

The four men, two shown as youths, refer to an event that took place in Florence in 1478 known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, when members of the Pazzi family set out to displace the Medici family as rulers of Florence. The plan was to assassinate the brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici and the attempt was made on April 26, 1478. Lorenzo was wounded but Giuliano was killed. Vengeance was taken by the Medici and several of the plotters were executed and the Pazzi family banished from Florence.

The two men with their backs to the wall are two of the plotters. One of them grips a dagger in his left hand. The two youths represent Lorenzo and Giuliano. Lorenzo is depicted with his cloak covering his left shoulder, a reference to how he used it to defend himself during the attack. At Lorenzo’s risght shoulder can be seen part of a castle wall with an entrance and rampart. Lorenzo’s flowing golden locks are also significant and symbolic of a lion’s mane representing the Marzocco, the famous heraldic lion of the Florentine Republic.

In his right hand Lorenzo holds a cap in front of his brother’s chest. The round, gold-coloured shape represents a bezant, a gold coin, symbolic of those found on the Medici family’s coat of arms, of which there are five. Now we can begin to see how Hugo is constructing his reference to the Medici family and the Pazzi conspiracy; Lorenzo’s coat covers his arm (coat of arms). His brother Giuliano wore no armour or any protection on the day he was murdered. Even his wealth and status was unable to protect him from assassination. He was stabbed 19 times and his wounds are represented by the indented hat band. The hat or bezant shape is also cleaved by the black hat rim, an indication that the fatal blow to Giuliano was by a sword wound to his head.

So now we have the elements associated with the Pazzi Conspiracy and the Medici family that can be referenced and combined with elements found in the combined coats of arms assocated with the Count of Lemos and his wife.

The count’s arms depict two running wolves. These are the two assassins standing with their backs to the wall. The arms of Beatriz Enriquez de Castella show a castle, a lion rampant and six roundels or bezants. Hugo has shown the castle positioned at Lorenzo’s right shoulder; the lion is represented by Lorenzo, symbolic of the Marzocco; and the round hat represents the roundel or bezants depicted not only on the Medici arms but on those of Beatriz as well.

Can this unique creativity seriously be the product of an insane mind? There are other connections made by Hugo to the Pazzi conspiracy, but one in paticular is signficant and involves word-play, similar to the word associations Jan van Eyck would embed in his paintings. The word is Pazzi but by replacing the last letter with another vowel to make ‘pazzo’, then this translates as “insane”!

Perhaps the artist was trying to say that if some judged him as “insane” then what did that say about the insanity of the Pazzi Conspiracy and its consequences for all involved – even for a Pope who had a hand in the conspiracy and the outcome, portrayed here as Sixtus IV on his knees before the Infant Jesus.