Choral clues to attribution date?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The faceless cross-bearer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The art of homage

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

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

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

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

Seeing double

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

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

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

I would go as far as to say that the St Vincent Panels may be the painting the German humanist Hieronymous Münzer mentioned in his diary after visiting Ghent in 1495, and attributed to “another great painter” who was “driven mad and melancholy” attempting to emulate Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. He did not mention Hugo by name, but historians generally agree that Münzer was referring to Van der Goes who suffered a breakdown late in his life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of the line… part two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugo’s hat-tip to Jan van Eyck

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

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

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

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

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

A man under Mary’s mantle

That the red turban worn by Jan van Eyck in his self portrait depicts the symbolic ‘Lamb of God’ is confirmed by two other 15th century painters – Rogier van der Weyden and Hugo van der Goes, albeit in a less flamboyant way.

A surviving fragment of a lost painting by Van der Weyden, known as the Virgin and Child with Saints, is a portrait generally assumed to represent Joseph the husband of Mary. The portrait is housed at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. The likeness of Joseph is modeled on the ageing Jan van Eyck, confirmed by references Van der Weyden makes to the Man in a Red Turban Portrait. The date of the St Joseph portrait is put at 1435-38, shortly after Van Eyck completed his own portrait and dated it, October 21, 1433.

St Joseph’s hat is not the winding chaperon as depicted in the Van Eyck self-portrait. Instead, its double tier is based on the style of the cap Van Eyck has added to the Crucifixion figure (see previous post).

Joseph’s blue mantle represents the curved segment of the Virgin Mary outlined in the self-portrait. Enclosed in the mantle are two other features that Jan depicted in the red turban: the Lamb of God and the Resurrection. However, the latter makes no reference to the rooster, symbolic of the Resurrection. Instead, Van der Weyden has taken another biblical pointer to the same event, the large fish or whale that swallowed the prophet Jonah for three days.

Rising from the tail end of the large fish is the shape of the ‘Lamb of God’ with its muzzle nestling in Joseph’s neck and its long ears merging into the form of the ‘whale’.

Van der Weyden has also repeated Van Eyck’s bloodshot eyes, the dark mark on his left temple, and his stubbled chin.

Note also the vacant aedicula on the building behind Joseph. The pedestal and canopy are there – but no statue – perhaps awaiting one of St Joseph in the guise of Jan van Eyck, a permanent roost assigned for guardians who keep watch and annunciate.

• My next post will explain how both these paintings connect to the work of another Netherlandish painter, Hugo van der Goes, and the St Vincent Panels housed at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, Portugal.

Jan van Eyck’s ‘Pietà’

In my previous post I pointed out that the red turban in Jan van Eyck’s self-portrait was configured to represent aspects of the Passion of Christ.

When rotated 90º clockwise part of the turban takes on the appearance of a rooster, symbolic of Christ’s resurrection.

Another image to emerge at this angle is that of Christ crucified. It depicts his suspension from the cross, hanging by his left arm, and his bowed head capped or crowned.

A third image is that of Mary, the mother of Jesus, resting her head against the rooster.

When viewed at the normal angle the turban reveals the presentation of the ‘Lamb of God’. Also, when the images of the Lamb and Mary resting her head are united, the combination can be recognised as a ‘Pieta’, a subject in Christian art depicting Mary cradling her crucified Son.

Another Flemish artist, Hugo van der Goes, picked up on three of these features and incorporated them in the St Vincent Panels painted some forty years later.

A contemporary of Van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, was also aware of what Jan had depicted in the red turban and made reference to it in two of his paintings, the Magdalen Reading, and the Seven Sacraments altarpiece.

There is also evidence that Rembrandt was aware of Van Eyck’s construction, even going as far to incorporate some of its features in his own ‘disguised’ style in the 1639 engraving referred to as The Death of the Virgin.

So what inspired Jan van Eyck to want to represent himself as a rooster and disguise elements of Christ’s passsion in his red turban? And what could possibly link this painting to the Somerset village of Templecombe and the discovery in 1945 of a painting on wooden boards known ast he Templecombe Head?

More on this in a future post.

Detail from Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban, presenting a version of the ‘Pietà’, the ‘Lamb of God’ cradled by Mary the mother of Jesus.

Hugo’s matching panels

Two panels from two altarpieces, both possibly by the same artist – Hugo van der Goes! On the left is the Panel of the Knights from the set of six frames known as the St Vincent Panels. On the right is the Donor Panel from a set of four known as the Trinity Altarpiece.

The right panel was probably produced c1477 while the left panel is undated but likely completed in the early 1470’s. The donor panel is attributed to Hugo van der Goes while the Portuguese painter Nuno Goçalves is credited with painting the St VIncent Panels. However, I would judge that both panels are by Hugo van der Goes.

The four principal figures in the Panel of the Knights are generally identified as four sons of King John l of Portugal: Henry the Navigator (kneeling), Peter Duke of Coimbra (in green), John Constable of Portugal (in red), and Ferdinand, wearing the steel helmet.

Certainly, the four knights have second identities, perhaps more. It’s a technique Jan van Eyck applied to the many figures in the Ghent Altarpiece and which Van de Goes tried to emulate, In fact, in the Just Judges panel Van Eyck gave each of the ten riders four identities! In the Arnolfini Portrait he morphed himself with the identity of the Duke of Burgundy.

Van Eyck’s influence is also seen in the donor panel of the Trinity Altarpiece and reminiscent of the Angel Musicians scene from the Ghent Altarpiece.

According to some researchers, Henry the Navigator pops up in two places in the St Vincent Panels: as the moustached man wearing the black bourrelet and standing alongside St Vincent in the Panel of the Prince, and secondly, as the foremost kneeling knight in the the Panel of the Knights, grey haired and without a moustache. The latter identification seems the most plausible, especially as he is grouped with three of his brothers.

Left and centre, two variations of Henry the Navigator featured in the St Vincen Panels.
Far right, Edward Bonkill, said to be the Donor of the Trinity Altarpiece.

The Panel of the Knights has a somewhat liturgical feel about it. Their coats of purple, green, red and blue could be said to represent the colours of liturgical vestments. The four men in surplices standing at the back resemble choristers, although in fact they are Flemish artists, identified left to right as Lambert van Eyck, Jaques Daret, Rogier van der Weyden and Dieric Bouts. They are likely to be lined up in order of their passing with Bouts being the last of the quartet to join the “celestial choir”. He died in May 1475. Could this feature provide an indication to dating the panel?

The four Portuguese princes or infantes were also dead prior to the painting, Henry (the Navigator) being the last of the brothers to survive. He died in 1460.

So what connection does this panel have with the Trinity Atarpiece panel? That the same artist was probably responsible for both works provides an important clue in discovering the second identity given to Henry the Navigator. The two kneeling figures are similar in features. We know the identity of the kneeling donor in the Trinity Panel. He is Edward Bonkil, the Provost of Trinity College Kirk in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Bonkil coat of arms appears on the angel’s chair: three buckles surrounding a chevron.

Three buckles and the shape of a chevron
identify the Bonkil coat of arms.

The same motif is disguised within the kneeling figure said to represent Henry the Navigator, except that it refers to the second identitiy given to Henry – that of another member of the Bonkil family, and likely Edward’s elder brother, Alexander. Three buckles feature on the belt, while the shape of the chevron (a rafter) is formed by the hands joined at the fingertips.

Although similar in features to Edward, Alexander’s hair is grey. His nose is not as sharp as his sibling’s but we have to take into account that the portrait is also morphed with Henry whose nose is pointed.

Rembrandt’s fifth and final matchup to paintings by Hugo van der Goes

This is another painting by Hugo van der Goes – The Trinity Altarpiece – that Rembrandt sourced for his etching Death of the Virgin.

Trinity Altarpiece, Royal Collection Trust, on loan to the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh.

He incorporated some of it features in the left corner of the etching, the section he later adapted for one of his final paintings, the Return of the Prodigal Son, details of which I presented in an earlier post, as seen below.

So that makes a total of five paintings by Hugo that Rembrandt utilised to pay tribute to Van der Goes – the figure depicted on his deathbed and not, as presumed, the Virgin Mary.

All the paintings were produced in the latter years of Hugo’s life: The Panel of the Relic from the St Vincent Panels; Adoration of the Shepherds; Death of the Virgin; The Vienna Diptych; and the Trinity Altarpiece.

Rembrandt’s homage to Hugo

Could the ‘mirror’ effect shown below be evidence that points to the St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves – the work considered one of Portugal’s national treasures – may have been produced in the Burgundian Netherlands?

On the left is detail from Rembrandt’s etching Death of the Virgin dated 1439. On the right is the section from the St Vincent Panels known as the Panel of the Relic and estimated to have been painted between 1450 and 1480, some 150 years before Rembrandt made his etching at the age of 33. The title of the etching, Death of the Virgin, is a misnomer. The bed-ridden person is not the Virgin Mary but the painter Hugo van der Goes. Rembrandt’s etching is about paying homage or tribute to Hugo – homage being one of the prominent themes of the St Vincent Panels.

Knowing this, it’s not difficult to match the figures and the iconography. The detail shown in the hand and arm of John the Evangelist extending in from the left represents the man holding the book of scripture in the Relic Panel. He is the French priest Jean Jouffroy and an ambassador of the Burgundian court at the time. Behind him are two clerical administrators matched to the two seated women in the etching. The figure in red is Henry Beaufort and Rembrandt has matched himself to the prelate as a kind of cameo appearance drawing back the curtain to symbolise an act of revelation in a similar way the cardinal is revealing the precious relic wrapped in a green cloth.

The man matched to the shadowy figure in the etching, is the man portrayed as a pilgrim in the Relic Panel. This is the painter Jan van Eyck, placed in front of the wooden box – some say, a coffin. This piece of furniture, cupboard or coffin, can be matched to the empty chair seen in the lower corner of the etching.

It is said that Rembrandt never left his native Holland, although there are myths suggesting he may have travelled to England and Italy, even Sweden! But the myths never mention Portugal.

So for Rembrandt to have recorded such detail from the Relic Panel and rearrange it, or rebuild the temple, so to speak, he must have had sight of the St Vincent Panels to be able to make notes and preparatory sketches for his engraving. This would suggest that circa 1439 the St Vincent Panels were located in the Burgundian Netherlands and possibly Amsterdam at the time when Rembrandt moved to the city late in 1431.

If the panels were commissioned and produced in Holland, and it certainly seems that Hugo van der Goes had a hand in painting them, then who could have commissioned the work and when did the panels make their way to Lisbon in Portugal?

Many art historians consider the six panels formed part of a twelve-panel retable in Lisbon Cathedral. Other researchers dispute this. What seems very probable is that the panels did not leave Holland before Rembrandt had sight of them to embed details from the Relic Panel in his engraving. This isn’t the only example of Hugo’s later work that features in the engraving. The Vienna Diptych (Kunsthistorisches Museum) gets a good showing, and there are references to Hugo’s Adoration of the Shepherds (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), and his version of Death of a Virgin (Groeningmuseum, Ghent).

• More details on this in a future post.

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.