Panel of the Relic… more links

The above detail depicting John the Baptist is from the left wing of the Donne Triptych painted by Hans Membling and housed at the National Gallery in London. Model for the Baptist figure is Rogier van der Weyden. In the background is another Flemish painter, Dieric Bouts.

This pairing is repeated in the Panel of the Knights, the fifth section of the St Vincent Panels as shown here. Hugo van der Goes has featured several artists and made references to their paintings in the St Vincent Panels, usually placing them on the back row.

However, Hans Membling is given a more prominent position. He is one of the identities applied to the kneeling figure in the Panel of the Relic and is shown well advanced in age compared with the some of the other paintings in which he appears as a young man, sometimes in the role of the youngest apostle John the Evangelist.

Membling portrays himself as John in the right wing of the Donne Triptych, holding the poisoned chalice he was invited to drink from by a pagan priest. Hugo has also made a connection to the chalice and the skull fragment held by the ageing Henry Beaufort whose likeness is based on the painting of the Cardinal by Jan van Eyck.

Here Hugo has attempted to morph the two men into one likeness, just as Van Eyck did with himself and the figure of Philip the Good in the Arnolfini Portrait, and so we have another indication for Hugo attempting to emulate the work of Van Eyck.

But there is more to this connection. Beaufort had amassed a great fortune in his life-time and was considered to be one of the wealthiest men in England, so rich that kings and emperors came to him for loans to finance their military and war efforts.

According to the art historian Til-Holger Borchert, so successful was Hans Membling during his painting career and at making investments (he owned several houses) that he was listed among the richest citizens in Bruge, and so an obligatory subscriber to the loan raised by Maximillian I of Austria to finance hostilities towards France in 1480.

Was Hugo van der Goes making a judgement on the success of Membling, or was the reference to the descent into Hell featured in the red-robed figure (as explained in a previous post) a pointer to one of Memling’s most famous and dramatic paintings, The Last Judgment triptych, now housed at the National Museum in Gdańsk, Poland?

Close inspection of the St John figure and the poisoned chalice shows a fold in the red gown shaped to represent a demonic figure with its nose pointing to the rim of the cup.

A similar motif with a sharp nose can be seen “attacking” the skull fragment in the Panel of the Relic.

The chalice and the skull fragment connect to another narrative disguised in the St Vincent Panels, but more on this at another time.

Hugo also combines two elements from Membling’s two triptychs into one of his own – the towers which appear in the left wing of The Last Judgment and the right wing of The Donne Tryptich – to form the wooden upright box in the Panel of the Relic.

Finally, the inspiration for the coupling of Rogier van der Weyden and Dieric Bouts in the Panel of the Knights can also be found in The Last Supper painting by Dieric Bouts painted in the 1460’s and probably around the same time as Membling produced The Last Judgment.

The two portraits shown in the serving hatch of The Last Supper painting are Dieric Bouts and Hans Membling. Another ‘servant’ depicted in the painting is Rogier van der Weyden who died during the time Bouts was painting The Last Supper, and so another possible reason for Van der Goes to link Bouts and Van der Weyden in the St Vincent Panels. Bouts died in 1475.

More revelations on the Panel of the Relic in a future post.

Making straight highways…

Detail from the Knights of Christ panel of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

Last May, I posted an item titled “A case of déjà vu” which explained some of the iconography in the Panel of the Relic, the sixth section in a set known as the St Vincent Panels painted by Hugo van der Goes.

I pointed out the figure in black represented bishop Jean Jouffroy (among others) and the open book of Scripture referred to a passage from Isaiah (40:3-5), echoed in John’s gospel (1:23) by John the Baptist:

A voice cries, “Prepare in the wilderness a way for Yaweh. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill laid low, let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley; then the glory of Yaweh will be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of Yaweh has spoken.”

Close inspection of the book’s pages reveals the straight highways between columns and verses, and the ridges and valleys on the turning pages.

More recently I discovered that the inspiration for this symbolism was based on iconography Jan van Eyck used in the Knights of Christ panel that forms part of the Ghent Altarpiece. Van Eyck makes reference to the same passage but in a different way. Instead, it is the two curved shields which represent the curved pages – the mountains and hills. The straight highway – the straight lines and verse segments on the opposite page – is represented by the straight lines depicted as the cross of St George on the leading rider’s shield. Van Eyck also confirmed the passage with another representation – the three vertical flag poles and furled banners.

Revealing the Relic

It has never been established which saint or martyr the skull fragment depicted in the so-called Panel of the Relic belongs to. Is it St VIncent of Zaragossa or, as some historians have suggested, Ferdinand, known as the Holy Prince or the Saint Prince (but never canonised), who died as a captive in a Moroccan prison?

Hugo van der Goes, the Flemish artist who painted the St Vincent panels, has provided visible clues that point to another saint, possibly even two, which as far as I know have never been considered before by historians.

While the focus of the Altarpiece is on St Vincent, he is not the only saint or martyr represented in the panels. There are many. In fact, Van der Goes has made “uncovering saints” one of the main themes in the painting. This stems from a connection with the first figure of many representing a saint – in this instance St Ambrose of Milan, depicted in the top left corner of the Friars Panel. More on this connection at another time.

So it should not be assumed that the so-called ‘twin’ figures said to be of St Vincent simply represent that particular saint alone. We are invited to “uncover the saints and martyrs” represented in all of the six panels, as well as other idenities associated with the St Vincent figures.

Van der Goes links each clue to another, as a method of confirming identities and connections. He was influenced in this type of construction by Jan van Eyck who employed the same technique in the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly in the Just Judges panel where the ten riders interlock as jigsaw pieces.

Let’s explore how Van der Goes leads the viewer to discovering the saint associated with the skull fragment. The artist was well versed in producing heraldic decorations for the Burgundian court and the city of Ghent. In 1468 he was commissioned to do so for the marriage of Charles the Bold to Margareta of York and later other works for important occasions.

Aspects of Hugo’s knowledge and experience of heraldic disciplines and terminology feature in the St Vincent Panels. One particular term Hugo has utilised from the language of heraldry is ‘erasure’ which, according to The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, is the tearing off a part of a charge, to leave a jagged edge, and mostly applied to heads depicted with a ragged edge as if forcibly torn from the body.

In another post I pointed out that one of the works of art which Hugo borrowed features from to include in the St Vincent Panels was the Monsaraz fresco known as the Good and Bad Judge, most notably the damaged or ‘erased’ section that formed part of the Good Judge’s right arm and hand. This ‘erased’ or ‘hidden’ motif is utilised in all of the St Vincent Panels in a variety of ways – for instance: men with arms, men without arms, in a literal and military sense. Very few of the figures standing in the back row of the panels are depicted with arms or hands, and if they are, then there is usually a significant meaning to why this is so.

The Panel of the Relic is a typical example. Only the figure of Jan van Eyck doubling up as John the Baptist shows both arms and hands, and even his arms are partly cut off or covered. His two brothers on the back row, Hubert and Lambert, both named after saints, are also armless. The figure of the French prelate and diplomat Jean Jouffroy, twinned with Pierre Cauchon, another French bishop and also a prosecutor in the trial of Joan of Arc, are depicted with their right arm on show and hand on a holy book. Jouffroy later attacked Joan’s ‘saintly’ reputation in a eulogy given in 1459 to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, which may explain the symbolism of the hidden arm and underhand motif.

As to any visual reference to St Joan of Arc – yet another French connection – it is found in the patterned surplice worn by Hubert. Notice the stake-shaped arch in the centre and what appears to be rising flames, a reminder of how Joan suffered martyrdom by being burnt at the stake. The flames can also be understood as symbolic of the Holy Spirit.

The kneeling figure in the bright red gown depicts the French king Charles VI, referred to as ‘Charles the Mad’, who was plagued throughout his life with bouts of mental illness. The figure is also representative of Cardinal Henry Beaufort, said to have had a a hidden hand in the prosecution of Joan of Arc, although the absent left hand seemingly supporting the skull fragment also has a connection to the relic itself. Both Beaufort and Charles VI are also presented in Jan van Eyck’s Just Judges panel in the Ghent altarpiece.

As to the skull fragment itself, close inspection shows a ragged edge on its top side. This makes the connection to the heraldic term ‘erasure’ and a reason why Charles VI is holding the relic.

With its spiked back, the ‘torn’ fragment is meant to depict a porcupine and links to the French king’s younger brother, Louis I Duke of Orleans, who was assassinated on November 23, 1407, on the orders of John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy. He was lured to his death on a Paris street in broad daylight after being told his brother wished to meet with him. When he mounted his horse to start on his way a gang of fifteen masked men attacked and fatally stabbed him, cutting off one of his hands in the process, hence the image of his brother Charles depicted with one hand only.

As to the porpupine motif, this represents the chivalric Order of the Porcupine founded by Louis in 1394 to mark the occasion of the baptism of his son Charles of Orleans who was later held captive by the English as a prisoner of war for 25 years.

The Order’s insignia was represented by a gold porcupine standing on a green enamelled oval-shaped base, hence the green cloth base behind the skull fragment. The Order was sometimes referred to in France as the Ordre du Camail and here Hugo van der Goes makes another link to confirm his intended reference to the insignia. Depicted just above the king’s right shoulder is the coat of camel hair worn by John the Baptist. The word-play, camel and camail, is confirmed by the folds in the Baptist’s coat shaped to represent the legs of a camel.

But there is more to link to the Order of the Porcupine. Louis, duke of Orleans, did not enjoy the best of reputations with the people. He had many enemies and is said to have taken his brother’s wife as a mistress. It was also claimed that he dabbled in magic and the black arts, even necromancy. So when we look at the fuller figure in red, there are other clues that point to Louis, duke of Orleans. Saint he wasn’t, it seems.

To the right and slightly above the green cloth is the shape of demonic face with a sharp-pointed nose. It also has an open, laughing mouth with two teeth. The demonic face represents John the Fearless, noted for his long sharp nose, piercing the cameo, and the stabbing of Louis. This motif is also adapted by Hugo from the Monsaraz fresco, shown below.

But take a look at the green cloth to its full extent and we see portrayed another demonic feature, screaming on its way into the fires of hell. The folds in the red garment are angled and accentuated in a descending formation.

Some twelve years later John the Fearless was assassinated in similar fashion on the bridge at Montereau when an attempt to parley with the French dauphin and future Charles VII of France went amiss. One of the dauphin’s escorts panicked and attacked the duke of Burgundy with an axe to his face. The shape of the axe head can be made out in the demonic face of John the Fearless, cleaving his skull through to the socket of his eye.

So where is the saint feature in all of this? Van der Goes is pointing the way back to another Louis and another king, the only French king canonised by the Cathoic Church, Louis IX.

It was Louis who built a dedicated chapel, the Sainte-Chapelle, as a shrine to house the many relics associated with the life of Christ presented to him by Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople. These included the Crown of Thorns and a fragment fo the True Cross, so the skull fragment held by king Charles VI can also be understood as a relic of St Louis and the porcupine’s thorns as the Crown of Thorns placed on the head of Christ during his Passion.

In all of this there is another connection to Jan van Eyck and a folio attributed to him in the Turin-Milan Hours depicting the Birth of John the Baptist. The minature refers to many of the items Louis IX received from Baldwin II and were kept in the Sainte-Chapelle. More recently, the Crown of Thorns was rescued from its sanctuary when the Paris cathedral of Notre Dame caught fire in April 2019.

The Order of the Porcupine is not the only chivalric company represented in the St Vincent panels. There are several, and at least three others in the Panel of the Relic.

More on this and other connections to be discovered in the Panel of the Relic in my next post.

Four Knights and a Marriage

In my previous post I pointed out the connection in the Panel of the Friars to the Three Kings who travelled to Bethlehem with gifts for the new-born Saviour. The Magi motif is repeated in different ways in all of the six sections of the St Vincent Panels. It is why each panel is structured with groups of three figures in the forefront.

However, there appears to be an exception to this format in the Panel of the Knights where four knights are shown, and not three. The knights represent four sons of King John l of Portugal. Kneeling at the front is Henry (the Navigator). Behind him is Peter, Duke of Coimbra. Next in line is John, Constable of Portugal, backed by the ‘Holy Prince’ Ferdinand wearing the steel helmet.

I’ve mentioned in past posts that the St Vincent Panels is an altarpiece inspired by the Ghent Altarpiece produced by the Van Eyck brothers, Jan and Hubert, and probably the work of Hugo van der Goes and not the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves it is currently attributed to.

The Panel of the Knights is a section inspired by another famous painting by Jan van Eyck – The Arnolfini Portrait, now displayed in London’s National Gallery. It is from this painting that Van der Goes makes the connection to the Three Kings, or Magi.

The Arnolfini Portrait has no link with an Italian merchant named Giovanni Arnolfini who had business connections in Flanders – but it does relate to Portugal and the House of Aviz. Philip the Good, duke of Burgndy is depicted alongside his third wife, Isabella, daughter of King John l of Portugal and sister to the four brotherly knights.

The Arnolfini Portrait is noted for its large mirror, centrally placed. It shows a mysterious reflection. The backs of the man and woman are clearly identifiable, but the other figures – there are three – are not. Some people speculate that the figure in red may represent Jan van Eyck painting the portrait.

Certainly, other artists of the time understood the composition of the reflection in the mirror, notably Rogier van der Weyden, but some 80 years later Joos van Cleeve revealed the mystery in his panel painting of The Annunciation which also depicted a scene of the Three Wise Men behind the open door of a tabernacle. So Van Eyck’s three figures represent in this sense the Magi arriving to pay homage to the infant-king and Philip and Isabella arere portrayed as a type of Joseph and Mary.

Van Eyck’s tabernacle is housed behind the mirror. It probably contained the miraculous ‘bleeding Host of Dijon’ given to the couple as a gift by Pope Eugenious IV, and therefore considered the Real Presence of Christ by the Catholic Church.

In another sense, Isabella was about to or had recently given birth to her third son, Charles Martin, later nicknamed The Bold, and so the Wise Men or Three Kings had come to pay homage to the new-born heir.

The Panel of the Knights is primarily intended to depict the reflection seen in Van Eyck’s mirror. The first three knights represent the Magi who followed the Star of Bethlehem. The bearded fourth knight, the Holy Prince Ferdinand, is depicted as an image of Christ, his steel cap representing the tomb in which he was laid to rest. Its highlight is matched to the beam of light above the head of one of the kings in Van Eyck’s mirror reflection. The red hat and jacket worn by John can also picked up in the refelection, as can the blue and black colours in the sleeve of Henry’s undercoat.

That the wise men were guided by a star is echoed in the celestial symbols attached to the garments of the knights. The most notable is the quadrant for measuring angles worn on Henry the Navigator’s elbow.

This brief presentation is simply to reveal the connection to The Arnolfini Portrait. There is much, much more to ‘break open’ but at another time.

Meanwhile, there is a detailed analysis of the Arnolfini Portrait at my other website arnolfinimystery.com

Through this sign you will conquer

Detail from the Adoration of the Lamb section of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

This detail is from the Ghent Altarpiece – produced by Jan and Hubert van Eyck – and forms part of the centre panel known as the Adoration of the Lamb. The young man looking up represents the Roman Emperor Constantine experiencing a vision he had prior to a battle with another Roman Emperor, Maxentius. His vision entailed seeing a Christian cross appearing out of the sun along with the words: “Through this sign you will conquer”. Constantine adopted the symbol and ordered it to be marked on the shields of his soldiers. The next day Constantine proved victorious against Maxentius at what is known as the Battle of the MIivian Bridge.

A younger version of Constantine is also included in the Pilgrims panel of the altarpiece.

Hugo van der Goes paid tribute to Jan van Eyck by incoporating many features from the Ghent Altarpiece into the St Vincent Panels. Although this work is attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves, there is evidence to argue that Van der Goes instead was the artist.

Constantine’s appearance in the two panels of the Ghent Altarpiece is referenced by Van der Goes in the Friars section of the St Vincent Panels, though not apparent at surface level because the clues are intentionally cryptic, as is most of the iconography used to assist identificaton of the six figures.

Like Van Eyck’s Just Judges panel, four identities are given to each figure in the Friars panel. To add to the mix and assist with identification of figures and themes, Hugo also made references to other painters and their work.

Detail from the Friars section of the St Vincent Panels.

After visiting Ghent in 1495 the humanist Hieronymous Münzer wrote of a famous Flemish painter who had “been driven mad and melancholy” in his attempt to “equal the Ghent Altarpiece in his own work”. It’s likely that painter was Hugo van der Goes. Münzer’s claim is supported by a report recorded in the Chronicle of the Red Cloister stating Hugo had suffered a breakdown and made an attempt to take his own life.

Historians date Gaspar Ofhuys’ entry in the monastery’s chronicle between 1509-1513. However, Van der Goes, who is said to have died in 1482, was still alive when Ofhuys likely recorded Hugo’s setback because the artist refers to the chronicler and the event in several of his later paintings after his recovery.

In fact, Gasper Ofhuys is one of the identities given to the kneeling man in the forefront of the Friars panel (pictured above).

His black cap identifies with a missing section from a painting at Monsaraz in Portugal titled The Good and Bad Judge (see below). The fresco was sourced by both Van der Goes and Van Eyck for their respective altarpieces. The cap applies to two of the other identities the figure represents. But what is its significance when applied to Ofhuys? Could it point to the blackcap bird known to perch and repeatedly twitter. A gossip, and perhaps even a complainer?

Detail from the Good and Bad Judge fresco at Monsaraz, Portugal

There are other ‘buried’ clues to confirm the identity of Gaspar Ofhuys, one of them relates to the numeral 3, as in Trinitarian or, as mentioned in a previous post, to the Three Crowns – the group of three figures standing at the back – Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio. The three friars are also positioned to represent three ‘wise men’ travelling from the East to pay homage and bring gifts.

For Caspar, read Gaspar. The friar to his left can be understood as Melchior and the bearded friar as Balthazar. The subtle reference to the Magi is part of a ‘confession’ theme in the panel and links to the time of Hugo’s attempt at self-harm on his return with a group of other friars to the Red Cloister monastery after making a pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral.

Gaspar Ofhuys was not part of the group. He claims the account of Hugo’s breakdown was related to him by another friar, named Nicholas, Hugo’s half-brother.

It can now be understood that the Three Crowns reference was a pointer to the Three Kings or Magi. Constantine’s vision, the Sign of the Cross, represents the self-blessing action made by Christians to confess their belief in the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

More on this in my next post: Four Knights and a Marriage

The ‘Three Crowns’

Detail from the Panel of the Friars, with references to Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio.

Here’s more information about the Panel of the Friars, the first of six sections that make up the polyptych known as the St Vincent Panels and now housed at the National Museum of Antique Art in Lisbon Portugal.

As explained in earlier posts, each of the six figures have been given mutliple identities, seemingly four. This is a clue to the artist Hugo van der Goes’ emulating a similar method of construction used by Jan van Eyck when he applied four indentities to each of the ten riders in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpice.

Aside from any other suggested identities provided previously, the three men standing on the back row can be identified as the group known as the Three Crowns, major writers associated with the early Italian Renaissance: Francesco Petrarch, Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Boccaccio. The latter is probably best known for his collection of tales known as The Decameron, and subtitled Prince Galehaut.

Boccaccio is ‘twinned’ or paired with Dante Alighieri for the reason that it was Boccaccio who dubbed Dante’s Comedy “Divine”, so prompting The Decameron to be nicknamed “the Human Comedy”.

Another clue to Boccaccio’s identity is the translation of his name as “big mouth”, depicted by the rim of the hat worn by the man placed in front of him, on which is a fiery sun symbol. In this instance the symbol refers to the location where The Decameron tales take place – Fiesole (fire sun) –“twin hills” that overlook Florence in Italy.

The sun motif also connects to Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Fourth Sphere of Paradise, the so-called sphere of the sun where Dante and Beatrice meet the teachers of Wisdom, Saint Thomas Aquinas being one of them, and who is another identity shared with the figure of Dante.

In my previous post I mentioned that the likeness of Aquinas was sourced from a painting by the Italian artist Sandro Botticelli. Hugo van der Goes makes another connection to Botticelli through the Dante figure. The Florentine artist also produced a series of illustrations – 92 still survive – to be included in a manuscript of the Divine Comedy. Another connection is the vast influence the work of Aquinas had on Dante.

More on this in my next post.

Dissecting the Panel of the Friars

One of the challenges for anyone attempting to identify the 60 persons contained in the six sections representing the St Vincent Panels, is realising the artist has applied more than one identity to many of them. Very rarely is any figure a stand-alone representation of who they appear to be at surface level.

The artist – and my preference is Hugo van der Goes, not Nuno Gonçalves – took his lead from Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, particularly the Just Judges panel in which four identities are applied to each rider.

Perhaps in this way Hugo not only intended to pay homage to Van Eyck but also echo the emergence of Portugal’s “Age of Discoveries” which began at the start of the 15th century, and so invite the viewer to explore and navigate their way around the altarpiece, panel by panel, increasing their knowledge and understanding of the artist’s mapping and connectivity techniques as they do so.

I have commented about the Panel of the Friars in previous posts and mentioned that one of the identities given to the figure standing extreme left in the back row is Pontius PIlate, the Roman governor who gave up Jesus to the Jews to be crucified.

The figure also represents Pope Boniface VIII. Alongside him is Saint Thomas Aquinas. Not only can these two figures be identified from other paintings but also by the iconography Van der Goes has embedded and connected to the group.

I can’t date the painting of Pope Boniface VIII shown below; neither do I know the name of the artist. But excluding the papal tiara there is a distinct resemblance to the first man on the back row.

Another person who can be added to the mix is St Ambrose of Milan. He is the third identity applied to the first figure in the back row. Like Pilate, Ambrose was also a Roman Governor. To complete the set of Roman governors – all men of authority – is Pope Boniface VIII, consecrated bishop of Rome in 1295.

The second figure in the back row can be matched to the Thomas Aquinas portrait by Sandro Botticelli dated 1481-1482. Of course, date attributions are not always accurate, but if this is close to the mark then it also helps to date the Panel of the Friars to a period after Botticelli’s painting and probably before a time Hugo is thought to have died around 1482. There is no record of Hugo’s death except a vague mention without a date in a chronicler’s journal said to have been written between 1509 and 1523.

There is a noticeable difference in the eyes of the two portraits. Hugo’s version has embedded the eyes of Botticelli from another painting – the Monforte Altarpiece. He did this not only to make a connection to Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi because it portrays Van der Goes, but for two other reasons which link the work to the Panel of the Friars.

The identity of the Aquinas figure can be confirmed by iconography that forms part of the white-haired Cistercian friar who, in this instance, is another saintly figure, Bernard of Clairvaux. The same applies to the portrayal of Boniface VIII. He too is connected to the Cistercian figure, not only portrayed as Bernard of Clairvaux but also as Bartolomeo Platina , the Vatican librarian who compiled and wrote a book on the Lives of the Popes (1479).

I shall explain more about these group of figures and how they connect to each other in my next post.

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.

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.

End of the line – for a reason

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

The two end frames of the St Vincent Panels – the Friars Panel (left) and the Relic Panel (right) are similar in composition. Their “end of the line” positioning is a pointer by the artist, be it Nuno Gonçalves or Hugo van der Goes, to another painting known as the Merode Altarpiece and attributed to Robert Campin. Art historians generally agree that its two end panels were painted at a later date, and possibly by a young Rogier van der Weyden.

The Merode Altarpiece, Robert Campin, The Met Cloisters, New York City

In the two St Vincent Panels the bearded friar represents Robert Campin, while the pilgrim or hermit figure is portrayed as Jan van Eyck, aka Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary, (a carpenter’s saw hangs from his belt), as explained in a previous post.

In the Merode Altarpiece the so-called ‘messenger’ in the left panel, standing beside the garden door has never been identified, but I would suggest that he represents Robert Campin, the same bearded ‘messenger’ patting the wooden plank in the Friars Panel.

The other end panel in the Merode Altarpiece sees a busy St Joseph in his workshop drilling or ‘tapping’ holes into a plank of wood – a pointer to the holes seen in the plank alongside the beared friar (Campin).

Another Campin connection seen in the Relic Panel is the figure dressed in black supporting the holy book. He is the French prelate Jean Jouffroy. The likeness is based on a portrait by Robert Campin titled Portrait of a Stout Man, now housed at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.

More on this in my next post which will identify the two men placed on the back row of the Relic Panel.

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.

Stay awake and keep watch…

Here’s another take on Jan van Eyck’s red turban or chaperon, supporting my previous proposition that the painting is representative of a rooster and not just a mirror image of the artist. But for what reason should Van Eyck choose to portray himself in this way?

Art historians generally look on the portrait as it is presented in its frame and, in fact, it is the frame and what is written on it that often becomes the main focus of the painting.

In the previous post I stated that the chaperon is contoured in ways that refer to the passion and death of Jesus and so the rooster can be associated with Peter’s denial of Jesus after he was taken prisoner at Gethsemane. For Christians, it also symbolises Christ’s resurrection.

By turning the chaperon 90º clockwise we can see how Van Eyck has depicted the rooster’s head and beak, as well as it’s comb or ‘crown’. Other forms connected to the Passion can also be made out, which I will highlight in my next post.

Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban

Having already identified references to the Turin Shroud in some of Jan van Eyck’s paintings, notably the Arnolfini Portrait and the Ghent Altarpiece, it came as no surprise when I discovered that Van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban is another work linked to what is claimed to be the burial shroud of Jesus. The painting is dated 1433, a year after the unveiling of the Ghent Altarpiece, and the two works are connected.

The website of the National Gallery in London, where the portrait is housed, provides a high-res image, some key facts and a brief description. Wikipedia also publishes a page with details, particularly about the inscription on the frame of the painting.

Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban, Jan van Eyck, 1433, National Gallery, London.

The most obvious focal point of the portrait is the sitter’s vivid red chaperon and its intricate folds, but there is a more subtle feature paired with the headwrap – the Christ-like face unveiled on the sitter’s left temple.

The modified chaperon is contoured in ways that refer to the passion and death of Jesus, particularly his denial by Peter, the disciple who had been entrusted earlier with the mission to build Christ’s church on earth and pasture his flock. After Jesus was arrested and taken into custody, Peter denied he knew him three times when questioned. At the third denial Peter wept bitterly when he remembered the words Jesus had spoken to him earlier: “Before the cock crows, you will have disowned me three times.” (John 13:38)

Van Eyck has portrayed himself as a rooster staring out from the darkness. The red chaperon represents the bird’s comb, the black coat its body, the sharp nose its beak, while the piercing, hooded eyes keep careful watch on all who come near to its roost. So is Van Eyck issuing a wake-up call of some kind with this portrait, a possible warning or reminder of betrayal? The rooster is an iconic emblem of Christianity. Also, as a weathercock and a familiar sight on church towers, it indicates which way the wind is blowing.

Jan van Eyck was known to travel abroad on missions for the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good. It is possible that one such excursion brought the artist to England in 1426. Ducal records show that Van Eyck was paid for trips that year on assignment for Philip. One such payment was made in October, perhaps to cover his expenses for an upcoming journey. It is notable that Jan was absent when his brother Hubert died on December 18th that year.

In England, Van Eyck’s turban or chaperon would be called a cocks-comb and, presuming he did travel there on a secret mission for the Duke of Burgundy, he would be familiar with the term. So what would be Jan’s reason for emphasising this feature in the portrait, apparently painted some seven years later? In the first instance the comb is meant to combine with the temple feature  – TEMPLE and COMB. When the two words are cleaved or joined they form TEMPLECOMB(E), which identifies a small village in Somerset.

Van Eyck would often employ punning examples in his work. His name Eyck as a signature motto on the frame of this painting is an example – AIC IXH XAN (AS I CAN). That he used Greek letters for this is not without reason and provides a further clue to unravelling the painting’s narratives and features disguised in the turban.

Jan’s motto is not only a pun on his name but can be also understood as “AN ICON”, or even “JAN ICON” – a religious work of art – its iconic features or themes to be found in the red chaperon. The icon theme also connects to the village of Templecombe and what is known as the Templecombe Head, a painting on wooden boards, discovered in the roof of an outhouse in the village in 1945. It is claimed by some to represent the head of Christ with a link to the Turin Shroud. Details of its discovery and further information at this link.

The iconic Templecombe Head, Church of St Mary, Abbas and Templecombe.

That the painting was discovered beneath the roof of an outhouse makes another connection to the rooster theme in Van Eyck’s portrait. The building is thought to have been part of the Templecombe Preceptory established in the village by the Knights Templar in 1185. After the suppression of the Knights Templar in 1307 the Preceptory was granted to the Knights of St John until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. The Templecome Head is considered to date to the 13th century and is now displayed in the village Church of St Mary. It is also referenced by Jan van Eyck in the Ghent Altarpiece and in this way connects to his Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban.

More on this in a future post.

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, Jacques 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 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.