Standing on ceremony

Here’s another example of how Hugo van der Goes was inspired by the Ghent Altarpiece when he set out to paint the St Vincent Panels.

The Panel of the Prince, (St Vincent Panels), and the Singing Angels panel (Ghent Altarpiece)

In this instance he has taken elements and themes from the Singing Angels section of the Ghent Altarpiece and translated them to the Panel of the Prince in the St Vincent polyptych.

The Singing Angels represent a celestial scene, seven of which refer to the cluster of stars called the Pleiades, also known as “The Seven Sisters”. The eighth angel at the top of the group represents Joan of Arc, depicted in the guise of a ram and therefore the constellation Aries. This constellation is located next to the constellation Taurus which houses the Pleiades.

Joan of Arc, depicted in the guise of a ram. Singing Angels panel (Ghent Altarpiece)

Notice also the angels’ arc-shaped headbands studded with diamonds, the arch-shaped picture frame, and the arched shelf representing the Ark of the Covenant containing the Pentateuch or Torah.

The Holy Book, stones and arcs are features translated by Van der Goes to the Panel of the Prince. So too is the lead angel in her red vestment and the placing of her hands on the lectern as if she is at the helm, steering the ark. This is echoed in the figure of the deacon guiding and steering the kneeling man as to the right path to take in life.

Instead of angels, Van der Goes has arched a group of eleven men, and as an alternative to the headbands the arc on the forehead is formed by the brim of the men’s hats. The line of men is split into two groups. The first five men on the left represent an ascent culminating with a sixth figure at the peak, half-hidden behind the man with bald head.

Detail from the Panel of the Prince, (St Vincent Panels)

Francisco Petrarca or Petrarch (Italian poet) is the half-hidden figure at the peak and in descending order are: John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster), Henry Bolingbroke (King Henry IV), Geoffrey Chaucer (poet and diplomat), Edward Grimstone (diplomat), and Petrus Christus (painter). All represent variations of and are linked by the word stone, beginning with Petrus and ending with Petrarch (petra meaning stone or rock).

The group is also connected to another figure, the woman wearing the white headdress who is Philippa of Lancaster, Queen consort of Portugal through her marriage to King John I. She was the daughter of John of Gaunt and therefore a sister to Henry Bolingbroke. Chaucer mentored Philippa in her youth. He was also the brother-in-law of Philippa’s governess, Katherine Swynford having married her sister, also named Philippa.

Serving as an English diplomat at the Burgundian court of Philip the Good, Edward Grimstone was married three times. His third wife was named Philippa. His extant portrait (in the National Gallery, London) was painted by Petrus Christus.

The Philippa connection to Petrus comes through one of his paintings titled “Isabella of Portugal with St Elizabeth” (right) and which Hugo van der Goes translated to represent Philippa and her kneeling daughter Isabella in the Panel of the Prince.

The similarity between the faces of Philippa and St Elizabeth suggest that Petrus Christus may have modelled the Saint’s features on Isabella’s mother with whom she is said to have had a very close relationship.

Lookalikes…Philippa of Lancaster and St Elizabeth

Philippa’s mother was Blanche of Lancaster. Both women died of the plague, as did Philippa’s husband King John I and their son Edward. The moustached figure paired with Philippa is a double or two-layered image representing both kings matched by the double image of Philippa and her mother and the fact that all four individuals succumbed to the plague.

The Blanche/Philippa figure is placed in front of Geoffrey Chaucer to make a connection to the poet’s “Book of the Duchess” in which Blanche is featured as the character “White”. Blanche was John of Gaunt’s first wife and was only 26 when she died. Gaunt married three times but chose to be buried alongside Blanche when he died. Notice the head of the Duke of Lancaster is turned to look at the white headdress and dual image of Blanche and Philippa.

Grouped with Petrarch on his left are the artist Hugo van der Goes, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, the ancient Roman poet Virgil, and behind him the half-hidden Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch. What connects three of the men – Van der Goes, Dante and Virgil – is they were all sent into exile at sometime during their life. Plutarch represents an eternal exile when his name is played with Pluto, the Roman god of the dead and the underworld, equivalent to the Greek version Hades. He wears no hat. Like Petrarch, his head is cropped. Petrarch represents a capstone for the line of stone figures on his right, while the Pluto or Hades figure is also assigned a cap which is hidden, a cap of invisibility referred to as the “Cap of Hades” or the “Helm of Hades”. When the cap is donned the wearer becomes an invisible force at the helm of the ship steering and conducting the paths and souls of others on a descent to disaster.

This corresponds with Van Eyck’s angel steering the ark and the choir, but now the wingless angels represent a new choir, that of the mythological Sirens calling out with their sweet melodious voices to entice ships to shore and flounder on the rocks.

So the “exiles” represent a descent into death, but not just by exile alone. Hugo’s exile is somewhat of a mystery but there is a written record that he was, as a young man, pardoned by Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, in March 1451.

However, in later years Hugo’s descent into Hades manifested once more when he suffered a mental breakdown and attempted suicide, claiming he was bound for damnation. His attempt at self harm was thwarted by those around him and he was placed into the care of Thomas van Vessem, prior of the the Red Cloister Augustinian community which Hugo had joined as a lay brother in 1478. Vessem is the figure standing cheek to cheek with Van der Goes. There are two references in the panel which point to his identity.

The first derives from the half-hidden figure of Petrarch. Widely travelled, the poet once ascended Mount Ventoux in the Provence region of France, a considerable feat in 1336. When he reached the summit (hence the earlier mention of capstone) he contemplated on his ascent and view of the Alps and then took from his pocket a copy of St Augustine’s “Confessions”. When Petrarch opened the book his eyes fell on a passage that suggested the climbing experience was but an allegory and a prompt to lead a better life.

Mount Ventoux (meaning “windy” in French) is nicknamed “Bald Mountain” and this is another connection to the word “arc” formed by the bald head of Thomas van Vessem. The word “windy” is also a pointer to the Windesheim Congregation which the Augustinians of the Red Cloister community joined in 1412.

More on this in my next post.

Changing course on Henry the Navigator

The image below is the frontispiece of a manuscript titled Crónica dos Feitos da Guiné written by the Portuguese chronicler Gomes Eanes de Zuara.

The manuscript was commissioned by Portugal’s King Afonso V and records the recollections of his uncle Henry the Navigator and Portugal’s maritime exploration during the first half of the 15th century.

The original manuscript was completed in 1453 but a century later declared missing or lost. However, in 1839, an intact and preserved copy was rediscovered in the Royal Library of Paris. The Paris Codex includes the frontispiece shown above. It is presented as a representation of Henry the Navigator. Since its discovery the portrait has served as the basis of multiple other images depicting Henry.

That the portrait was of Henry was seemingly confirmed with the rediscovery in 1882 of the St Vincent Panels at the monastery of St Vincent de Fora in Portugal. In what is known as the Panel of the Prince is a mirror image of that shown in Zuara’s Chronicle of Guinea.

Panel of the Prince, St Vincent Panels

For almost a century Infante D. Henrique was the general consensus of researchers and historians for the identity of the figure wearing the Burgundian style chaperon and that the illustration in the Zuara chronicle was the source for the mirror image in the St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves.

But in the 1980s two researchers presented a new suggestion for the identity of the figure in the Panel of the Prince… King Edward of Portugal. This raised the question as to which of the two representations was painted first, and was the Paris Codex version added later. The frontispiece is an intact folio and part of the original manuscript. But that doesn’t exclude the possibility the illustration was painted on a reserved blank page at a later date.

So was the Paris Codex image produced after the completion of the St Vincent Panels? If so, this could place a question mark over the completion date of the St Vincent Panels and possibly the accepted attribution to Nuno Gonçalves. My understanding is the the St Vincent Panels panels were produced by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes who included his own image in the Panel of the Prince, above and to the right of the figure considered to be Prince Henry.

Henry, or his brother Edward, is moustached. There is a written record that Edward was moustached at some time in his life. Most images of Edward depict him with a full beard but his tomb effigy portrays him as clean-shaven. Henry’s effigy is also without a beard or moustache. Bearing in mind it is highly unlikely Hugo ever set eyes on Edward before the King died of the plague in September 1438, so if Van der Goes is the originator of the St Vincent Panels, where did he locate his source for the image of Edward or Prince Henry?

Petrus Christus

A clue to the source is portrayed in the panel itself. Some researchers believe the figure on the extreme left of the back row is the painter of the panels Nuno Gonçalves. It’s not. It’s the artist Petrus Christus who took over the workshop of Jan van Eyck after the Flemish master died in July 1441.

If Hugo van der Goes is the painter who produced the St Vincent Panels, then this could be the work and the artist that the German humanist Hieronymous Münzer referred to in his diary after visiting Ghent and wrote, “another great painter was driven mad and melancholy” attempting to emulate Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. Hugo wasn’t mentioned by name, but historians generally agree Münzer was referring to Van der Goes.

Hugo has mirrored several references and themes from the Ghent Altarpiece in the St Vincent Panels, so it should be no surprise to find the work of Petrus Christus is also reflected in the panels, particularly the Panel of the Prince.

There are at least five references to the works of Petrus Christus in the panel, but one in particular relates to the image of KIng Edward / Prince Henry. A pointer to this work are the unusual silver sleeves of the bald-headed man standing behind the figure believed to be St Vincent. The sleeves protect his forearms because he is portrayed in one guise as a falconer. Silver and falconer are pointers to the silver-point portrait, Man and his Falcon by Petrus Christus.

Elements of this drawing are incorporated into the Edward/Henry portrait. The face in the drawing is a younger version (but let’s discard Henry and replace him with the brothers’ father instead, King John I of Portugal, because the panel image is, in fact, a double portrait which I shall explain in a future post).

Silver-point portrait, A Man and his Falcon by Petrus Christus.

The low eyebrows and hooded eyelids can be matched, so can the thin upper lips and pronounced lower lips. But perhaps the most telling feature is the strong similarity of the ears. Hugo has adapted the firm brim of the hat to feature instead as the moustache, while Hugo adapts the falcon at the shoulder into an image of himself standing just behind the man in the chaperon representing John and his son Edward.

There are more elements in the drawing that link to other features and figures in the panel but better discussed as a separate topic in a future post.

So who is the man with the falcon in the silverpoint drawing? He bears a remarkable resemblance to the Burgundian duke Philip the Good who in 1430 married Isabella, daughter of King John I and sister of Edward. Compare the silverpoint drawing with two paintings of Philip by Rogier van der Weyden. Observe the large and similar ear, the low eyebrows and hooded eyes, the thin upper lip and full lower lip. Could the falcon dawng be a depiction of Philip the Good?

If so, then the kneeling woman in the Panel of the Prince could be said to be Isabella with her mother Philippa standing over her, and her father John, brother Edward and husband Philip all represented in the figure wearing the chaperon. This intimate connection could suggest that the painting may have been originally commissioned by Isabella herself. She died in December 1471. Petrus Christus died sometime in 1475 or 1476. Hugo van der Goes closed his workshop around 1477 and joined the Roode Klooster as a lay brother where he continued painting until his death, thought to be around 1482.

The date attribution for the silver point drawing is 1450. It’s kept at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt.

On the fifth day of Christmas…

“On the fifth day of Christmas my true love sent to me five gold rings…” is probably the most memorable line from the Christmas carol, The Twelve days of Christmas.

Another recognisable five-rings motif is the Olympic Games symbol created by Pierre de Coubertin who founded the International Olympic Committee. The educator and historian was also a talented designer.

The original flag displayed for the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games. Source: olympics.com

The five-rings design first saw the light of day during preparations for the 1914 Olympic World Congress in Paris, but is wasn’t until after the First World War that the symbolic flag made its official world debut at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium.

Although the new Olympic flag was displayed in the stadium throughout the four weeks of the Games, the symbol wasn’t incorporated on the 90,000 posters printed in 17 languages advertising the event.

The poster features a naked discus thrower as a reference to the Games of Antiquity. The figure is wrapped in a ribbon of national flags representing the competing nations. The coat of arms of the host city Antwerp – a castle with three towers, two hands and a wreath of laurel and six roses – is placed in the top right corner. In the background is the city of Antwerp and one of its most notable landmarks, the tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Antwerp.

The Cathedral is approximately five kilometres from Antwerp’s Olympic Stadium, now home to the Belgian football club, Beerschot. It houses a stunnng set of the Stations of the Cross painted by two Belgian artists, Louis Hendrix and Frans Vinck. The 14 paintings were produced between 1864 and 1868.

The fourth station – Jesus meets his mother – is attributed to Hendrix. Like Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, it is structured as a coat of arms. The group of supporters on the left side of the frame depicts the Virgin Mary, John the Evangelist, Mary Magdalene, Mary Clophas and Joanna the wife of Chuza.

All five figures of the group are presented with halos shown as five gold interlocking rings!

So while the Olympic five-rings flag was flown only at the stadium during the month-long event, a similar motif had been present and on display in Antwerp for 50 years prior to the 1920 Olympic Games. I sometimes wonder if Pierre de Coubertin was aware of the connection to the “five gold rings” in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Antwerp.

Fishers of men… and shekels

I ended my previous post pointing to some of the iconography attached to the figure of St James the Lesser and made mention he was presented as a sower of the word of God – but there’s more.

His blue cap is the shape of a fish head, the strap represents a fishing line. This is a pointer to another passage from Matthew’s gospel (17:24-27) when Peter was asked if Jesus paid the Temple tax. Jesus gave instructions to Peter: “Go to the lake and cast a hook; take the first fish that bites; open its mouth and there you will find a shekel; take it and give it to them [the tax collectors] for me and for you.”

Notice James’ opened mouth shaped as the lips of a pouting fish, his silvery teeth and hook-shaped moustache. The shekel can also be identified in the sickle shape of the blue cap and tie. The work “sicle” was an Old French term for shekel.

The combination of the hook and the blue cap also serves as another narrative, that of the Hook and Cod Wars fought in the County of Holland from 1350 to 1490. The Hook and Cod reference appears in other works associated with the Van Eycks. Jan van Eyck has made a similar reference in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

The term “Cod” referred to a trawling net and introduces a further fishing narrative that relates to when Jesus called Simon Peter and Andrew to follow him and become “fishers of men”. Peter is the figure in green placed next to James the Lesser. Cod can also be understood as a pun on the word “God” – or the “word of God”.

This area of the “Witnesses to the Old Testament” is teeming with biblical references and I shall point out more and their connections in my next post.

The sons of Alphaeus

Two disciples of Jesus are named in the New Testament as sons of Alphaeus: Matthew the evangelist and James (the Less). But in the 13th century Golden Legend collection of hagiographies the compiler Jacobus de Varagine links two more sons to Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot and Jude Thaddeus who were sons of Mary Clophas, suggesting perhaps they were half-brothers to Matthew and James.

The Van Eycks have placed the four men together in the group of “Witnesses of the Old Testament” from the lower corner section of the Adoration of the Lamb panel in the Ghent Altarpiece.

Matthew’s hat is shaped as a white pearl and refers to the parable told by Jesus known as the Pearl of Great Price. Only Matthew’s gospel (13:44-46) records this parable.

Matthew’s brother is referred to as James the Less as there was another disciple named James (the Great) among the twelve apostles commisioned by Jesus to go out and sow the word of God and proclaim the kingdom of Heaven.

Both James’s are depicted wearing a type of berry cap worn by field workers. See the example alongside of the sower planting seed in the October folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry.

John, duke of Berry, originally commisioned the Limbourg brothers to produce his Very Rich Book of Hours but they were never able to complete the work. The three brothers all died in 1416, as did the duke of Berry, most likely from the plague.

A closer look at James the Less reveals more detail about the connection to the Limbourg brothers and John of Berry. Firstly, the assumption that the men died from the plague, a disease that swept Europe at various times and was associated with the fleas of rats. The chin tie hanging from the cap is a visual reference to infer a rat’s tail. This in turn links with the figure in red above James – Judas Iscariot – the disciple who betrayed Jesus. He also is shown with iconography symbolising a rat.

The Duke of Berry’s Book of Hours has a calendar section depicting the labours of the month. The October page already mentioned is the month of tilling and sowing. Each calendar page is crowned with a semi-circle depicting signs of the zodiac related to the paticular month.

Several of the figures in the group of “Witnesses of the Old Testament” are also linked to celestial constellations. James the Less is one such figure. He represents Ursa Minor or the Lesser Bear. I revealed in a previous post that the hands of the nearby figure in green, one of which points in the direction of James, represents the composition of seven stars known as Ursa Major, the Great Bear.

The Van Eycks always confirmed links and connections in more ways than one, hence why I explain the method of constructing the picture as like fitting pieces of a jigsaw. A piece or reference rarely stands alone, it always has two or more connecting pieces.

So here’s another piece of the jigsaw to connect to the head of James the lesser that confirms the link to the Duke of Berry, his Book of Hours and the Lesser Bear.

Notice the “button nose” given to James. It is meant to mirror the “button nose” of John of Berry. A profile of the duke appears in the January calendar page of his Book of Hours. Notice too in this depiction John’s hands are shaped as bear claws, acknowledging his fondness for the small domesticated bear he kept as a pet. The bear is even sculpted on John’s tomb, but with human hands! And this brings the connection back to the hands of the figure in green symbolising the Great Bear constellation with human hands.

More on the sons of Alphaeus in my next post.

Matching pairs

For some time now I’ve been propounding the theory that the St Vincent Panels were produced by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes and not Nuno Gonçalves, the Portuguese artist to whom the work is currently attributed.

St Vincent Panels, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon.

I mentioned in a post last month that the St Vincent Panels could be the painting the German humanist Hieronymous Münzer referred to 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 didn’t mention Hugo by name, but historians generally agree that Münzer was referring to Van der Goes.

And in another post made as far back as April 2020, I pointed out the likeness of Hugo and his father in the Prince section of the St Vincent Panels.

Last month I came across further evidence to support my theory. It’s embedded in the Adoration of the Lamb that forms part of the Ghent Altarpiece, the section I’ve posted on these past few days and referred to as Witnesses of the Old Covenant.

Late in his life Hugo van der Goes suffered a mental breakdown and in 1482 made an attempt to self harm, perhaps even to take his own life. He was placed in the care of Prior Thomas of the Red Cloister community which Hugo had entered as a lay brother around 1477.

Gaspar Ofhuys, the community’s chronicler, recorded that Prior Thomas Vesem suspected Hugo was “vexed by the same disease by which King Saul was tormented”. The Prior recalled that whenever “David took the harp and played, then Saul grew calm, and recovered, and the evil spirit left him” (1 Samuel 17:21). He arranged for “a melody be played without restraint in the presence of brother Hugo” to dispel the delusions and thoughts he was having of being a lost soul heading for damnation.

Hugo’s attempt at self harm, seemingly with a sickle, mirrors King Saul’s suicide when “he took his own sword and fell on it” (1 Samuel 31:4).

My previous post identified the figure wearing the crushed gold hat as King Saul. The face half-hidden by the edge of his hat is Samuel who anointed Saul as King. In front of Saul dressed in royal purple is Saul’s successor David, who would play the harp for the tormented king to calm him. Notice the harp-shaped peak of David’s headdress.

Detail from the Adoration of the Lamb, Ghent Altarpiece. Image source: Closer to Van Eyck

Van Eyck, be it Jan or Hubert, has applied two further identities, King Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas, to the figure in the gold hat, which is sometimes referred to as a ‘solar’ or ‘tyrant crown’. It was the son who gave the order for the beheading of John the Baptist, seen placed in front of Herod’s left cheek. The head of Herod is turned, and in the guise of the son’s father his right cheek faces toward the head of Jesus. It was Herod the Great who ordered the death of all male children under the age of two in an attempt to kill the infant Jesus who he considered a threat to his throne.

The child’s foster father Joseph was warned in a dream to take Jesus and his mother into Egypt to escape the danger and the family remained in the land of the pharoahs until Herod was dead. King Herod died in excruciating agony. So severe was the pain, he attempted suicide with a knife but was thwarted by a family member.

The bald-headed figure of Joseph looks down at the representation of the winged Holy Spirit in the blue-peaked cap worn by Heli, the father of Joseph. This Egyptian-styled crown suggests a celestial connotation, represented by the structured pattern of starry lights. Here the Van Eycks have added another narrative to the scene that points to a new light, a paradisical light of heavenly constellations. I shall identify these in a future post. The constellations theme was recognised by Hugo van der Goes who translated the idea to the St Vincent Panel of the Knights.

The placement of Christ the King – yet to be fully revealed – alongside King Herod and King David can also be understood as a reference to the Magi or Three Kings who were guided by a rising star to Bethlehem to pay homage to Jesus the newborn King of the Jews. The Magi theme can also be recognised in the St Vincent Panels.

Father and son, or Hugo’s spiritual director Prior Thomas Vessem?

The Saul/Herod portrayal links two suicides and one attempt at self-slaughter and so makes the connection to the bid by Hugo van der Goes to take his own life. Hugo has adapted some of the representations from this section of ‘witnesses’ and translated them to the Panel of the Prince to make reference to his state of mind and recovery. The crushed hat worn by Saul and its reference to the sun/son is mirrored in the depression or hollow depicted in Hugo’s hat. The foster father figure of Joseph is adapted to portray Prior Thomas Vessem who nursed Hugo back to recovery, or even an image of his own father standing cheek-to-cheek with his son.

Other elements from the Van Eycks’ group of ‘witnesses’ are translated by Hugo to not only the Panel of the Prince, but also to other sections of the St Vincent panels.

Detail from the Panel of the Prince, St Vincent Panels

The figure of King David seen holding a branch to signify a new line of succession (the House of David) can be matched to the figure of Joao, the first Portuguese king of the House of Aviz. Beneath his hands, the gold strands on the hat of his first-born son Alfonso, cascading like leaves on a palm tree – a play on words on the Psalms of David and Hugo’s response to the musical stringed harp shaped in King David’s headdress.

King Joao’s hand’s are shaped to form a chevron, an heraldic device to signify the roof of a house (of Aviz). The two hands are also a pointer to the representation of Joao being a double image, father and son, Joao and Duarte, similar to how the Van Eycks portrayed the two Herods, father and son, as one image, and so another motif adopted and recrafted by Van der Goes from the Witnesses to the Old Testament. Both Joao and Duarte died from the plague.

This ‘discovery’ provides a solution to the identity of the young boy alongside the double image of Joao and Duarte, that of Afonso I, the son of Duarte who inherited his father’s throne at the age of six after his father’s death in 1438.

The resurrected figure of St Vincent is matched to the resurrected figure of Jesus, his golden hair mirrored by St Vincent’s gold nimbus. The boat-shaped collar on St Vincent’s dalmatic is matched to the red and gold ark-shaped hat of Eli, the figure placed immediately above Jesus. And the red bell-shape crown of Eli’s hat is echoed by the bell-shape hat worn by St Vincent.

More on this and details of further connections between the Witnesses of the Old Testament and the St Vincent Panels in a future post.

Like assembling pieces of a jigsaw…

Like the Just Judges panel where the identity of each rider has a connection to one next to it, as if they were jigsaw pieces fitted together, so too the figures featured in the Witnesses of the Old Testament.

For instance, the three central figures in the detail below, the prophet Isaiah wearing the red chaperon, and two men behind him, John the Baptist and the poet Virgil, all connect a way to relate to prophecies made by Isaiah – “The wolf will live with the lamb…” (11:6); “A voice cries in the wilderness, prepare a straight way for the Lord…” (40:3); and the Saviour as a sheep “burdened with the sins of all of us…”(53:6).

Detail from the Adoration of the Lamb, Ghent Altarpiece. Image source: Closer to Van Eyck

Virgil, as a Roman represents the Capitoline Wolf, the symbol of Rome since ancient times. John the Baptist replied to the question put to him by the men sent by the Pharisees to ask who he was, by saying: “I am, as Isaiah prophesied, a voice that cries in the wilderness, make a straight way for the Lord.” The next day, seeing Jesus coming towards him, John said to his disciples, “Look, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

The muzzle and shape of an ear depicting the sacrificial lamb of God is shaped into Isaiah’s red chaperon, not an unfamiliar feature in the work of Jan van Eyck. Virgil also makes reference in his First Eclogue to a tender lamb often staining the altar, and offered to a god who gives peace.

The second line of Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming of the virtuous king is also referred to: “The leopard lies down with the kid (goat)…(11:6)” This is illustrated in the two figures above Virgil, the apostles Philip and Peter. The fur rim of Peter’s hat represents the spotted leopard lying down while Philip’s unusual-shaped profile with its narrow eyes, and the two black horns shaped into his hat represent the goat.

I mentioned in my previous post that some of the figures in the group have been given double identities (even more in some instances). Virgil is also cast in more than one role, not just as a poet in his own right but as a companion who acted as one of three guides to the soul of poet and philospher Dante Alighieri during the writer’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in Dante’s Divine Comedy, “an allegory of human life”.

As Dante starts his journey he is confronted by three beasts, a lion, a leopard and a she wolf. He is rescued by Virgil and the pair continued their travels together. Two of the beasts, the lion and the she-wolf, are depicted in the beards of Virgil and St Peter, but the figures need to be turned upside down to recognise the feature. St Peter’s beard represents the she-wolf, while the beard belonging to Virgil portrays the lion.

Upside down… left: the merged representation of a she-wolf and a she-bear and, right, the lion.

The upside down feature also points to a second identity the Van Eycks applied to Virgil, that of Simon Magus, the ‘magician’ described in the Acts of the Apostles who offered money to be able to receive the power to call down the Holy Spirit on people. His name has since extended to the word “simony”, understood and considered sinful as “selling church offices and sacred things”. Virgil and Dante met with Simonists in the Inferno level of the Divine Comedy. The Simonists were “upside down in round holes the size of baptismal fonts”.

The figure of St Peter is also portrayed in the guise of another Pope, Nicholas III, who Dante placed in hell among the Simonists. Nicholas reveals himself in the poem as the son of a she-bear. The family name was Orsini, meaning “bearlike”. In the papal representation of Nicholas the bear reference is indicated by the shape and visible fingers of the two hands. They represent the stars and formation that combine to form the Great Bear constellation. The pronounced vein seen on the right hand represents an adjacent constellation to the Great Bear known as Draco, that forms the shape of a serpent dragon.

The leopard attribute is the one revealed earlier on the rim of St Peter’s hat. This may be a subtle reference by the Van Eyck’s to Dante’s run-in with Church authorities and his belief that the authority of kings and emperors was not dependent on the authority of the Pope but descended from the “fountain of universal authority” which is God. This creed could also explain one of the reasons why Jan van Eyck included a fountain feature below the altar in the Adoration of the Lamb panel.

The St Peter figure as head of the Church points to another connection concerning the travels of Virgil and Dante. Because Virgil was unbaptised (depicted with his back to John the Baptist), he was prevented from entering Paradise as Dante did in the Divine Comedy. Virgil remained in Limbo, along with oher souls considered by the Church as “virtuous pagans”. The Van Eycks have illustrated this by separating the figure of Virgil and that of Dante (a second identity given to the Judas figure) with the portrayal of St Peter as first pope and representing the Church. St Peter’s raised hand can also be interpreted as indicating no entry into the green pastures of Paradise for the unbaptised Virgil.

Left: Dante Alighieri by Sandro Botticelli. Right: The dual image of Dante and Judas.

The composition is carefully crafted and constructed because now the dual identity of the the figure in red as both Judas and Dante introduces another narrative – that of wasted talents – which I will detail in a future post.

More names added to list of “Witnesses”

So far, I’ve named 15 of the figures out of 50 that make up the group described as Witnesses of the Resurrection: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who wrote the four Gospels; Judas, Jude, Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip and Nathaniel (also identified as Batholomew), disciples of Jesus; Moses and his brother Aaron; Jesse the father of King David; Isaiah the Israelite prophet; and the statuesque figure of the Roman poet Virgil.

Detail from the Adoration of the Lamb, Ghent Altarpiece. Image source: Closer to Van Eyck

Here are some more: John the Baptist is tucked in behind Virgil and at the Baptist’s right side is King David. Immediately behind David is the half-hidden figure of Jesus. On the left of Jesus is King Saul wearing the crushed golden crown symbolic of his depression, and on the Saviour’s right in the blue peaked cap is Heli, the father of Mary’s husband Joseph. Joseph is the bald-headed figure looking down at his father’s peaked hat shaped to represent the Holy Spirit who Jesus was conceived by. Above and to the right of Joseph is Eli, the judge and high priest who raised Samuel as his successor, the half hidden face behind Eli.

To the left of Heli are Jacob and Esau, sons of Isaac who is placed immediately behind and between the pair. Issac’s half-brother Ishmael stands behind Esau and his red chaperon. Abraham, the father of Issac and Ishmael is the figure wearing the green hat and positioned at the rear of his grandson Jacob.

That’s another 13 identities to add to the 15 revealed earlier, making a total of 28 from the 50 figures in the group. The remaining figures are not so clear cut, especially as some have been given double identities, but I will reveal more in a future post.

Witnesses to the Miracle of the Loaves

Today is St Andrew’s Day, so what better time than now to point out this early follower of Jesus in the line-up of Witnesses to the Old Testament. He’s the faired-haired figure wearing the blue-cushioned, crown-shaped hat.

Andrew was the brother of Simon Peter, hence his proximity to the figure wearing the blue-domed hat. Peter was renamed Cephas by Jesus, meaning Rock. The blue dome represents the colour of the semi-precious stone Lapis Lazuli, sometimes referred to as a ‘heavenly stone’.

To the right of Andrew is the disciple Philip and on his right, Nathaniel, “an Israelite incapable of deceit”.

Chapter six in John’s gospel records the event known as the Miracle of the Loaves. A large crowd had followed Jesus to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He asks Philip: “Where can we buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip answered: “Two hundred denari would only buy enough to give them a small piece each”. Andrew arrived on the scene and reported: “There is a small boy here with five barley loaves and two fish, but what is that between so many?” Jesus then told the disciples to make the the people sit down on the grass in groups of about 50. There are 50 figures in the group of Witnesses to the Old Testament. After the people were fed and satisfied, the scraps that were left over and picked up filled twelve bastkets.

Andrew’s hat represents the boy’s basket of five loaves and two fish. Notice the two blue fish shapes and the five spots representing the five loaves. Behind Andrew and his group are what appear to be blue and white flowers. These represent the scraps left over from the meal.

Shining a light on the “Witnesses to the Old Testament”?

Adoration of the Lamb, Ghent Altarpiece. Image source: Closer to Van Eyck

Hubert and Jan van Eyck sourced two biblical passages as a basis for the composition of the Lamb of God panel in the Ghent Altarpiece. One is the prophecy by Isaiah when he spoke of the Coming of the Virtuous King and the Return of the Exiles (11:1-16, 12: 1-3); the other is the Feeding of the Multitude account recorded in all four gospels.

Isaiah stated that the Lord “will bring back the scattered people of Judah from the four corners of the earth (11:12), hence the four groups of people gathered around the altar and mirroring the four corners of the earth. They stand on ceremony waiting to be fed by the Lamb of God, to eat and drink from the Lord’s table, as did the apostles who shared the Passover meal with Jesus at the Last Supper.

In the section referred to as Witnesses to the Old Covenant the figures are pieced together with more biblical references, each figure dependent or related to another. In some instances the figures are grouped in threes, having a particular common connection.

Other figures in the group of ‘Witnesses’ have more that one identity. This pairing or doubling-up process can be understood in three ways – firstly as a pointer to the miracle of the multiplication of loaves (John 6:1); secondly in the way that Jesus sent out the disciples in pairs to proclaim the gospel (Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1); and thirdly as both clean and unclean ‘saved’ creatures of the earth entering Noah’s ark two by two (Genesis 7:9). All three ways point to God’s saving grace and entry to the “Heavenly Jerusalem”.

The apostles are featured in a unique way and mirrored in two groups: as prophets linked to those from the Old Testament in the foreground group on the left side of the fountain, and in the facing group on the right side of the fountain.

There is also a distinct difference within the group of Witnesses to the Old Covenant, compared with the people represented in the other groups who are mostly focused on the Lamb of God present on the altar. In the Old Covenant group almost half the number have their heads raised, looking heavenwards and not at the altar. They are witnesses to some kind of celestial phenomenon which has caused their faces to light up. This cues another narrative expressing the “Heavenly Jerusalem”, a symbolic chart of constellations. Van Eyck, be it Hubert of Jan, takes the reference to constellations to pun with the word consolation and point to the opening words of chapter 40 from the Book of Isaiah: “Console my people, console them” says your God. “Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call to her that her time of service is ended, that her sin is atoned for…”

Also embedded in the group of witnesses are several passages from both the Old and the New Testament, which helps to explain why the Van Eyck brothers have linked Old Testament prophets to the Apostles and followers of Jesus. For instance, the number of opened books is five, representing the Pentateuch or the first five books of the Torah, the Hebrew Bible. The five books can also refer to the first five books of the New Testament, four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Viewed as the New Testament the books help identify four of the figures that the four gospels are attributed to, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Matthew is the disciple in the front row wearing the white turban. The bald-headed figure to his left is Luke. On Matthew’s right wearing the red hat is Mark, and behind him is John.

Matthew’s hat is shaped as a white pearl and refers to the parable told by Jesus known as the Pearl of Great Price. Only Matthew’s gospel (13:44-46) records this parable. This exclusion theme is linked and applied to the identity of Mark.

The gospels of Mark and Matthew both tell of the time the Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign from heaven. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus responds saying the only sign the evil and unfaithful generation will be given is the sign of Jonah [when he was in the belly of the beast for three days and three nights]. In Mark’s gospel Jesus responds to the Pharisees by saying “no sign shall be given to this generation” (8:11-12) and makes no mention of Jonah.

Jonah’s sea monster

Notice that Mark’s right hand is covered. It is shaped as a sea monster raising itself from the blue turban representing turbelent water. The sea monster’s jaws are open, symbolic of releasing Jonah the prophet, preacher of the word of God, from the depths of disaster and death, an event that forshadowed the saving death and resurrection of Jesus after three days in the tomb. So although Mark’s gospel excludes the mention of Jonah, the Van Eyck’s have emphasised the point by resurrecting the link to Jonah and binding it to Mark.

Mark the Evagelist

There are two other visual clues to identify Mark. His hair is shown as a lion’s mane and the sides of his hat are shaped as wings, for Mark is symbolised in art as the winged lion mentioned in the Book of Revelation (4:7). As to the shape of the hat’s crown, this represents the jar of nard oil that was used to anoint the head of Jesus in the house of Simon the leper (Mark4:1-9). The passage describing this event falls in the fifth and last section of Mark’s gospel which relates the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. It comes immediately before the short account of Judas approaching the chief priests and offering to betray Jesus. The colour of the jar represents the colour of the blood shed by Jesus. The hat’s wings also represent his rising from the dead, his resurrection.

Judas, a repentant betrayer of Jesus

The neck of the oil jar points to another figure in the scene, that of Judas, dressed in the same colour as the jar. His head is turned away from the altar and looking at the viewer. Judas was one of the people who complained that the anointing was a waste of expensive perfume which could have been sold and the money given to the poor (John 12:5). The aromatic nature of the perfume explains why another apostle, Jude – placed left of Mark – is portrayed with his nose close to the jar of anointing oil.

The Van Eycks add further links to the anointing theme. As Jude’s nose absorbed the scent of the nard oil, so also does the nose of Judas absorb the scent produced by the anointing of SimonPeter, christened by Jesus as Cephas, meaning rock. Peter was commissioned and therefore anointed as the first priest of Christ’s chuch on earth.

Peter the Apostle and Aaron – both called to be High Priests

Mirrored on the opposite side of the group is Aaron, commissioned by God to be the High Priest of the Israelites and annointed by Moses his brother. Yaweh said to Moses: You must also anoint Aaron and his sons and consecrate them, so that they may be priests in my service. Then you are to say to the sons of Israel, ‘You must hold this chrism [oil] holy from generation to generation. It is not to be pured out on the bodies of common men, nor are you to make any other of the same mixture. It is a holy thing; you must consider it holy. Whoever copies the composition of it or uses it on a layman shall be outlawed from his people’” (Exodus 30:30-33).

Close inspection of Aaron’s face shows beads of oil running down his face after his anointing.

The seven column markings on the fur fringe of Aaron’s hat, represent the seven lamps of the Temple menorah kept lit continuously with olive oil. The menorah was also a symbol for the early Christians, hence the similar markings on Peter’s fur-rimmed hat. The blue dome represents the dome of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the colour blue being a symbol of heavenly holiness.

The Jonah reference, the leper’s house and the jar of oil all connect to two other figures in the group of Witnesses to the Old Testament. I shall describe more about this and the Judas connection in a future post.

“Witnesses of the Old Covenant”

The Ghent Altarpiece was in the art media spotlight recently. New research has revealed an elaborate under-painting in the The Adoration of the Lamb centre panel and scholars have attributed this to Hubert van Eyck. Their findings also suggest that some of the finished figures were painted by Hugo, some by his brother Jan, and others by the hand of both painters.

Detail from The Adoration of the Lamb panel of the Ghent Altarpiece

A diagram of a section of the panel was published by the research group at KIK-IRPA indicating some of the attributions made by the researchers. Shown below is the group painted in the bottom left corner of the panel. The red markers represent the hand of Jan, the yellow markers the hand of Hubert, and the orange markers indicate figures worked on by both artists.

Saint Bavo’s Cathedral Ghent © Lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw, photo KIK-IRPA

I’m not aware of any extensive research available in the public domain Identifying the 50 figures in this group and any of its themes or underlying narratives, but art historian Bernhard Ridderbos states the gathered group are “witnesses of the Old Covenant, among them the Roman poet Virgil, holding wreath of a laurel, who was thought to have foretold the coming of the Messiah”. Ridderbos continues: “Beside him is Isaiah “who holds a twig, in token of his prophecy of Christ as a ‘rod out of the stem of Jesse’ (Isaiah 11 :1)”

What the historian didn’t mention is that the figure in green standing next to Isaiah is in fact the mentioned Jesse, hence his covered right hand depicted as a stump. Standing to the right of Jesse is the lawgiver Moses, and slightly behind the prophet’s right side is his brother Aaron.

If Hubert van Eyck (pictured right) was responsible for the concept then he must have made notes or shared his rationale at some time with his brother for Jan to have made sense of the carefully planned construction and placement of figures and go on to complete the painting which, unsurprisingly, is mirrored in parts with the group of figures in the botton right corner of the frame that Ridderbos described as “witnesses to the New Covenant”.

I’ve recently identified almost all of the figures in this scene, its preconceived concept, and embedded narratives. My next series of posts will deal with revealing the so-called “witnesses of the Old Covenant”.

Mirroring Jan van Eyck

In previous posts I’ve proposed that the St Vincent Panels were inspired by the Ghent Altarpiece and Hugo van der Goes was the artist, not the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves to whom the current attribution is given.

It’s very possible the St Vincent Panels could be 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 mental breakdown late in life.

Several references in the St Vincent Panels are made to the work of Jan van Eyck – and also to some of his contemporaries.

Jan van Eyck’s style of ‘mirroring’ and ‘translating’ motifs and themes from other works is emulated by Hugo van der Goes in the St Vincent Panels, not as an attempt to surpass Jan in greatness but to pay tribute to the painter, similar in the manner that Van Eyck paid tribute to his brother Hubert by incorporating references to some of his brother’s works in the Ghent Altarpiece. After all, it was Hubert who was commissioned to produce the altarpiece in the first place, but following his untimely death in 1426 Jan was invited to complete the work started by his brother.

Comparisons can be made between the four outer St Vincent panels with the four outer panels in the lower register of the Ghent Altarpiece. Here, Van der Goes has applied a ‘mirror’ technique in the arrangement and content of the four outer St Vincent panels, and transferred or ‘translated’ some of the motifs and features from the Ghent Altarpiece.

The first panel on the left side of the opened register in the GA is titled: The Just Judges. This is mirrored and positioned as the panel on the far right of the SVPs and titled the Panel of the Relic. In reality, it features two judges who took part in the trial of St Joan of Arc, Cardinal Henry Beaufort and Pierre Cauchon. Both men can also be identified in the Just Judges panel, as can Jan and Hubert van Eyck who also feature in the Panel of the Relic.

The second panel in the GA is titled: Knights of Christ, and translated to the SVPs as the Panel of the Knights placed alongside the Panel of the Relic.

The third ‘mirrored’ panel from the GA is titled Hermits, and Panel of the Fishermen in the SVPs. The fishermen are those appointed by Jesus to be “fishers of men”, as are the hermits, some of whom can be identified as ‘desert fathers’ and preachers of the Gospel.

The fourth panel in the GA is titled Pilgrims and focused on the tall, bearded figure of St Christopher leading pilgrims across the river with Christ on his back. The motif of Christopher with Christ on his back is echoed in the Panel of the Friars, the first section of the SVPs. The tall bearded man is also translated as the bearded friar carrying a cross, a symbol of death and passage, or crossing over to a new life. He is a Christ-bearer.

On these comparisions alone it is enough to recognise that the Ghent Altarpiece was the main inspiration for the painter of the St Vincent Panels, be it Hugo van der Goes or Nuno Gonçalves, or even by both men, as in the GA being produced by the two brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

Most of the figures in the six panels of the St VIncent Altarpiece are ‘mirrored’ in some way, a recurrent theme in some of Jan van Eyck’s paintings to stimulate self examination by both painter and viewer.

Talking through hats

In January this year I posted an item titled “Telling tales about Chaucer”. It identified one of the figures in the January folio of the Très Riche Heure du Duc de Berry as the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. The post also explained the relationship between Chaucer’s grey cap and the red chaperon worn by the figure in green, one of whose identities is the painter Jan van Eyck.

The headwear of both figures represent a bird, Chaucer’s cap a pelican, and Van Eyck’s chaperon a legendary griffin. This figure in blue with its arm resting on Van Eyck’s shoulder represents the French heroine Joan of Arc.

The three-figure combination is a hat-tip by Barthélémy d’Eyck to Jan van Eyck and a similar motif painted in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece. The red-headed griffin is Joan of Arc, while the pelican-styled cap worn by the figure ahead of Joan is presented as Geoffrey Chaucer. Below them is the painter of the panel, Jan van Eyck.

By pairing the griffin with the pelican Van Eyck is referring to one of the pseudo-texts attributed to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which relates to a conversation overheard between a Pelican “without pride” and a Griffin of “grim stature”.

As for any link between Chaucer’s cowl and Van Eyck’s chaperon, this combination can be better understood as a reference to the Hook and Cod wars, “a series of wars and battles in the County of Holland between 1350 and 1490.” In Dutch the conflict is known as “Hoekse en Kabeljauwse twisten”. “Twisten” can also mean “dispute” or “quarrel” and even “twist”, which brings the connection back to the “twist” motif on top of the cushioned hat and its other links.

Chaucer’s hood is shaped as a trawl dragged behind a boat to catch fish – the bulging end is known as the “cod-end”. The tail of the Van Eyck’s chaperon is shaped to represent a hook. More on this here.

Of tales and tails

I explained in an earlier post that one of four identities Jan van Eyck applied to this figure in blue, featured in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, is the French heroine Joan of Arc.

And one of four identities applied to the rider beneath Joan is the prosecutor during her trial for witchcraft and heresy, the French bishop Pierre Cauchon.

Not only has Van Eyck rhymed the name Cauchon with ‘cushion’, the shape of the red hat, but also with the French word cochon, meaning pig. There is even a suggestion of a twisted pig’s tail – or tale – attached to the backside of the ‘cochon’ or cushion, suggesting the devious methods the prosecutor pursued to convict Joan of the charges against her.

The red cushion and its ‘tale’ or ‘tail’ is also portrayed as a bird nest, as is most of the headwear worn by the figures featured in the panel. This links to two literary works associated with Geoffrey Chaucer used as a source of reference in some areas of the altarpiece: The Canterbury Tales, and Parlement of Fowls.

The latter poem and the word Fowl is a ‘twist’ on the word ‘foul’. Here Van Eyck is intimating that a second identity given to the figure wearing the cushion-style hat, the French king Charles VI, had his nest fouled by an intruder, namely his brother Louis 1, duke of Orléans, who was rumoured to have conducted an affair with the queen consort Isabeau of Bavaria. Orleans is postioned behind Charles staring down at the twisted and salacious ‘Canterbury’ tail.

The Fox and the Cockerel

by JAN VAN EYCK

Having previously posted on Jan van Eyck’s self portrait, Man in a Red Turban, I recently discovered Van Eyck’s source of inspiration for the painting, a book authored in 1354 by Henri de Grosmont, First Duke of Lancaster; its title: Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines (The Book of Holy Medicines). A translation of the text into modern English by Catherine Batt was published in 2014 by ACMRS (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies).

It’s very likely Van Eyck possessed or had access to a copy of this book that can be described as a literary form of confession and penitence.

Written in the first person, the text also serves as a mirror for self examination by the reader. It focuses on the narrator’s spiritual wounds in a physical sense. Body parts, particularly those associated with the five senses, are described as gateways for the seven cardinal sins: pride, greed, anger, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth. Healing grace ministered by Christ the doctor, accompanied by his mother Mary, is compared allegorically with a variety of medicinal remedies used by the people in Henry’s time.

As a mirror of reflection, the book is echoed in Van Eyck’s self-portrait made with the aid of a mirror. The painter presents himself as both sinner and penitent.

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 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. For Christians, the cockerel also symbolises Christ’s resurrection.

By turning the chaperon 90 degrees clockwise it can be seen 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.

Another image to emerge at this angle is 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 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 is recognised as a ‘Pieta’, a subject in Christian art depicting Mary cradling her crucified Son.

The mother of Jesus resting her head against the Lamb of God.

Henry de Gosmont describes his heart as a whirlpool that swallows up all the sins of the world. Van Eyck has translated this as the passion and death of Christ whose self-sacrifice as the Lamb of God takes away or “swallows up” the sins of the world. Christ’s crucifixion and the Lamb of God are outlined in the “whirlpool” or “turbulent” presentation of the red turban. Jan was not slow to embed word-play in to his paintings. “Whirl and “world” is another example. Some observers may insist that Jan’s head-cover is actually a chaperon, but the artist’s intention was two-fold, both chaperon and turban.

Van Eyck also embedded the reference to chaperon as implied in “chaperone”, a person who accompanies and takes care of another individual or group, and in this instance the most obvious reference is the outline of the mother of Jesus who accompanied her Son on his way to Calvary, stood by him during his crucifixion, and was there to receive his body when it was taken down from the cross. The painting reflects Christ’s call for all to carry their cross and follow him. A similar message is mirrored in The Book of Holy Medicines In which Henry de Grosmont – “weak from his wounds and bodily sickness that he has lost his wits” – expresses his desire to be healed of his delirium, delusions and sinful thoughts in mind, body and spirit by meditating on the passion of Christ.

Grosmont’s remedy for healing his delirium is both practical and metaphorical. It was to place a cockerel on one’s head, “all split and dismembered and fully spread out, with the blood still hot […] the blessed cockerel who sang for us at dawn when we were in darkness and in shadows. […] I am the weak delirious wretch, and our precious Jesus Christ is the cockerel…” (translation by Catherine Batt, The Book of Holy Medicines, p217)

This remedy explains why Van Eyck has depicted the turban as the cockrel on his head. Batt also points to another treatise, Liber de Diversis Medicinis, which “recommends in cases of madness, a black cockerel, to be applied for three days”. This may also be the reason why Van Eyck is painted wearing a black coat.

Another description Grosmont applies to his heart is to liken it to a fox’s den of earth where the sinful creature of mischief retreats and hides during the day only to appear again at night under the cover of darkness to pursue its wicked vices. Grosmont relates how his eyes and ears, nose and mouth are all portals to the fox’s lair, his heart.

Apart from his portrayal as a cockerel, Van Eyck presents himself as an image of a fox. The entrance to his lair is the fox-trimmed collar; the small triangle shape depicts the white markings seen on a fox’s throat; his sharp nose points to the animal’s long snout, and his clamped thin lips to the long line of the fox’s mouth when closed. Van Eyck’s observant eyes depict those of a watchful fox eying its prey – the red cockrel disguised in the artist’s turban.

photo © Paul Cecil

Already mentioned is that the cockerel represents Christ. In this portrait the fox represents the Galilean ruler Herod Antipas. The combination of cockerel and fox refers to the passage from Luke’s gospel (13 : 32). When warned by some Pharisees that Herod meant to kill him, Jesus responded, “You may go and tell that fox this message: Learn that today and tomorrow I cast out devils and on the third day attain my end…” He was speaking about his three days in the tomb and resurrection on the third day.

Grosmont also relates his sins and heart to “when a salmon wants to reproduce and have its young, it swims far from the sea, upstream towards the mountains and changes its nature completely.” In other words, the nature of sin is regarded as deadly, once it has entered and reached the heart via the senses.

In this instance Van Eyck depicts an observant eye as the spawning ground for salmon, the portal where sin enters his heart. His eyelid is shaped as a ‘leaping’ salmon. The eye and its pupil can be understood as the egg and food sac, and the small highlights the gravel that covers the egg. One corner of the eye is seemingly the point of entry for salmon to spawn; the other corner is bloodshot and represents the sinful wound.

One of the seven ‘deadly’ sins Grosmont warns about in detail is “Lady Sloth”, a creature of comfort and laziness who arrives at the gate of his ear pleading to enter and once inside is reluctant to leave the castle that is his body. Sloth encourages the body to rest and tend to the needs of the soul “some other day”. Grosmont confesses to the Lord he has badly conducted the defence of his castle and guarded his heart, the tower stronghold, even less so.

Sloth (Choloepus Hoffmani) hanging upside down on a tree
Christ and the Sloth depicted hanging from a tree

In Van Eyck’s self-portrait the sin of Sloth is expressed as the animal of the same name noted for its slowness and hanging upside down on trees. He depicts it as the shape in the turban showing Christ crucified, hanging on a tree. The feature covers Van Eyck’s ear, the gate where Grosmont allowed sloth to enter his castle. Christ is also considered as a gate to a heavenly kingdom and his Church on earth, his body, as a holy temple which the gates of Hell can never prevail against (Matthew 16 : 18). Unlike Sloth whose work is never completed, Christ hangs upright on the tree and confesses that his redemptive mission on earth is achieved. His final words before lowering his head and giving up his spirit were: “It is accomplished” (John 19 : 30).

Mary the mother of Jesus as the ‘most sweet Lady”.

Mary the mother of Jesus also has a role in Grosmont’s treatise. She is presented as a “most sweet Lady” who dresses and bandages the wounds of the sinner. The bandages of “Mary’s Joys” is portrayed as Van Eyck’s “bandaged” turban, and Mary as a chaperone accompanying Jesus, shown as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1 : 29).

Jan van Eyck’s self-portrait is not the only painting the artist is associated with that has embedded references from The Book of Holy Medicines. The Three Marys at the Tomb is another work that testifies to Grosmont’s confession, so also is the Agony in the Garden folio from Les Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry.

I shall present more on this in a future post.

Previous posts about the Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban are at the following links:

Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban
Stay awake and keep watch
Jan van Eyck’s ‘Pieta’
A man under Mary’s mantle
Hugo’s hat-tip to Jan van Eyck

Confessions of Jan van Eyck

Some months ago, in June, an interesting report appeared about the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck. A discovery in the Vatican archives by historian Hendrik Callewier, director of Bruges State Archives, Belgium, revealed Van Eyck had requested a “confessional letter” from Pope Eugenius IV for himself and his wife Margareta.

It stated: “May Your Holiness be deemed worthy to grant Jan van Eyck and Margareta, his wife, from the diocese of Liège, perpetual confessional letters”.

Normal practice at the time was for the penitent to confesss their sins at least once a year in their own diocese. A “confessional letter” would grant the person permission to confess outside of their diocese. In Van Eyck’s case it is thought he wanted to confess in Rome.

The letter to Pope Euginius IV was dated 26 March 1441. Van Eyck died less than four months later, 9 July 1441.

The original document is lodged at Vatican City’s Apostolic Penitentiary Archive, Reg. Matrim. ey Divers. 2,f. 165v

So what’s with the detail of Van Eyck’s eye taken from his iconic self-portrait Man in a Red Turban (1433)? Well, the painting in itself is a confessional type portrait, a form which requires self-analysis and was likely produced with the aid of a mirror. Another mirror, a puzzler for some observers, is the one that features in the famous so-called Arnolfini Portrait (1434). Both paintings are housed in the National Gallery, London. The Arnolfini Portrait also contains confessional or penitential themes. In fact, it could be said that Van Eyck had a fixation about embedding penetential subject matter as there are other paintings attributed to him which link to pilgrimage and confession.

I intend to expand on Van Eyck’s mirror and confession themes in a future post, but in the meantime here’s a reminder that man’s soul-searching and for peace within echoes through every generation.

In 1934, exactly five hundred years after the completition of the Arnolfini Portrait featuring its famous mirror, Peter ‘Dale’ Wimbrow wrote a poem titled The Guy in the Glass.

When you get what you want in your struggle for pelf,
And the world makes you King for a day,
Then go to the mirror and look at yourself,
And see what that guy has to say.
For it isn’t your Father, or Mother, or Wife,
Who judgement upon you must pass.
The feller whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the guy staring back from the glass.
He’s the feller to please, never mind all the rest,
For he’s with you clear up to the end,
And you’ve passed your most dangerous, difficult test
If the guy in the glass is your friend.
You may be like Jack Horner and “chisel” a plum,
And think you’re a wonderful guy,
But the man in the glass says you’re only a bum
If you can’t look him straight in the eye.
You can fool the whole world down the pathway of years,
And get pats on the back as you pass,
But your final reward will be heartaches and tears
If you’ve cheated the guy in the glass.

More Samson connections

This post deals with more connections to the story of Samson found in the Agony in the Garden folio from the Turin-Milan Hours.

Turin-Milan Hours folio 30v, Agony in the Garden, Hand G,
Museo Civico d’Arte Antica of Turin

In my previous post I mentioned that ‘foxes’ had a role in the lives of both Samson and Jesus.

On one occasion Samson took revenge on the Philistines by a most unusual method. “He went off and caught three hundred foxes, then took torches and turning the foxes tail to tail put a torch between each pair of tails. He lit the torches and set the foxes free in the Philistines’ cornfields. In this way he burned both sheaves and standing corn, and the vines and olive trees as well” (Judges 15 : 4-5).

And responding to a scribe who said, “Master I will follow you wherever you go”, Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8 : 19-20).

Here, the artist is pairing the response of Jesus to the instruction he gave to his three disciples seen sleeping in the Garden of Gethsemane to “stay awake and pray not to be put to the test” (Matthew 26 : 41).

In Luke’s gospel (13 : 31-33) Jesus refers to the Galilean ruler Herod Antipas as a fox. Warned by some Pharisees that Herod meant to kill him, Jesus responded, “You may go and tell that fox this message: Learn that today and tomorrow I cast out devils and on the third day attain my end…” He was speaking about his three days in the tomb and resurrection on the third day, an event that happened soon after his capture by the cohort sent by the chief priests and Pharisees.

The artist has also made two visual references to foxes which connect to the two passages from the New Testament and to the story of Samson from the Book of Judges.

The hands of Jesus are shaped as the head of a fox, so too is the head of Jesus. Not only are his long ringlets intended to depict him as a Nazarite but they also represent the foxes tails set on fire by Samson. The ringlets also connect to the time Delilah asked Samsom what would be needed to bind him. Samson replied: “If you wove the seven locks of my hair into the warp of the web and fixed the peg firmly, I should lose my strength and become like any other man” (Judges 16 : 13).

This corresponds to when the cohort “seized Jesus and bound him” (John 18 : 12). Jesus offered no resistance, the illustration shows him with his hands coming together in prayer and in a manner of surrender to his Father, knowing the self sacrifice he is soon to make.

On three occasions Delilah called out to the sleeping Samson, “The Philistines are on you Samson!” Similarly, before Jesus was arrested by the cohort he found his disciples sleeping on three occasions.

Many of the elements from the Agony in the Garden are reworked into The Three Marys at the Tomb painting attributed to Hubert or Jan van Eyck, or even both.

The figure of Jesus praying to his Father in Heaven was also translated into the figure of William VI, Count of Holland, in another folio from the Turin-Milan Hours known as the Prayer on the Shore. Like Jesus, William is portrayed with his hands joined in prayer and his head looking up to God and his angels in Heaven. The pleats in William’s fur coat echo the ringlets rolling down from the head of Jesus.

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

Samson, a Nazarite to his dying day

The Agony in the Garden folio, which forms part of the Turin-MIlan Hours, portrays the time after the Last Supper when Jesus led three of his disciples to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. While Jesus went away to pray alone, the disciples Peter and the brothers James and John, fell asleep. Jesus prayed and asked for the cup (of suffering) to be taken away if it was his Father’s will. Twice he returned to waken the disciples. Returning a third time he told them to get up as the time had come for him to be betrayed. The cohort sent to arrest Jesus is portrayed behind the fence.

Turin-Milan Hours folio 30v, Agony in the Garden, Hand G, Museo Civico d’Arte Antica of Turin

There is an underlying narrative in the painting which connects to the rather indistinguishable figure in the blue hat. In a previous post I explained the figure is intended to represent a heifer and relates to the story of Samson, one of the last judges of ancient Israel featured in the Old Testament (Judges 13-16), parts of which are alluded to in the Agony in the Garden folio.

In some ways the story of Samson points to Jesus. An angel announced news of Samson’s birth to his infertile mother, as the angel Gabriel announced the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary.

Samson was a Nazarite; Jesus was a Nazarene from Nazareth.

‘Foxes’ had a role in the lives of both Samson and Jesus.

Samson confessed he would lose his strength if his hair was cut and his head shaved; the power of Jesus came from being the natural ‘heir’ to God’s throne as “the only begotten Son”.

Both Samson and Jesus sacrificed their lives with arms wide open; the blinded Samson was led to stand and push between two pillars; Jesus was nailed to a cross.

Whereas Samson’s sacrifice destroyed a nation of Philistines, the saving sacrifice of Jesus conquered death and saved the world.

Samson’s brothers and family took his lifeless body away and buried him in the tomb of his father Manoah. Followers and relatives of Jesus removed his body from the cross and buried him in the tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea.

The painting makes several other references to Scripture, most notably to verses from Proverbs 30. The artist has also taken verse 12 from Psalm 118 to describe the group sent to arrest Jesus: “They surrounded me like bees; they were extinguished as a fire of thorns. In the name of the Lord I will surely cut them off.”

This section and the verse from Psalm 118 is the starting point for translating the iconography that connects to Sansom.

The “extinguished fire of thorns” are the blackened spears, and the sharp pointed ends of the fence section where the group is “cut off” provides the clue for discovering the bees. Within the indents are four heads of men sent to arrest Jesus. The indented areas accommodate the “collars” of the men. “Collar” is a play on the word “colour” and the colours have a significance. Each “points” to the tail-end of a different type of colour of bee – hence a swarm of bees. In a similar way, the artist has coloured the gowns of Jesus and his three disciples to reference and name the Red Sea, the Sea of Galilee, the Mediterranean Sea, and the “waters under and above the vault (called heaven)” – see this link for details.

So what features portrayed in the cohort group relate to parts of the story of Sansom?

The roped head of Judas represents the new ropes Samson was bound with by Delilah. The long hair of the centre figure (Caiphas) represents the long hair of Samson grown in the tradition of a Nazarite, from which he claimed his strength. It also represents the mane of the young lion that Samson killed and tore to pieces with his bare hands. When Sansom later returned to the carcass he found it contained a swarm of bees and honey. And so we have the link back to the verse from Psalm 118 about the bees and the reference to honey (and the lion’s blood) to the colour on Caiphas’ chest or carcass area. Notice also the suggestion of part of the lion’s head on the man’s shoulder.

Another lion reference is disguised is the strands of hair of the centre figure. It represents the face of Jesus as the Lion of Judah. He is portrayed face to face with his betrayer, Judas, the figure with the roped hat, whose hair is shorn and beard cut short, just as Sansom was after he betrayed the secret of his strength to Delilah. The weakness in Judas became apparent when he betrayed Jesus to the Pharisees and led the cohort to him in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Embedded behind these two profiles are two other images that relate to extracting information and betrayal. The purple hat of the faceless figure directly behind Judas represents an olive. The blue hat of the figure next to it is the jar to receive the olive oil. It’s face is that of a heifer and a reference to Samson’s wife who betrayed her husband by revealing the answer to a riddle he had set the Philistines: “Out of the eater came what is eaten, and out of the strong came what is sweet.” The answer the Philistines gave was: “What is sweeter than honey, and what stringer than a lion?” Samson retorted: “ If you had not ploughed with my heifer, you would not have guessed the riddle.”

As oil is pressed from an olive, so the answer to the riddle was pressed or ploughed by the Philistine’s from Samson’s wife.

Notice also the figure with the blue hat is shown with only one eye, blind at that. It is ‘yoked’ or paired with the blind eye of Judas. The reference to blindness is also linked to when Samson was blinded by the Philistines shortly before his death and again to the earlier time he was blind-sided by Delilah in revealing the secret of his strength.

Another episode in the life of Samson was when he struck down a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey. The reference to the donkey’s jawbone is shown under the chin of the soldier in armour. The donkey’s long ears are indicated either side of the man’s jaw, but the shape of the jawbone weapon is emphasised on the right side of the face and under the chin.

The Samson references are extended to the kneeling figure of Jesus and also link to the three sleeping disiciples, but more about this in a future post.

Royal positions

Shown below are features from five different paintings which relate to each other in a specific way, and not just because each painting has a connection to a member of the Van Eyck family.

(1) November folio, Très Riche Heures, by Jean Colombe; (2 & 3) January folio, Très Riche Heures, by Bathélemy d’Eyck; (4) St Francis Receives the Stigmata, by Jan van Eyck; (5) Agony in the Garden, Turin-Milan Hours, attributed to Hand G, and likely Hubert or Jan van Eyck; (6 & 7) The Three Marys at the Tomb, by Hubert or Jan van Eyck.

The clue is the crouching stance taken by one or more figure in each example. The posture is a pointer to Edmund Crouchback (1245-1296), a son of the English Plantagenet king, Henry III, and also to Edmund’s own son, Henry of Lancaster (1281-1345).

The inspiration for this repeating theme was the Agony in the Garden miniature from which elements have been taken and translated, or reinterpreted, in the later paintings.

More on this in a future post.

More on the butterfly effect

This figure is another “butterfly” featured in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry. His name is Sir Thomas Blount, a supporter of Richard II. He served as a napier at Richard’s coronation banquet in 1377.

Thomas was a participant in the Epiphany Rising to restore Richard after the king was dethroned by Henry Bolingbroke in 1399. But the rebellion was unsuccessful and Thomas was captured and put to death at a place known as the Green Ditch on the outskirts of Oxford. His execution was brutal and recorded later by a chronicler as follows:

Sir Thomas Blount was hanged; but the halter was soon cut, and he was made to sit on a bench before a great fire, and the executioner came with a razor in his hand, and knelt before Sir Thomas, whose hands were tied, begging him to pardon him his death, as he must do his office. Sir Thomas asked, “Are you the person appointed to deliver me from this world?” The executioner answered, “Yes, Sir, I pray you pardon me.” And Sir Thomas kissed him, and pardoned him his death. The executioner then knelt down, and opened his belly, and cut out his bowels, and threw them into the fire. While Sir Thomas was dying, one Erpyngham, the king’s chamberlain, insulting Blount, said to him, in derision, “Go, seek a master that can cure you.” Blount only answered, “Te Deum laudamus! Blessed be the day on which I was born, and blessed be this day, for I shall die in the service of my sovereign lord, the noble King Richard”. His head was soon after cut off and he was quartered.

Elements of the execution are indicated in Blount’s portrayal. The location is referenced by the figure in green standing immediately behind Blount. The green colour represents the Green Ditch. One of the figure’s identities is the painter Jan van Eyck. Ditch can be translated as dyke, a pun on the name d’Eyck or Van Eyck. Blount’s hanging is matched to the string of beads around his neck and his beheading to the black collar. Quartering of the body is when limbs are severed from the torso, hence the surcoat’s serrated design. Other references to quartering are the folded napkin and the four pieces of bread on the table. As for Blount’s disembowelment, this is indicated by what appears to be a belt but actually represents where Blount’s belly was opened. Notice also the demonic feature, formed by part of the serrated edge, appearing to look into the opened wound. The markings on the front of the red section of the surcoat are best understood if the image is turned upside down. Now the jagged edges can be recognised as representing rising flames and the markings as the eyes seen of a peacock’s feathers. The peacock is symbolic of eternal life. The flames are also associated with the mythical phoenix but this relates to another narrative associated with the Van Eyck figure.

Detail from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

The account of Blount’s execution where its states he was made to sit on a bench before a great fire, is mirrored in the group of men seemingly warming their hands “before a great fire” as they are commanded to approach by the marshall. In this scenario “the great fire” can be understood as the fire of Hell. The artist has also made sure that the prelate, in the guise of Cardinal Henry Beaufort, is portrayed seated on a bench with his hands raised. This, too, relates to another narrative that connects with the Epiphany Rising and recorded in the Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers.

So how is Sir Thomas Blount portrayed as a butterfly by the artist Bathélemy d’Eyck? His wings are meant to represent a butterfly, wings that were torn from its body when he was tortured and executed after his capture.

Detail from the November folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry attributed to Jean Colombe

Jean Colombe picks up on this in his painting of the November folio in the Très Riche Heures. The two men in the wooded represent Jan and Hubert van Eyck (Hubert is a second identity applied to the Blount figure). They are clothed in white tops and wear black caps and stand apart, separated. This is a reference to Blount’s white and black wing features in the January folio. The figure of Barthélemy d’Eyck looking up is depicted in the process of shedding his outer coat to morph into a butterfly as the Van Eyck brothers. Notice his black cap and white undergarment, its hem shaped as a wing. In reality the artist is expressing Barthélemy’s conversion after witnessing a vision of the Lamb of God depicted among the oak trees. This is also a reference to another Van Eyck painting, The Stigmata of St Francis who is portrayed levitating when he is presented with a vision of the Crucified Christ portrayed as a six-winged seraph.

Detail from the November folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry