A recent discovery that a painting by the Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) has been exhibited upside down for 75 years has caused quite a stir in the art world. The Art, Law and More blog has details about the finding and artwork titled New York City 1.
I wonder if the detection will change any understanding or perception of the painting (or even the artist) now that it can be viewed from a different perspective?
Sometimes paintings require a degree of rotation, or to be mirrored, in order to convey further information.
Jan Van Eyck was not adverse to using this technique. Neither were Sandro Botticelli and Hugo Van der Goes. Even Rembrandt.
Examples of this approach can be seen at these links.
A feature which could be easily overlooked when viewing Botticelli’s painting of the so-called Birth of Venus (it wasn’t given that name until as late as the 19th century) is the cluster of tall bulrushes placed in the bottom left corner of the picture.
Art historians Ronald Lightbown and Frank Zöllner both point out that these species of rushes grow only beside freshwater and not a marine beach. Lightbown suggests Botticelli had not much knowledge of the sea strand, while Zöllner identifies the species as Typha latifoli, and surmises that the presence of bulrushes has an erotic significance and be regarded as phallic symbols.
That Botticelli has planted bulrushes alongside saltwater and not freshwater was deliberate, suggesting other elements and narratives within the painting are not what they appear to be, some clearly hidden or out of sight.
The four visible seed pods among the rushes can be compared with a similar motif present in Jan van Eyck’s famous painting known as the Arnolfini Portrait – the pair of pattens in the bottom left corner of the frame. This would suggest Botticelli was familiar with and probably had sight of the Arnolfini Portrait at some time. The Arnolfini family were wealthy cloth merchants based both in Bruge, Flanders, and also Lucca, Italy. Botticelli included several references to Lucca in his Primavera painting and to the Arnolfini Portrait. So it’s not by chance he borrowed another motif, the pair of pattens, to provide one explanation for the bulrushes.
Van Eyck’s pattens refer to a biblical passage from Exodus. They are arranged to represent the hands of a clock, one pointing to the number 3 position, the other to the number 5 position and so chapter 3, verse 5 of Exodus and the command given to Moses as he approached the burning bush: “Take off your shoes, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”
Notice the four pods of the bulrushes are split into two pairs. Although they are not pointing out of the frame but upwards instead, it can be safely understood that they also reference a passage from Exodus – chapter two, verse two – a passage that describes The Birth of Moses. The verse reads: “She conceived and gave birth to a son, and seeing what a fine child he was, kept him for three months.”
So who was this woman and her son that Botticelli alludes to? The passage from Exodus provides more clues, as do the bulrushes.
When the Hebrew mother could no longer conceal her child – Pharaoh had earlier decreed that all new-born Hebrew boys be drowned – the woman placed her child in a papyrus basket and laid it among the reeds beside the river. Later, the Pharaoh’s daughter and her maids were walking on the bank of the river when they discovered the child in its basket. A nurse was fetched. She happened to be the infant’s mother and was told to take the child and suckle it. “When the child grew up she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter who treated him like a son; she named him Moses because, she said, ‘I drew him out of the water’.” (Exodus 2 : 10)
That the infant Moses did not join Pharaoh’s family until he had grown is akin to Giulio de’ Medici, son of the assassinated Giuliano de Medici and Fioretta Gorini, being fostered by the family of Antonio Da Sangallo (the Elder) until the age of seven before he was handed over to the Medici family under the guardianship of his uncle Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Back to the bulrushes and the four seeded pods pointing in an upward direction to the winged couple usually described as the wind god Zephyr and his wife Chloris. She clings to Zephyr in a manner that suggests she is fearful of falling, despite having wings.
The woman is pregnant, but her swelling is hidden. Instead, Botticelli has exposed and framed the belly of Zephyr. Notice also the grip of the womans hands, and her fingers arranged to represent sexual union.
What is also noticeable is the wing of another bird wrapped around the right arm of Zephyr. Its elongated beak rests on his shoulder. The bird is depicted as a stork, perhaps symbolic of the bird associated with birth, but more likely the Egyptian hieroglyphic representing the soul or spirit.
So are the two flying figures modelled on Giuliano Medici and Fioretta Gorini? Fioretta, yes, but unlikely Giuliano. My understanding is that the flying angel represents Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli set out to identify him by association with Moses and the bulrushes, and the exodus from Egypt.
An early painting by Andrea del Verrocchio depicting the Baptism of Christ has a similar composition to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus except that Christ is the central figure while John the Baptist is the figure on the right with his arm raised in similar fashion to the Hora representing the season of Spring. The two kneeling figures are Leonardo da Vinci, with his back to the viewer, and Sandro Botticelli. But observe the bulrush with its seeded pod alongside the clearwater stream and placed in the left-hand corner of the frame pointing up to Leonardo. Rushes also surround the base of the garment that Leonardo holds ready to cover Christ with after his baptism.
So the bulrushes in the Birth of Venus painting can be understood as a device to make a connection to Leonardo and also find him, as Moses was, among the bulrushes.
There is another link to Leonardo and bulrushes, a drawing that is part of the Royal Collection Trust and described as “a study of a bulrush, with one seed-vessel”. Although the RCT dates the drawing between 1506 and 1512, other sources assign the drawing circa 1480.
As for linking Leonardo with Moses there is a series of frescoes in the Sistine Chapel depicting the life of Moses. Botticelli had a hand in producing some of these when he and a group of painters from Florence were sent by Lorenzo de’ Medici to Rome to decorate the newly-built chapel as an act of reconciliation and diplomacy between Florence and Pope Sixtus IV in the wake of the Pazzi Conspiracy (1478).
Two of the frescoes depict Leonardo face to face with Moses: The Trials of Moses in which Leonardo is portrayed as the Egyptian slain by Moses; and The Testament and Death of Moses which shows Leonardo in the guise of Joshua kneeling in front of the prophet receiving the baton of command as his successor.
Leonardo features in another part of the fresco (right) as being on trial after an anonymous accusation of sodomy was made against him. He is portrayed as a fallen angel, and for a reason which I shall reveal in my next post.
So what was the inspiration behind the composition of Botticelli’s Primavera, particularly the arrangement and placing of its figures.
Firstly, the direction of the flow of figures can be understood as pointing to the painting’s presence and influence of Leonardo da Vinci, the polymath whose mirror-style of writing in his notebooks started from the right side of the page and moved to the left. Other mirror or reflection features are also present.
But perhaps the most unexpected source of inspiration are two illustrations which appear in a 14th century history of Florence by Giovanni Villani, Nuova Cronica. They record the assassination of a young Florentine nobleman called Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti. He was murdered on Easter Sunday, 1216, the morning of his wedding day. Botticelli links this date to the death of Giuliano de’ Medici who was also assassinated on an Easter Sunday – in 1478 – while attending Mass in the Florentine church of Santa Maria del Fiore.
Figures from both illustrations can be matched to figures in the Primavera. I should point out at this stage that the group of three horses and the lone horse are matched to the group of Three Graces and the figure of Chloris. The groom holding the reins of the horse in the first illustration is matched to Zephyrus. The woman dressed in blue and raised on steps with her right hand extended and her left hand at her side can be compared to the figure of Venus. The woman’s family name is Donati. Her daughter in red, shielded in the doorway, is the inspiration for Flora. The arched windows can be compared to the arched silhouette behind the head of Venus, while the circular windows or roundels are echoed in the oranges. The figure wearing a brown gown is Buondelmonte. The side door to the building also features in the Primavera painting which I shall explain in a later post.
The second illustration depicts the slaughter of Buondelmonte. He has just crossed the Arno river via the Ponte Vecchio where the old Roman statue of Mars was located before it was swept away in a flood. Notice Mars is facing in the opposite direction of the nearest horse, in the same way he is depicted with his back turned to the nearest figure of the Graces. Notice also the pronounced tail of the horse and the ‘tail’ feature on the Grace figure. The horse saddle is another borrowed feature by Botticelli. He replaced this with Chloris’s cleft-shaped right hand about to be grafted onto Floris’s thigh.
An unusual feature seen on the three horses is the horn between their ears. The group can also be recognised as three mares. The word mare in Italian translates as ‘sea’. In this context Botticelli has referenced the Three Graces as the three seas that meet at Istanbul, the Marmara Sea, the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn (explained in an earlier post). Notice the golden horn hairstyle on the central figure. Her family name is also Donati. She is Lucrezia Donati, said to have been the platonic love of Lorenzo de’ Medici.
This is the account of Buonedelmonte’s assassination as it appeared in Villani’s Nouva Cronica:
In the year of Christ 1215, M. Gherardo Orlandi being Podestà in Florence, one M. Bondelmonte dei Bondelmonti, a noble citizen of Florence, had promised to take to wife a maiden of the house of the Amidei, honourable and notable citizens; and afterwards as the said M. Bondelmonte, who was very charming and a good horseman, was riding through the city, a lady of the house of Donati called to him, reproaching him as to the lady to whom he was betrothed, that she was not beautiful or worthy of him, and saying: “I have kept this my daughter for you;” whom she showed to him, and she was most beautiful; and immediately by the inspiration of the devil he was so taken by her, that he was betrothed and wedded to her, for which thing the kinsfolk of the first betrothed lady, being assembled together, and grieving over the shame which M. Bondelmonte had done to them, were filled with the accursed indignation, whereby the city of Florence was destroyed and divided. For many houses of the nobles swore together to bring shame upon the said M. Bondelmonte, in revenge for these wrongs. And being in council among themselves, after what fashion they should punish him, whether by beating or killing, Mosca de’ Lamberti said the evil word: ‘Thing done has an end’; to wit, that he should be slain; and so it was done; for on the morning of Easter of the Resurrection the Amidei of San Stefano assembled in their house, and the said M. Bondelmonte coming from Oltrarno, nobly arrayed in new white apparel, and upon a white palfrey, arriving at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio on this side, just at the foot of the pillar where was the statue of Mars, the said M. Bondelmonte was dragged from his horse by Schiatta degli Uberti, and by Mosca Lamberti and Lambertuccio degli Amidei assaulted and smitten, and by Oderigo Fifanti his veins were opened and he was brought to his end; and there was with them one of the counts of Gangalandi. For the which thing the city rose in arms and tumult; and this death of M. Bondelmonte was the cause and beginning of the accursed parties of Guelfs and Ghibellines in Florence, albeit long before there were factions among the noble citizens and the said parties existed by reason of the strifes and questions between the Church and the Empire; but by reason of the death of the said M. Bondelmonte all the families of the nobles and the other citizens of Florence were divided, and some held with the Bondelmonti, who took the side of the Guelfs, and were its leaders, and some with the Uberti, who were the leaders of the Ghibillines, whence followed much evil and disaster to our city, as hereafter shall be told; and it is believed that it will never have an end, if God do not cut it short. And surely it shows that the enemy of the human race, for the sins of the Florentines, had power in that idol of Mars, which the pagan Florentines of old were wont to worship, that at the foot of his statue such a murder was committed, whence so much evil followed to the city of Florence. The accursed names of the Guelf and Ghibelline parties are said to have arisen first in Germany by reason that two great barons of that country were at war together, and had each a strong castle the one over against the other, and the one had the name of Guelf, and the other of Ghibelline, and the war lasted so long, that all the Germans were divided, and one held to one side, and the other to the other; and the strife even came as far as to the court of Rome, and all the court took part in it, and the one side was called that of Guelf, and the other that of Ghibelline; and so the said names continued in Italy.source
That Botticelli sourced two illustrations from the Nuovo Cronica, which Villani was inspired to write after attending the first Christian Jubilee in Rome in 1300, suggests the artist may also have been similarly inspired to paint the Primavera after returning in 1482 from his year-long commission in Rome frescoing the Sistine Chapel. The Jubilee year was an opportunity for pilgrims to visit Rome, confess their sins and receive absolution from the Church
The oldest manuscript of the Nuovo Chronica is held in the Vatican Library, formally established in 1475 by Pope Sixtus IV. So could Botticelli have set eyes on this manuscript while he was in Rome?
What may have also inspired Botticelli to utilise the two illustrations from the Nuovo Cronica is the knowledge that Jan van Eyck took a similar approach when painting the Arnolfini Portrait. He sourced two illustrations from the Hungarian manuscript known as the Pray Codex to embed references to what is now referred to as the Turin Shroud. Like the Primavera, the Arnolfini Portrait has penitential and rebirth themes. The word Lent, a shortened form of the Old English word Lencten, means “Spring season” or “Springtime”, which translates in Italian as “Primavera”.
There is one other important manuscript that inspired Botticelli’s composition and lineup of figures he painted in Primavera.More on this in a future post.
“How can a grown man be born? Can he go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” These were questions the Pharisee called Nicodemus asked after Jesus had said to him, “I tell you most solemnly, unless a man is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”(John 3:3-4)
Jesus answered Nicodemus, “I tell you most solemnly, unless a man is born through water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5)
Botticelli referenced this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus in Primavera as a way of highlighting one of the painting’s main themes – rebirth, but not solely in the sense of the Renaissance period of his time. Rather, Botticelli’s aim was directed at highlighting the need for reformation of hearts and souls towards higher values than offered by the rebirth of Greek and Roman antiquity and its pagan overtones.
The wall of mythological figures in the Primavera serve as a facade that masks deeper truths. Art historians are generally in agreement when identifying the nine figures at an individual level, but struggle to recognise the purpose or role of the group as a whole – probably because the artist has deliberately composed an arrangement meant to suggest an overtone of discord which can never be reconciled – that is pagan mythology.
In referencing the Pharisee known as Nicodemus, Botticelli introduces another narrative that could be considered a myth in itself – the account of the Holy Face of Lucca, an ancient crucifix said to have been sculpted by Nicodemus and which miraculously found its way from Palestine to Lucca, a town about 60 miles east of Florence, in 782.
The legend records that Nicodemus fell asleep while sculpting the crucifix. He had completed most of the work except for Christ’s face. As he slept an angel appeared on the scene to finish the feature. Centuries later a bishop by the name of Gualfredo was directed in a dream to a cave in the Holy Land where he rediscovered the crucifix. He loaded the relic on a ship without sails or crew. The ship miraculously drifted out to sea and eventually berthed at Luni in Tuscany. However, every time the people of Luni attempted to board the ship it retreated out to sea again. Another bishop, Johannes of Lucca, dreamt that a ship transporting a holy relic had arrived in Luni and so he made his way to the port accompanied by clerics and many people from Lucca. When the Lucchese arrived at Luni they prayed to God and the ship returned to shore and opened its gangplank for the bishop to board.
The eight-foot-tall crucifix was brought ashore and loaded into a cart drawn by oxen. Once again it made what the people considered another miraculous journey – the cart had no driver – and arrived at the San Frediano church in Lucca. But it’s transfer didn’t end there. Another miracle occurred when the crucifix appeared unexpectedly in Lucca’s church of San Martino. It is still there today.
San Martino, or St Martin of Tours, also makes an appearance in the Primavera painting as one of many identities represented by the military figure standing at the end of the lineup, for which I shall present details in a future post.
In an earlier post I pointed out the iconography connecting St Luke, symbolised as an ox, with the central figure in the painting representing the Virgin Mary. This feature also links with the legend of the Holy Face relic and its journey or translation led by oxen to Lucca. Botticelli puns Luke with Lucca; he also make a comparison with the Holy Face coming to light again after its entombment and rediscovery in a cave with the resurrection of Jesus following his crucifixion and burial in a tomb carved out of rock.
The medallion worn by the Virgin Mary depicts the deposition of Jesus in his tomb. It is suspended above the Virgin’s swollen belly, indicating her expectancy of new life. In this scenario “new life” represents a resurrection to an everlasting life and how a “grown man” can be born again and so “see” and “enter the kingdom of God”.
The span of life on Earth is sometimes expressed as a journey “from the womb to the tomb”. As for being “born through water and the Spirit”, man is born again through “Mother Church” – Ecclesia – by being baptised with both Holy Water and the Holy Spirit.
The Resurrection scene is disguised in the Virgin’s red mantle. So is Christ’s descent into Hell after his crucifixion. To be able to recognise the Resurrection feature the painting requires to be viewed turned upside down.
The Virgin’s left hand is shaped to draw attention to the highlighted area over her thigh, a “dim reflection” of the head and beard of Jesus as he exits his oval-shaped tomb. He is slightly turned so that his left shoulder and the folds of his gown are prominent and nearest the viewer. The oval entrance represents the open mouth of the large fish that swallowed Jonah for three days before vomiting the prophet onto dry land. The Old Testament account of Jonah and the fish is symbolic of Christ’s Resurrection.
The “dim reflection” of the Holy Face points to a passage in St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that refers to resurrection: “Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror, but then we shall be seeing face to face” (13:12).
Botticelli has used this reference to paint a portrait and “a dim reflection” created with the aid of a mirror – a self portrait – not of Botticelli but of Leonardo da Vinci, and very likely the red chalk drawing owned by a private collector but brought to public attention in 2020 by the Leonardo scholar, Annalisa Di Maria.
A feature of most Leonardo portraits, and even his figures, is that the model is shown in three-quarter view with a shoulder nearest the viewer, hence Botticelli’s emphasis and detail in the folds of the gown or shroud of the “dim reflection”.
When viewed in its normal position the detail serves to represent the blood-soaked sudarium that covered the face of Jesus when he was wrapped in his tomb. The “agonised” depiction is presented looking downwards and meant to represent Christ’s descent into Hell, sometimes referred to as the Harrowing of Hell. Notice the wing-shaped folds indicating God’s Spirit descending.
That Leonardo’s self-portrait was drawn with the aid of a mirror is for a particular reason why Botticelli has referenced it as representing the Holy Face of Lucca, and not solely to fit with the verse from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
The mirror connection introduces another artist and specifically one of his paintings: Jan van Eyck and the Arnolfini Portrait, sometimes referred to as the Arnolfini Wedding, or the Arnolfini Marriage.
Art historians are undecided as to which member of the Arnolfini family the “bridegroom” represents – Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini, or his cousin Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini. Both men were Italian merchants from Lucca but resident in Bruges.
There are other connections in the Primavera painting to the Arnolfini Portrait, the most obvious being the way the two artists identified themselves. Van Eyck wrote his name above the large mirror central in the painting; Botticelli has depicted himself as the Cupid figure above the image of the “Mirror of Justice”, one of many titles associated with the Virgin Mary.
There are more Lucca references in the Primavera which I will explain in a future post.
A couple of months ago I posted an item titled The Annunciation and the Primavera. It explained how the so-called figure of Venus in Primavera also represented the Virgin Mary and how some of its iconography connected to Luke the Evangelist and his gospel account of the Annunciation.
Luke, who is a patron saint of artists, is often depicted with or as a winged ox or bull. This originates from the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the Chariot of the Lord drawn by four winged creatures of human form, each with four faces: a lion, a bull, an eagle, and a human (Ezk 1:4-12). This image, referred to as a tetramorph, is generally presented as representing the four gospel writers, Matthew (human), Mark (lion), Luke (bull) and John (eagle). All four creatures are disguised in the Primavera painting.
Botticelli referenced a passage from Luke’s account of the Annunciation to identify the evangelist – “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with his shadow” (1:35).
The swelling of the Virgin’s belly represents her pregnancy as well the muzzle of an ox [or bull]. The eyes are formed by the shape of the strapping across her bosom, and the neckline of her dress is shaped to represent the horns. The straps outlining her bosom also form the wings of the Holy Spirit descending upon her (and refer to the winged ox), while the dark area beneath her left breast depicts the shadow of the Most High.
I also wrote in my earlier post: The reference to verse 35 is indicated by the number of fingers shown on both hands, three and five. While it appears that the numbers are reversed, reading from right to left, this is a pointer to Leonardo da Vinci’s presence in the Primavera. In his notebooks, Leonardo wrote in a mirror style from the right side of the page. Leonardo’s model for the Virgin in his Annunciation painting is a younger version of the same woman depicted as the Virgin in Botticelli’s Primavera.
The morphing symbolism not only connects to Luke’s representation as a bull but also to the shape of the two bulls silhouetted in the trees behind the Virgin’s head and their connection to the already mentioned Papal Bulls. This imagery, in turn, springs from from the opening statement made in Ovid’s Metamorphoses poem – “I intend to speak of forms changed into new identities” – confirming Botticelli’s intention to do the same with his painting. The declaration also aligns with the angel Gabriel’s words to Mary in Luke’s gospel when he announced that the Virgin would conceive a child and was to be named Jesus, after earlier appearing to Zechariah to announce that his barren wife would bear a son to be named John (the Baptist).
Botticelli utilises this double declaration to link back to a painting known as the Baptism of Christ, painted by his tutor Andrea del Verrocchio with the assistance of another apprentice, Leonardo da Vinci. In the painting, Verrocchio is portrayed as Christ while Leonardo features in two roles – as John the Baptist and the foremost angel at the waterside. The other is Botticelli.
Another biblical prophet to take into account at this stage is Elijah and his connection with the bull sacrifice on Mount Carmel mentioned in a previous post. The Baptist is also identified as Elijah by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel (11:14).
Only one angel or cherub is visible in the painting – the blindfolded Cupid – portrayed as Botticelli. There is a reason for his lofty position above the Virgin which I will explain in a future post.
Leonardo, who was portrayed as the other angel or cherub in The Baptism of Christ painting, now transforms into the Baptist figure, as the forerunner or precursor to Jesus. In other words, Botticelli has depicted Leonardo as both the Baptist and Jesus. This figure is disguised in the Virgin’s red garment, although to recognise the feature the image requires to be turned upside down, just as the silhouette features in the tree arch have to be turned to recognise the shape of the bulls.
However, to fully understand or recognise the Jesus figure, there is another narrative to be taken into account, and one which provides the link to Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portraitmentioned in a recent post. The narrative also provides a connection to the figure of Flora who is shown distributing flowers from her apron.
I will detail the narrative and its iconography in a future post.
* Unless a man is born through water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)
I wonder if any art curator would ever consider aligning these two paintings on a gallery wall? If so, for what purpose? That Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait was completed in 1434, and Botticelli’s Primavera some fifty years later, reflecting both Northern and Italian Renaissance styles of painting, could be a reason; that the two paintings relate to marriage could be another.
While art historians have generally focused on literary sources of ancient poets to identify and understand the Primavera figures and the painting’s composition, the wellspring and source of inspiration dates to just a decade before the birth of Botticelli – to Jan van Eyck and the Arnolfini Portrait.
This would indicate that Botticelli had seen the Van Eyck painting at some time, and also had knowledge of Jan’s own inventiveness and rationale behind the painting’s composition and narratives.
I recently came across a report published at artnet news that an Italian researcher, Annalisa Di Maria, had discovered a new drawing by Leonardo da Vinci portraying Jesus Christ. Experts have still to support Annalisa’s claim, but they may be interested to know the drawing is referred to in Botticelli’s Primavera.
I shall reveal more about this in a future post.
In my first post of a series intended to reveal the alternative narratives in Primavera, I pointed out that the painting was inspired by two other artists, Leonardo da Vinci and, in particular, Jan van Eyck.
Sandro Botticelli is the artist whose name will be forever associated with the world famous Renaissance painting known as Primavera that is displayed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. But I doubt if there are many observers out there who realise the Springtime scene was inspired by two other celebrated artists, Jan Van Eyck and Leonardo da Vinci.
A link to Leonardo is understandable; he was a contemporary of Botticelli working in Florence. But Van Eyck, how so?
My next series of posts will deal with revealing the Primavera connections to Jan van Eyck and Leonardo da Vinci as well as uncovering a contemporary narrative at a level beyond any first impressions that the painting simply depicts a scene from classical mythology.
I pointed out here in one of my earliest posts about the St Vincent Panels that this trio of faces represented the painter Hugo van der Goes (right), his half-brother Nicholas (back) and Thomas Vaseem, prior of the Red Cloister monastery, an Augustinian community that both brothers belonged to.
A pointer to the face at the back being Hugo’s half-brother is that only half of his head is visible. This also suggests a separation of some kind between the siblings – a subject present elsewhere in the Panels. In a recent post I explained why the coats of arms belonging to René II, duke of Lorraine had been “halved”.
The group of panels are also arranged in a half-and-half or mirrored formation, better understood when brought together, especially the two central panels.
Hugo has also applied more than one identity to some of the figures, but in these situations better understood when separated. For instance the figure of Thomas Vaseem has four identities which link to different narratives. In a way, it is similar to an index or a cross referencing system located at the end of a book. The figure relates to a number, so in this instance the “father” figure relates to both Hugo and his half-brother Nicholas. The figure of Hugo then relates or connects to other scenarios or narratives.
A second identity given to Vaseem is the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger. There is a stone bust of Seneca similar in features to Vaseem which Hugo has sourced to introduce the narrative on the philosopher famed for his stoic approach to life, as likely Vaseem was also. The sculpture is part of what is known as the double Herm of Seneca and Socrates. The two philosophers are joined at the back of the head (another example of half and half). In a similar way Hugo has attached himself to the representation of Seneca, except that the heads are cheek-to-cheek. Here Hugo is proclaiming he has something in common with Seneca.
In another post I pointed out that Hugo along with the two men on his right, Dante and Virgil, had all been exiled in at sometime during their life. Seneca, too, was exiled to Corsica for a period by the Roman emperor Claudius. Later in life he committed suicide on the orders of Nero. This is another connection with Van der Goes who attempted to take his own life by cutting his throat with a sickle when in a state of manic depression. It was Vaseem who cared for Hugo after other brothers from the Red Cloister community who were with him at the time, including his half-brother Nicholas, prevented him from self-inflicting any fatal wound. It may have been the case that Hugo’s attempt at self-harm was somewhat half-hearted and a cry for help, rather than a serious intention to commit suicide.
Socrates, the other head on the Herm, also committed suicide. The herm, with its back-to-back heads is also suggestive of Janus, the double-headed Roman god of transitions, duality, doorways, new beginnings and endings (particularly of conflicts).
In the same post I explained that the line of men to the left of Vaseem all had a connection to stones, and that the men on the right were grouped as exiles. The figure of Vaseem, now also identified as Seneca, is a link between these two groups, a transition figure, both a stone sculpture and an exile. He cross references both groups.
A helm was also used as a boundary marker. Jan van Eyck made use of this varied motif as a marking point of transition in two of his paintings: The Arnolfini Portrait, and in the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.
Helm also refers to a helmet, and here Hugo transitions the meaning to the red hat of the saintly figure in front, indicating what generally is assumed to be a depiction of St Vincent of Zaragosa is actually a representation of more than one saint. This “duality” or morphing process explains the ”twin” or mirrored appearance of seemingly the same saint shown in both central panels. Each “Vincent” has more than one saintly identity that form a “Communion of Saints”, a narrative which cross references with another major theme in the Panels, the Nicene Creed.
Van Eyck’s central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece is titled Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. In another sense it depicts the “Communion of Saints”
In my previous post, “Comparing coats of arms” I revealed similarities in composition between Jan van Eyck’s famous painting known as the Arnolfini Portrait, and the Panel of the Archbishop, the second of two centre sections in the St Vincent Panels.
One of features I pointed to was the fur collars of the two men at the end of the back row, referring to the tinctures associated with heraldic designs. What I didn’t mention was that ‘collars’ and ‘necks’ are part of an identification scheme embedded in all six panels.
I also pointed out the comparison of light reflections in the Arnolfini mirror with highlights on the plate armour of the two standing knights. What I didn’t mention was the light source in the Arnolfini Portrait beaming through the window. The central frame forms a cross, meant as a reminder of the cross Christ carried for his crucifixion. Hugo van der Goes picked up on this, perhaps as a reminder of his own suffering and the cross he carred at the time he attempted to self harm or, as some believe, to kill himself.
The cross, reflection and collar are combined as an identifier for the kinght wearing the red hat and positioned at the left shoulder of the deacon.
Look closely at his collar and notice the reflection. It shows a two-bar cross described in heraldic terms as a patriarchal or archiepiscopal cross. This makes a connection to the group of prelates and their archbishop. The two-bar style is also known as the Cross of Lorraine.
In this scenario the cross is intended to reflect or mirror the other guard standing opposite, and so connects the two men in a significant way. The mirror motif is a ‘hat-tip’ to the reflection in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait which records the painter wearing a red hat similar to the one worn by the knight depicted with the Cross of Lorraine. He is Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, son of Isabella, duchess of Burgundy, the daughter of the Portuguese king João I.
His ‘mirrored’ opposite or opponent is René II, duke of Lorraine, who “inherited the two-barred cross as a symbol from his distant ancestors from the House of Anjou of Hungary”. At that time the symbol was referred to as the Anjou Cross. René attached the symbol on his flag before he faced the army of Charles the Bold in the Battle of Nancy in January 1477.
The Burgundian duke, who had earlier seized the Duchy of Lorraine in December 1475, was defeated and killed by a blow to his head with a halberd. His body, pierced with spears, was discovered two days after the battlle. One side of his face had been eaten by wolves. This injury is depicted as a dark shadow on Charles’ face.
The injuries to his cheek and by the spears is confirmed by the spear held by Reneé. It points at the cheek of the figure placed in the top left figure of the frame. He is a mirror image from the Panel of the Prince and represents Pluto, king of the underworld, and the Greek philosopher, Plutarch. Both connect to the figure of Charles representing a second identity which I will reveal and explain in a future post.
Charles the Bold also serves as another link to the Arnolfini Portrait. Van Eyck dated his painting 1433, the same year that Charles was born on November 10.
The woman in the green dress appears to be pregnant. She is Isabella, the mother of Charles. Van Eyck has recorded the birth of Charles, while Van der Goes has recorded his death.
Van der Goes embedded iconography in another way to confirm the identity of Charles the Bold. Some months before the Battle of Nancy the duke of Burgundy and his army were confronted by the Swiss Confederate army outside the village of Concise in what became known as the Battle of Grandson. A defeat ensued and Charles fled with a small group of attendants. He abandoned a large booty of treasure that included a silver bath and a precious crown jewel known as The Three Brothers.
Van der Goes portrayed the flight of Charles in another painting titled – The Monforte Altarpiece. The detail shown above is a play on the name of the village where he was attacked – Concise – derived from the Latin ‘concisus’ meaning ‘cut off’, hence the reason why Charles is shown separated from his treasure possessions and white charger captured by the Swiss. One of the hind legs of the black horse represents a tail between Charles’ legs, symbolising his loss and retreat after defeat in battle. The river is a ‘tributary’ that runs into Lake Neuchâtel and Van der Goes incorporated the feature to link wth the main scene in the Monforte Altarpiece – the Magi paying ‘tribute’ to Jesus, the new-born King of the Jews. This scene also connects with The Three Bothers Jewel.
Another connection between the portrayal of Charles the Bold in both paintings is that in the original under-drawing for the Panel of the Archbishop, the duke wears a Swiss-style hat with a rather large feather. Hugo changed his mind on this and replaced it with the red cap minus the feather. However, in the Monforte Altarpiece Charles is featured holding a feathered Swiss cap in his left hand.
• Charles was killed in battle on January 5, 1475. This date indicates that both paintings could not have been completed until after that date.
• More on this in my next post along with details confirming the identity of Reneé II, duke of Lorraine.
I’ve pointed out in previous posts how Hugo van der Goes incorporated elements from the work of Jan van Eyck into the St Vincent Panels, the most notable being the Ghent Altarpiece. The composition of the Panel of the Archbishop is another example. It not only references the Musical Angels panel from the Ghent polyptych but also Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.
I shall put aside the comparison with the Musical Angels for a future post and explain the similarities between the Panel of the Archbishop and the Arnolfini Portrait.
In its simplest form the Arnolfini Portrait can be viewed as a coat of arms. The two figures either side of the mirror ‘shield’ are ‘supporters’. Their appearance is defined in heraldic tinctures of ‘metals, colours and furs’. The dog and its position is symbolic of the ‘motto’. The chandelier and its three candles represent a royal crown. The red cushion and seat with its foot rest are symbols of authority. The mirror with its 10 golden roundels depict the Passion of Christ and therefore adds a religious significance to the painting. The artist’s signature is at the ‘helm’ or ‘visor’ position supporting the crown and steering the wheel-shaped mirror of reflection.
These elements can be matched to features in the Panel of the Archbishop. The coat of arms theme is indicated by the wide ‘stoles’ covering the arms of the priests standing in the back row. The kneeling figures are ‘supporters’. The armed guards serve as protectors (matched by the lions placed in a guard position on the seat of authority in the Arnolfini Portrait). The three red hats represent the candles and crowns of the chandelier. The religious significance of the group of priests and their golden “coats” can be compared to the mirror’s golden roundels. The group behind the priests are men at the helm – writers and painters – and therefore matched to Van Eyck’s signature. The winding shape of the rope in the motto position echoes the winding white trim of the woman’s dress. As for the heraldic tinctures, the metals and colours are obvious, the furs less so, but they can be found in the collars of the two men standing at the end of the line on the right.
Apart from the composition being similar to a coat of arms, there are other comparisons to the Arnolfini Portrait. The shape of the man’s tabard and the deacon’s dalmatic; the downcast head of the kneeling soldier and his green jerkin with the bowed head of the woman and her green dress; the light reflections in the mirror with those on the soldiers’ armour; the raised right hand of the soldier with that of the man wearing the tabard; the golden rod with the baluster on the window ledge; the ‘pointy’ footwear with the pointed patten shoes.
However, the Arnolfini Portrait is not the only artistic work Hugo van Eyck incorporated in the Panel of the Archbishop. Three other painters are referenced. So too is the work of three authors.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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).
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.