Jan van Eyck was not the first artist to point out the name of the Pearl Poet when he painted the Ghent Altarpiece completed in 1432. An earlier work exists where the poet is referenced and identified. Sir Hugh Stafford, earl of Stafford, is illuminated front of stage in a manuscript attributed to the Limbourg brothers.
The folio forms part of the Calendar section in the Très Riche Heures, a ‘book of hours’ commissioned by John, duke of Berry, and produced in part by the Limbourg brothers between 1412 and 1416. The three brothers and the duke, possible victims of the plague, all died in in the same year of 1416. The Très Riche Heures was added to and completed by other artists at later stages during the 15th century.
The above illustration shows detail from the folio depicting the month of January, where a gathering of nobles are said to be celebrating New Year and exchanging gifts. The duke of Berry is the man seated at the table wearing a fur hat. However the scene is not as simple as its seems. In fact, it’s detail was the basis for Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, particularly the Just Judges panel. There is no doubt that Jan was inspired by this minature and adopted many of its references, particularly to the Pearl Poet, and perhaps as a tribute to the Limbourg brothers.
Sir Hugh Stafford, aka the Pearl Poet, is the figure standing in the forefront alongside the man in green who is carving the meat.
I shall publish more details on this at another time.
So what else is there that can help identify Sir Hugh, the earl of Stafford, as the Pearl Poet? His title for starters.
In Old English the thorn letterþ was used for the digram th. The thorn resembles a letter p. Placed ahead of the word earl we arrive at a new ‘title’ for Sir Hugh Stafford – Pearl (Poet)
Van Eyck made use of this visual pun in the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece when he pointed to the lead figure in the group as Sir Hugh. He placed a thorn bush above the man’s head – a representation of Christ’s crown of thorns – “on his head a helmet of salvation” (Isaiah 59:17), and also a pointer to the holly or holy twig carried by the Green Knight who was described as having “a beard as big as a bush”.
The knight was also described as having his arms covered “in the manner of a king’s hood” (capados). Here an oversized red cape cover’s the man’s arms – arms in the sense of a shield of protection and another pointer to the apocalypse passage by Isaiah: “He put vengeance on lke a tunic and wrapped himself in ardour like a cloak” – red being the colour of ardour or passion – passion in the sense of love and purity being put to the test, as in Lady Bertilak’s amorous approaches to Gawain represented by the pearl white berries which can be interpreted as mistletoe, collected and hung over doorways and in houses at Christmas time. Here Van Eyck is pointing to the Christmas tradition of kissing under the mistletoe and the three kisses Lady Bertilek gave to Gawain. Mistletoe can also be recognised as a forbidden fruit, its toxcity is posionous and known to cause death. Alternatively, the white berries can be viewed as those from a myrtle tree replacing the ‘crown of thorns’ as prophesied by Isaiah (55:13) in the conclusion of the Book of Consolation: “Cypress will grow instead of thorns, myrtle instead of briars, and this will make Yaweh famous, a sign forever, ineffaceable.”
Speaking of death, the head ‘attached’ to the right shoulder of the figure in red is John the Baptist, decapitated on the orders of Herod Antipas. John once sent disciples to ask Jesus if he was the true Messiah (Christ). In the detail above John is shown “staring hard” at the right hand of the cloaked figure. The composition is a reference to the sweat cloth (sudarium) that shows a true image (vera icon) of Christ’s face and which “was made without hand” – Acheiropoieta – and ineffaceable. Notice the sweat band on the man’s head. Notice also the forefinger of the figure’s left hand pointing to his covered hand. The index and long fingers are crossed – a variation of the first letter of the Greek alphabet Alpha. The index finger and thumb form the last letter of the Greek alphabet Omega. The combination of three digits also points to the Book of Revelation when Jesus proclaimed three times that he is the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. The number three forms part of the numerology theme in the Pearl Poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And it was on the third day of his entombment that Jesus was resurrected. The Resurrection theme is one of the links to the next panel and the Patience poem which highlights the story of Jonah being in the belly of a whale for three days.
Another ‘transition’ feature in the Pilgrims panel that marks out Hugh Stafford is the weathered stone placed at the edge of the frame by his right foot. I explained in a previous post, The Great and the Small, that this was a boundary marker associated with Roman times and dedicated to the deity Terminus. The earl of Stafford died on the island of Rhodes, some say while on his way to Jerusalem, other sources say he died on his return journey. Whatever direction he was facing, the Terminus stone is there to indicate his end of life as he was about to make his crossing from the island of Rhodes, either to his home in England or on his onward journey to Jerusalem. Either way, his continued journey would take him to a ‘New Jerusalem’. During his illness at Rhodes Sir Hugh was taken care of by the Knights Hospitaller (Order of Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem). Was Hugh himself a knight of the Order? Possibly. Van Eyck has clothed him in the colour of the Order’s flag, which was predominately red, bearing a white cross.
Although Hugh’s life ended in Rhodes, his squire brought the body (or at least the bones) back to England to be entombed alongside his wife Philippa Beauchamp who had died a few months earlier. Both Hugh and his wife were entombed at STONE Priory in Staffordshire less than ten miles from Hugh’s castle outside the town of Stafford. Hence another reason why Van Eyck placed a Terminus, a headstone, at the feet of Sir Hugh. After dying at Rhodes his body was translated to a tomb ‘carved out of Stone’. See how the giant figure of Hugh is about to step out of the frame (his box) to the next panel which features the hermits stepping out from their desert cave and the figurative ‘belly of the whale’ as explained by the Pearl Poet in his poem titled Patience.
Yet another visual pointer and pun by Van Eyck to Sir Hugh’s presence makes a direct reference to his name: Hugh(Huge)Staff(or stave)Ford(as in crossing to the other side), and woven into another identity Van Eyck has given the figure – St Christopher.
• More on this panel and how it directly links with a specific passage of text in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight in my next post.
Gawain gazed on the gallant that goodly him greet, and thought him a brave baron that the burg owned, a huge man in truth, and mature in his years; broad, bright was his beard and all beaver-hued, stern, striding strongly on stalwart shanks, face fell as the fire, and free of his speech; and well he seemed to suit, as the knight thought, the leading a lordship, along of lords full good.
The Gawain Poet, author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and three other poems: Pearl, Patience and Cleanness, had been in his tomb about 45 years before his ghostly presence showed up in the Ghent Altarpiece painted by Jan and Hubert van Eyck. Neither brother had ever set eyes on the mysterious poet, but Jan was certainly acquainted with his work and his name, as he was with the names and poems of the two other contemporary poets referred to in the altarpiece.
Whlle researchers have never conclusively agreed on the identity of the Gawain Poet, Jan van Eyck has threaded cryptic clues in the altarpiece which keep pointing to one name in particular. Follow the trail and it keeps leading back to the start – an endless knot, so to speak.
In the Just Judges panel each of the ten riders has four identities. This also happens with some of the other figures in the narrow panels of the lower register. For example, the St Christopher figure (above) in the red cloak is draped with three more identities, one of whom is the so-called Pearl Poet. The other two are Constantine the Great and the artist Robert Campin, considered the first ‘great’ master of Flemish and early Netherlandish painting.
The Pearl Poet also shows up in two other panels of the Ghent Altarpiece but in different guises, and there are references to his work in all of the panels on the lower register when opened and in the closed section of the altarpiece.
The Pearl or Gawain Poet was indeed a man from the West Midlands, UK – HUGH STAFFORD, 2nd earl of Stafford, KG, c 1342 – October 13, 1386
My next post will start to illustrate some of the iconography in the Ghent Altarpiece that identifies with the Pearl Poet and Van Eyck revealing him as Hugh Stafford.
I mentioned in my previous post that I’ve been taking a fresh look at the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly the five lower register panels when opened.
The four outer panels on the lower register – Just Judges, Knight of Christ, Hermits and Pilgrims – depict four groups of society making their way through life (pilgrimage) towards a New Jerusalem, the focus of the centre panel, Adoration of the Lamb of God.
The four panels also point to four poems written annonymously and who medievalist scholars refer to as the Pearl Poet, or Gawain Poet.
Without going into any detail at this stage we can rename the panels with the poem titles:
Some of the connections will seem pretty. obvious, but I’ll explain at another time the iconography that links to the titles, probably a post for each panel.
And, yes, I now know the name of the elusive Pearl Poet according to Jan van Eyck, and his reason for revealing him in the Ghent Altarpiece – which was not just solely to connect to the poetry narrative embedded in the painting.
Two other poets of the period, Geoffrey Chaucer and Thomas Hoccleve, are also referenced in the altarpiece.
Lately, I’ve been taking a fresh look at the Ghent Altarpiece (or the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) and have discovered three versions of John the Baptist. He is depicted on the top register as John the Baptist Enthroned (left) and also as one of the Hermits in the lower register (centre), standing alongside St Anthony the Great. His third appearance is next to the colossus figure of St Christopher on the adjacent Pilgrims panel (right).
It was John the Baptist who pointed out Jesus as the Lamb of God. He stared hard at him as he passed and said to two of his disciples: “Look, there is the lamb of God.” (John 1 : 36).
On the Hermits panel at the feet of the Baptist and his companion Anthony the Great alongside him there is a representation of a sacrificial lamb outlined on the stony ground. St Anthony’s right foot steps on it. Poets out there should consider this symbolism as a ”lambic foot”. On the chest of St Anthony is the outline of a Tau cross, symbol of the Hospital Brothers of St Anthony, a congregation founded late in the 11th century.
Anthony’s comfortable-looking footwear is something special. Are the uppers made of lambskin? Their soft, silvery appearance, along with Anthony’s ‘pruned’ walking stick, point to a folded clip of silver lying on the ground. This is a variation on the story associated with the saint when he went into the desert and the devil attempted to distract him by placing silver in his path. The placing of the Baptist a step back from St Anthony the Great is a pointer to John’s discussion with his followers when he said: “He [Jesus] must grow greater, I must grow smaller.” (John 3 : 30).
The great and the small theme carries through to the next panel. The colossal figure is probably better recognised as St Christopher, patron saint of travellers. Looking somewhat uncertain, John the Baptist is the man again positioned a step behind the leader – Christopher, which means Christ-bearer, and so named because of the legend that he carried a child on his back across a river who revealed himself to be Christ (Annointed One). When John was in prison he became uncertain about Jesus and so sent two of his disciples to question him and ask, “Are you the one who is to come?” ( the Christ).
The weather-worn headstone at St Christopher’s right foot can be viewed as a boundary marker, a crossing point, particularly in its position at the edge of the frame. It can also be understood as the separation point between the Old and the New Testaments represented by John the Baptist as the last OT prophet and Jesus as the NT prophet. In Roman times boundary markers were dedicated to the god Terminus. The headstone also points to the decollation of John the Baptist on the orders of the pagan ruler Herod Antipas. Could that be the outline of the Baptist’s head buried in the sand – a motif similar to the lamb outline on the ground seen in the Hermits panel? For certain the stone is meant to connect to the huge sculpted head of Constantine the Great who converted to Christianity on his deathbed – his terminus). The stone is still on display in Rome today. The head of the young man at the rear of the group is based on the Constantine sculpture. One of the identities given to this figure by Jan van Eyck is himself!
The Pilgrims scene has figures that represent the major pilgrimage sites of the day: Rome, Canterbury, Santiago Compostella and Jerusalem.
The masthead used for his blog shows detail (in reverse) from Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man, thought to be of the artist himself, and dated October 21, 1433. It is on display at the National Gallery, London. More information about the painting can be accessed at this link.
Whether the date on the painting is the completion or start date, I cannot say, but it places the work in the year following the installation of Van Eyck’s famous Ghent Altarpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral on May 6, 1432. As well as the proximity in completition dates, Van Eyck has inked the two works in other ways.
Jan van Eyck began his artistic career as an illuminator of books and manuscripts. Some samples of his early work appear in the Turin-Milan Hours manuscript, and he also referenced the work of other illuminators, notably the Limbourg brothers, in the Ghent Altarpiece.
An illuminator’s role was to illustrate the text in and decorate the pages of a book, creating a visual interpretation of a storyline or theme. In some cases the illustration would have more impact with the reader than the words. Invairably, some illuminators would shine the light beyond the subject matter and embed other narratives that were not part of the text. Jan van Eyck did this and continued with the technique when he started to paint on panels with oils, sometimes cross-referencing his embeded narratives with other works, his own included.
Perhaps a simple example of this is the Portrait of a Man (in a Red Turban) shown here. Jan van Eyck’s signature motto is inscribed on the frame, as is the date, so the painting is generally viewed as a portrait of its time, and probably of the artist himself, Jan van Eyck.
However, that the work is signed by Van Eyck suggests there is more to appreciate and discover in the painting than a striking portrait of a 15th century man.
There are hidden narratives which art historians have not uncovered.
This terracotta head of a young man is known as “Christo fanciulllo”. It came to light in 1931 after it was discovered in a convent at Ascoi Piceno. As to the sculptor, Leonardo da Vinci is considered a candidate. His name is linked to a claim made in 1584 by the Italian artist Gian Paolo Lomazzo who wrote: “I have also a little terracotta head of Christ when he was a boy, sculpted by Leonardo Vinci’s own hand…”
However, there is an earlier reference which also links to the terracotta Christo fanciullo(Christ as a young man). It appears in the Monforte Altarpiece painted by Hugo van der Goes. Although its current attribution is c1470, the painting has references which date the work to a later period, probably to sometime in 1482, the year that Van der Goes is said to have died.
The main panel of the Monforte Altarpiece depicts the Adoration of the Magi. Like Bottcelli’s Uffizi version it has underlying narratives and picks up on Botticelli’s references to Leonardo, his pointers to other artists and the assasination of Giuliano de’ Medici. Hugo is depicted in the Botticelli altarpiece and returns the compliment by featuring Botticelli in the Monforte painting.
The head sculpted by Leonardo or even of the artist as a young man, can be matched with the kneeling figure, whose left hand supports a golden chalice.
The Van der Goes painting is another work that assigns multiple identities to most of the figures. Hugo’s influence for this was likely Jan van Eyck who did the same – four for each figure – in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.
At surface level the golden-haired figure is presented as a servant to the second magus in the group. At another level he represents Maximilian I, Archduke of Austria, and son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. A third identity is Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia.
A fourth identity is Leonardo da Vinci, and in his role as an artist, he is positioned receiving a golden chalice from the dying Hugo van der Goes, symbolising a rite of passage. This can be interpreted in more than one way. The most obvious is Leonardo leaving Florence to start a new chapter in his life and career at the Milanese court. Next to the kneeling Leonardo is the figure of Ludovic Sforza, Regent of Milan, known as Il Moro – the Moor – because of his dark complexion, and who Leonardo served as court artist from 1482 until 1499.
The figure also represents St Augustine of Hippo, one of the four Doctors of the Church depicted in the painting. A third identity for this figure is Michael Szilágyi, uncle and guardian (regent of Hungary) to the young king Matthias. The regency role is matched to the identity of Ludovic Sforza, uncle and guardian to the young duke of Milan, the boy holding the sceptre and portrayed at suface level as a servant to the third magus. When the figure is identified as St Augustine, then the boy is recognised as his son Adeodatus who died in adolesence.
The rite of passage theme also connects to Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adorationof the Magi and to one of the frescos in the Sistine Chapel which shows Moses commissioning Joshua to lead the Isralites. The Testimony and Death of Moses was the last fresco completed in the series depicting the lives of Moses and Jesus. It was probably finished in 1483 and is attributed to Luca Signorelli and Bartolomea Gatta.
Joshua, the man shown kneeling in front of the ageing Moses, is represented by Leonardo da Vinci. The man standing immediately behind him is presented as his father Piero da Vinci, while Moses is represented by Leonardo’s grandfather and guardian, Antonio da Vinci.
Van der Goes repeats a similar motif in his painting, the bearded magus handing down the chalice to the young man kneeling alongside. While there is far more depth of meaning and significance in this motif and the composition of figures, the purpose of this presentation is to link Leonardo to the painting and back to the terracotta head.
Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration also shows a similar hand-over composition where Leonardo is depicted stooping with his right hand over the left hand of the man wearing a black coat, Lorenzo de’ Medici’s assassinated brother Giuliano. Notice also the handing over of the chalice to Lorenzo wearing the white gown by his father Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici.
So now we have three paintings with symbolism representing a rite of passage, a passing over, of life to death to new life, that includes Leonardo da Vinci.
Christ as a Young Man came of age around the time he was twelve years old. Luke’s Gospel mentions “the child grew to maturity, and he was filled with wisdom.” For Maximillian I the rite of passage at a young age was at 18 when he married Mary of Burgundy. Matthias Corvinius was just 14 when elected king of Hungary. Leonardo was also 14 years old when his family moved to Florence and he was placed as an apprentice in Andrea del Verrocchio’s studio.
So in age representation the head of “Christ as a Young Man” can be applied to all three identities. Van der Goes, it appears, had sight of the terracotta head, made a drawing or drawings of it, and included it in his painting to link Leonardo to the Botticelli and Signorelli/Gatta fresco. This would also suggest that Hugo van der Goes had sight of the relevant artworks both in Florence and Rome.
Professor Martin Kemp, a leading authority on the life and works of Leonardo wrote:
“Of the exant sculptures assigned to him [Leonardo] on grounds of style, none has decisively entered the accepted canon. Given the unlikelihood of any existing sculpture ever proving to be incontestably by Leonardo on the grounds of documentation and cast-iron provenance, any attribution must necessarily rest on less secure foundation of comparisons with his works in other media and with related sculpture of masters with whom he was closely associated, especially Verrocchio and Rustici.”
(‘Cristo Fanciullo’, Achademia Leonardi Vinci, IV, 1991, PP. 171-6)
Included in professor Kemp’s paper is a profile image (right) of the sculpture. The copy I have doesn’t show much detail but it is the profile itself that is of interest. When flipped, rotated and simply superimposed over the profile in the Van der Goes painting, the fit is an impressive match. Couple this with the deliberate references and connections Van der Goes has made to Leonardo in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi and the Sistine Chapel fresco, it would be reasonable to suggest that the “Christos fanciullo” head is the model for Hugo van der Goes adopted for the head of the kneeling servant in the Monforte Altarpiece.
The Belgian artist Kris Martin is putting his own spin on the Ghent Altarpiece by incorporating a site-specific piece into the armature of the famous 15th-century Flemish masterpiece. Martin’s mirrored work covers the Just Judges panel—currently represented by a reproduction—in the lower left corner of the altarpiece which was installed at St Bavo cathedral in Ghent in 1432… more at The Art Newspaper
More on the relationship between the two figures portrayed as the disciples Simon the Zealot and Philip in The Last Supper painting by Dieric Bouts.
I previously mentioned that Philip represents the painter Jan van Eyck, and Simon the Zealot is Petrus Christus, who worked under Jan before taking over his studio after Van Eyck died in 1441.
When the contract to produce the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament was drawn up and signed in March 1464, it stipulated the assignment of two theologians to assist the painter Dieric Bouts. Johannes Varenacker and Egidius Bailuwel were associated with the Old Leuven University and are featured in the top left panel of the altarpiece.
Bouts has also portrayed Varenacker in The Last Supper panel, in the guise of James the Less sat at the table corner opposite Philip. The figure also represents an older version of Jan van Eyck. So there are two representations of Jan at the table – as Philip, and as James the Less. There is a specific reason for Bouts doing this and likely that Varenacker played his part in constructing the links, hence the reason for portraying the theologian a second time in the altarpiece and in this particular section.
But the combined figure of Van Eyck and Varenacker portrayed as James the Less isn’t just speculation on my part. The connection is confirmed by an associate of Bouts, Hugo van der Goes, in his Adoration of the Kings panel of the Monforte Altarpiece.
The humble figure of St Joseph is a representation of Varenacker shown with a depiction of Christ’s Shroud on his shoulder, a pointer to Van Eyck’s fascination for what is now known as the Turin Shroud. Notice Joseph has cap in hand as also Varenacker and Van Eyck in the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament.
One of the New Testament references connected to the figures of Simon and Philip is from John’s gospel. The passage about the miracle of the loaves describes how five barley loaves and two fish were enough to feed 5,000 people who had sat down to eat on a hillside (6 : 1-15).
Verse 5 reads: “Looking up, Jesus saw the crowds approaching and said to Philip, ‘Where can we buy some bread for these people to eat?’”
Such was the size of the crowd that Philip answered “ Two hundred dinari would only buy enough for a small piece each.”
Another disciple, Andrew, whose brother was Peter, said a small boy had five barley loaves and two fish but it wouldn’t be enough to feed everyone, estimated at 5,000 people.
Sitting next to Philip in The Last Supper panel is the mentioned Andrew (in red) alongside his brother Peter (in green).
Philip and Simon the Zealot are portrayed with their mouths open. They are in a conversation which represents the question asked by Jesus and Philip’s answer. Simon in the role of Christ (as in Petrus Christus) is portrayed “looking up”.
When taking the loaves, Jesus gave thanks – a blessing – before giving the bread out to the people. Simon’s (Christus) right hand is raised in blessing. It also represents the tail end of a fish, as does the joined hands of Philip, in regard to the two fish presented with the five loaves. The three-hand, dove-like formation represents the descent and action of the Holy Spirit in blessing the offering.
On the table are six pieces of bread, not five. However, two are half-cuts, the pieces in front of James the Less and Simon the Zealot, or Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus. In the case of the latter pairing this points to the two painters sharing in some way, perhaps Jan passing on his knowledge and experience to the younger artist, or even his studio after his death.
The juxtaposition of the knife and half-cut bread placed in front of Simon refers to the Zealot’s type of death and martyrdom when his body was reputed to have been sawn in half. It also points to the breaking of bread (Christ’s body) during the celebration of the Eucharist. The knife is positioned on a trajectory pointing to the figure of Jesus blessing the communion wafer in his hand with the words: “This is my body which will be given for you.” (Luke 22 : 19)
Elements of the Philip and Simon pairing (Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus) are reflected in two figures on the opposite side of the table, with the large dish echoing the famous mirror feature in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait painting. Already mentioned is the elderly depiction of Van Eyck sat at the corner of the table. Next to him is Matthew, the tax collector.
More on how these two figures connect with each other, and with those opposite, in a future post.
More on the identity of the disciples and artists portrayed in The Last Supper panel painted by Dieric Bouts… Seated on the left side of the table are the apostles James the Great, Simon the Zealot and Philip. For this presentation the focus is on Simon and Philip and how they connect to each other.
The two men mirror a similar group portrayed in A Goldsmith in his Shop, a work attributed to Petrus Christus and dated 1449, some 18 years prior to the completion of The Last Supper. In turn, for the Goldsmith painting, Petrus adapted some of the features and narratives from the Ghent Altarpiece produced by the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck and completed in 1434. Bouts’ version is a composite of the two groups with added narratives.
There are several visual matches for Simon (Petrus Christus): the burgundy skull cap, the red robe, both men looking up, transfixed, and the three-hand triangle formation are the most noticeable pairings. Simon’s hands can also be matched – one rests on the table edge, the other is raised.
In both the Goldsmith and Last Supper paintings, Jan is portrayed with his eyes looking down over the shoulder of the figure of Petrus sat beside him. This defines the relationship between the two artists. Petrus studied under the watchful eye of Jan in his studio and later took over the workshop after Van Eyck’s death in 1441.
The self portrait of Jan in the Ghent Altarpiece is also a representation of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. – and this makes the connection to Philip the Apostle. So, in fact, the figure in The Last Supper represents three people, Philip the Apostle, Philip the Good, and Jan van Eyck. Already mentioned is the relationship between Jan and Petrus, so what is the relationship between the apostles Simon and Philip? What is the relationship that unites the figures when portrayed as Petrus and Philip the Good?
This view of Shaftesbury’s famous Gold Hill was painted by artist Steve Crisp. It’s one of the ‘postcard’ scenes used in a wide range of jigsaws produced by Gibson Games.
It can also be said that “Jan van Eyck was here!” as he made telling references to the hill and Shaftesbury itself in the Ghent Altarpiece.
Not only that, the elevated view from Gold Hill is a pointer to the high persective position Van Eyck adopted for the five inner panels in the lower register of the Ghent Atarpiece.
Is it possible that the expansive panorama from the height of Shaftesbury inspired these viewpoints?
The elevation theme also points to Henry Beaufort, one of four identities designated by Jan to the rider on the white horse in the Just Judges panel. A second identity is Jan’s brother Hubert who died in 1426, coincidently, the same year Henry Beaufort was elevated to the rank of Cardinal by Pope Martin V.
Could it be that Jan van Eyck was in England that same year, commissioned to paint the Cardinal’s portrait?
Canterbury, Cirencester and Wells are other English towns referenced in the Ghent Altarpiece. All were popular pilgrimage destinations at the time. It is known that Jan was sent on pilgrimage on behalf of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good. The ducal accounts show in August 1426 that Jan was paid for a pilgrimage he made in lieu of the duke, but the destination is not recorded.
Earlier that year, on March 12, Henry Beaufort was forced to resign as Lord Chancellor of England. Two months later he was created Cardinal on May 24. The Ghent Altarpiece reveals that Van Eyck was in Shaftesbury the same month. Could it be that it was around this time that Van Eyck painted Beaufort’s portrait, not in his cardinal’s robes which were presented to him in Calais the following year, but in a red ‘woolsack’, a sort of symbolic ‘sackcloth’ to acknowledge his faults while Lord Chancellor?
It’s interesting to note that the sleeves of the robe are shaped as donkey’s ears, the humble donkey on which Jesus entered Jerusalem. It was around this time that Beaufort had expressed a desire to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But the ‘ears’ also probably point to Beaufort’s reputation of stubbornness and refusal to always listen. It’s not without reason that Van Eyck depicted Beaufort as one of the Just Judges with his ears covered! In the portrait painting he is shown with his hair razored and shorn – a sign of repentance – and prepared to listen with his ear uncovered. The donkey’s ears also show up in the pattern of the gown of St Cecilia depicted in the Musical Angels panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.
It’s the time of year when jigsaw puzzles, in a variety of subjects, sizes and complexity are popular gifts among families.
Engraver and cartographer John Spilsbury is credited with making the first jigsaw puzzles in 1760. He mounted maps of Europe on a wood backing, cut around the national boundaries and called them “Dissected Maps”.
The Ghent Altarpiece can be likened to a “disected map”. It has 24 pieces which fit together front and back, akin to a double-sided “jigsaw”. Simple enough. What is more testing, and has been for six centuries, is piecing together the iconography in each panel.
The Just Judges panel is probably the most complex, but if viewed as individual jigsaw pieces it starts to make sense. Each piece (or rider) has four interlocking attributes to allow four other pieces to fit. If only one attribute fits and not the others, then a wrong identification is the result. It’s Van Eyck’s way of confirming the identity of the riders. The puzzle can also be likened to a visual crossword. The clues are cryptic and often a play on words.
Coincidently, the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly the Just Judges panel, also highlights locations and national boundaries. Then there are the more obvious boundary references: heaven and earth, life and death.
Further investigation of The Goldsmith in his Shop by Petrus Christus leads me to advocate a new scenario for this painting, and one which relates to Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. It introduces three new identities not mentioned in my earlier presentation.
The first is Jan van Eyck, the gentleman central in the frame; the second is Joan/Jean Beaufort, illegitimate daughter of Henry Beaufort; the third is Edward Stradling, the man chosen by Henry Beaufort (represented by the goldsmith) as a husband for his daughter. Stradling is represented in the guise of Jan van Eyck who referred to the marriage in the Ghent Altarpiece.
Just as van Eyck used several identies for each rider in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, so Petrus has done likewise.
Genealogists identify Jean’s mother as Alice Fitzalan, whose husband John Cherleton died in 1401. But Jan van Eyck knew different and both the Ghent Altarpiece and the Petrus painting identify the mother as someone other than Alice.
It is said that “every picture tells a story”. The profile image for the “OMG Van Eyck was here” campaign, features one of the “Singing Angels” from the Ghent Altarpiece. The campaign was conceived and developed by The Oval Office, a Belgian live communication agency.
There is a remarkable story associated with this particular “angel”, the lead singer in the choir of eight angels. At one level it represents Gabriel, the angel of the Annunciation. But this is an angel without wings – on an earthly level, a female chorister who perhaps had the voice of an angel? She is portrayed with an expression of innocence, wide-eyed and with a wide-open mouth – a look of amazement, perhaps? For sure, she stands out from the other angels in the group.
This lead chorister also has a place in the “Musical Angels” panel, but her expression is quite different. She’s the “angel” holding the viola, but no longer singing and wide-eyed. Instead, her lips are sealed; she seems downcast; her glow and freshness has disappeared. Is she blind, as the seated angel is, and as the other “angels” appear to be?
She is also portrayed as one of the women in the Hermits panel. This is not without significance as very little is known about the woman’s life in the wake of the tragic events which occured early in her marriage.
It is also quite possible that this “angel” met with Jan van Eyck on one of his visits to England. She may even have proclaimed at the time: “OMG! Van Eyck is here.”
More on this and the “angel’s” identity in a future post.
In 2020, Ghent is honouring its great Flemish Master with the prestigious and innovative exhibition ‘Van Eyck. An optical revolution’ at the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK), which will allow you to admire not only the restored outer panels of the Ghent Altarpiece in more detail than ever before, but also many other works by Van Eyck that will be travelling to Ghent for the first time. What’s more, the entire Ghent Altarpiece will be displayed at the brand-new visitors’ centre at St Bavo’s Cathedral from June 2020 onwards, where you can travel through its history by means of virtual reality.
The tip of a cross was a clue that recently helped bring together two Mantegna paintings. It appears at the base of The Resurrection of Christ and matches the cross cropped at the top of the frame in The Descent of Christ into Limbo. Both panels were reunited this week as part of the Mantegna and Bellini exhibition at the National Gallery in London.
A similar “crossover” occurs in the Ghent Altarpiece and also provides an important clue in uniting two paintings and, in particular, contesting an attribution to the main subject in one of them.
In previous posts I pointed out that the Just Judges panel and other parts of the Ghent Altarpiece form the basis of the painting A Goldsmith in his Shop, produced by Petrus Christus in 1449 and now exhibted in the Met Museum, New York.
The goldsmith was long considered to be St Eligius, patron saint of goldsmiths, partly because of a halo placed behind the seated figure in red. However, in 1998 the Dutch art historian Hugo van der Velden wrote:
Petrus Christus’s goldsmith used to be haloed, but in 1993, his aura was removed as a later addition at the museum’s conservation department, its authenticity had been doubted for decades. With his halo, the main protagonist of the painting was robbed of the only attribute that characterised him as a saint. Despite this desanctafication, the traditional identification of St Eloy has been challenged in only one of the publications that have since appeared. Lorne Campbell, in his review of the New York Petrus Christus exhibition, concluded that “there is no compelling reason to believe that the goldsmith is Eligius.”
Two years ago, I demonstrated that the figure was indeed meant to be St Eligius – Resurrecting St Eligius. In fact, Petrus had given the man more than one identity, similar to the way Jan van Eyck had done with the ten riders in the Just Judges panel.
One of the more distinct attributes associated with Eligius, often featured in paintings of the saint, is the legend of shoeing a reluctant horse said to have been possessed by demons. To solve the problem Eligius cut off one of the horse’s legs and left the animal standing on three. After Eligius had re-shod the hoof on the amputated leg he proceeded to miraculously attach it back on the horse!
So where in the Ghent Altarpiece does Petrus pick up on the severed leg and and make the connection to St Eligius (Elijah)? It appears in the bottom right corner of the Just Judges panel. Van Eyck also used this motif to make a connection to the prophet Elijah who is featured elsewhere in the altarpiece.
Each rider in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece has four identities. In this instance Jan van Eyck has grouped three English kings – Henry IV, Henry V and Richard II – to reference the Epiphany and link to a life-changing event featured in the Singing Angels panel.
Look to Henry V and his single-hump hat for the camel or dromedary reference. This also links to the rider on his left in the guise of René, Count of Piedmont, who kept a camel in his menagerie.
Can’t help but sense that the artist who produced this illustration for John Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes (with references to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales) was probably inspired by Jan van Eyck’s Just Judges panel.
The two central riders, the bearded rider on the right, and the white horse, are all modelled on figures from the Just Judges.
The British LIbrary attributes the illustration to probably Lucas Horenbout, son of the Ghent artist Gerard Horenbout (c 1465 – c 1541), who later moved with his family to work in England.
There was a news item published last week about scientists in Wales looking at how slag heaps can be used to remove CO2 from the air in the fight against climate change.
It caught my attention – but not for the most obvious reason. Slag, the waste left over from old ironworks, features in one of the panels in the Ghent Altarpiece, the Musical Angels (Praise with Strings and Organ).
It’s represented in the black blooms featured on the organist’s gown. The organ doubles up for a bloomery, an early type of furnace used for smeting iron, a by-product of which would be steel, hence the shiny steel organ pipes.
A close look at the left edge of the picture frame reveals a fiery figure and what appears to be a set of bellows, pumping air into the furnace and at the same time into the organ. The furnance dust and smoke has seemingly dulled the garments of the other ‘angels’ when, compared to the vivid colours of the ‘angels’ in the opposite panel.
Van Eyck makes another point by weaving the black blooms with expensive gold cloth. So from bloom he rhymes to ‘loom’ and the steel pipes now become the warp while the angel wefts her way across the keyboard, the outcome being the dark and shiny garment ‘drop’ from the loom onto the tiled floor.
As part of the musical narrative Van Eyck switches focus to mythology and the competition between Pan and Apollo as to who was the best musician, Pan on his pipes or Apollo on his lyre. The mountain god Tmolus was the judge. Also present was King Midas, now a follower of Pan. Tmolus judged Apollo the winner. He can be recognised in the painting as the angel holding the lyre and touching Apollo on the shoulder. Notice also the bovine shape of the lyre and its two horns – pointers to the death suffered by Tmolu after being gored by a bull.
King Midas disagreed with Tmolu’s decision and questioned the judgment. Apollo responded by declaring that Midas “must have the ears of an ass!” and with that the king’s ears turned into those of a donkey. The donkey’s ears are featured in gold below the organist’s shoulder. Everything that Midas touched, even his ears, turned to gold. But why did Van Eyck depict Tmolus holding the lyre and not Apollo? What made him want to switch the instruments in this way? He had his reasons, which I shall explain in another post.
At surface level the organ-playing ‘angel’ represents St Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. Jan has also portrayed her as being blind. This is a pointer to another chapter from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales – The Second Nun’s Tale – which relates the story of St Cecilia and how she was able, with faith in God, to see beyond the ‘material’ world.
Much more on the Musical Angels panel and identifying the angels in a future post.
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