Ahead of his time

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 is a hidden narrative which art historians have not uncovered.

More on this in a future post

‘Christos fanciullo’ – a new connection to Leonardo da Vinci

Christo fanciullo (Young Christ), terracotta, Eredi Gallandte collection

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.

A section of the Monforter Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes

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 Adoration of 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.

A section of the Testimony and Death of Moses, fresco, Sistine Chapel

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.

A section of the Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi gallery

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.

Monforte Altrapiece… Leonardo profile superimposed with profile of Christos Fanciullo

Mirroring the Just Judges

The Ghent Altarpiece, also called Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, by Jan van Eyck

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 hand signs

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.

Johannes Varenacker and Jan van Eyck in multiple guises

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”.

Simon the Zealot and Philip, aka Petrus Christus and Jan van Eyck… multiple hand signs.

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.

Mirror images

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?

More on this in a future post.

It takes two to tango

Sirens or angels? Joan Stafford and Alice Fitzalan

The installation of the Ghent Altarpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral (previously the Church of St John the Baptist) was officially celebrated on May 6, 1432. Another celebration in the Ghent church that same day was the baptism of Josse, second son of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, and his third wife Isabella of Portugal. For whatever reason, the child’s father was absent and Cardinal Henry Beaufort, a half-brother to Isabella’s mother, was recorded as one of Josse’s godparents.

Beaufort is also featured as the prominent rider on the white horse in the Just Judges panel of the altarpiece, surely not a coincidence. His facial features match those of the earlier portrait by Jan van Eyck, once thought to be of Cardinal Niccolò Albergati.

But the presence of Henry Beaufort in the Ghent Altarpiece extends beyond being one of the Just Judges. For as Van Eyck depicted the Cardinal not only on the white horse but also on the brown mare alongside, the presence of the former bishop of Lincoln and Winchester is also found in the two angel panels of the upper register. Two and two make four. the number four is the common denominator underlying many of the narratives in the Ghent Altarpiece.

So just why did Jan van Eyck give the cardinal both a prominent and yet almost invisible role in the Ghent Altarpiece? Possibly to represent both his public and private life – seen and unseen, open and closed as the altarpiece itself would be at times. But Van Eyck did not limit his exposé. He included others, even himself, as if lighting a lamp so that everything hidden would be made clear and secrets made known and brought to light (Luke 8 : 16-18).

One feature of Henry Beaufort’s life that historians have never been able to factually nail down is the claim of an affair with Alice Fitzalan, Countess of Cherleton, said to have resulted in an illegitimate child, Joan Beaufort, sometimes referred to as Jean.

Alice was the daughter of Richard Fitzalan, 11th Earl of Arundel. She was also the wife of John Cherleton, 4th Baron of Cherleton, who she married sometime before 1392. Joan’s father was executed under Richard II on September 21, 1397. Her husband died October 19, 1401. Perhaps it was when she was at this vulnerable stage in her life that the alleged affair was started.

On July 14, 1398, Henry Beaufort was consecrated bishop of Lincoln. Under Henry Bolingbroke, who usurped the throne of Richard II and became Henry IV, Beaufort was made Lord Chancellor of England in 1403. He resigned his position when he was apponted bishop of Winchester on November 19, 1404. Beaufort was a half-brother to the new king. John of Gaunt was their father.

Most historians consider Beaufort conducted his affair with Alice after her husband’s death in 1401 and at the time he was the bishop of Lincoln, although some surmise the affair and the birth of the child was before Beaufort was ordained a priest. Jan van Eyck points to the affair taking place during the Lincoln period, 1398 to 1404.

Van Eyck also goes as far to designate another woman in Beaufort’s arms around the same time, and the actual mother of the bishop’s daughter, not Alice. A second affair was never considered by historians, although it is quite feasible there was only one and that Alice may have been used as a “stalking horse” to conceal the identity of the child’s real mother.

Alice is said to have died sometime in 1415 and details of any affair she may have had with Beaufort seemingly went to the grave with her. Convenient for Beaufort, although he did provide for his child. The bishop of Winchester, as he then was, eventually arranged for her to marry Sir Edward Stradling. The marriage happened sometime between 1420 and 1423 and both his daughter and her husband were remembered in his will when the cardinal died in April 1447.

Alice Fitzalan is depicted in both of the angel panels alongside the second woman Van Eyck has portrayed as the mother of Beaufort’s daughter – Joan Stafford, widow of Thomas Holland, 3rd Earl of Kent. The marriage was childless and Thomas was beheaded without trial on January 7, 1400, as a result of his role in a failed rebellion against Henry IV known as the Epiphany Rising.

Van Eyck also intimates that the two women, though related through marriage, were rivals for the attention of Bishop Beaufort following the deaths of their husbands.

It may have been Beaufort was content for the rumour of an affair with Alice Fitzalan to circulate among the gossips, even that she was the mother of his child. In that way the real identitiy of the other woman in his life was kept secret. For a churchman of high rank to conduct one affair would have been considered improper; to have enjoyed a second mistress may have opened the door to further speculation about possible other affairs.

So what would have encouraged Alice and even Joan to keep the lid on their alledged romance with Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Lincoln and Lord Chamberlain of England? Did Beaufort exert his power and influence to intimidate them into keeping silent, especially the mother of his child? Did she present a potential threat to his reputation and ambitions in governing both Church and State?

More on this in a future post.

Images: closer to van eyck

Jan van Eyck was here!

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, by Steve Crisp

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.

Image: Steve Crisp

A jigsaw for Christmas

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.

The marriage of Cardinal Henry Beaufort’s illegitimate daughter

A Goldsmith in his Shop, Petrus Christus 1449, Oil on oak panel
Robert Lehman Collection, 1975, Met Museum, New York

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.

Hope to reveal all in the New Year!

Loving angels

The logo created by the Oval Office for the campaign OMG! VAN EYCK WAS HERE

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.

Ghent prepares to honour Van Eyck

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.

Full details HERE

Across the divide

Mantegna’s two panels reunited at London’s National Gallery… Image by Accademia Carrara, Bergamo… read the review by BBC’s art Editor Will Gompertz

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.”

Defrocking St Eloy: Petrus Christus’s Vocational portrait of a goldsmith

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.

The ‘severed’ horse’s leg… a reference to both St Eligius and the biblical prophet Elijah.

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.

The three kings

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.

Lookalike riders

John Lydgate and the Canterbury pilgrims leaving Canterbury… miniature from a manuscript containing The Troy Book and The Siege of Thebes, c. 1455–62. © The British Library Board.

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.

Just Judges, Ghent Altarpiece, source: closertovaneyck

Matching numbers

There are 24 panels in the Ghent Altarpiece. There are 24 stories in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, some of which are alluded to in the altarpiece.

Coincidence, or intended at the planning stage when Hubert van Eyck was commissioned by the Ghent mayor Jodocus Vijd to produce the work?

The number four is the common denominator for most of the numeric references in the Ghent Altarpiece.

Underground music

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 TalesThe 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.

You can follow this blog by email and be notified automatically on future posts by clicking the ‘follow’ button at the top of the outside column.

Images: closertovaneyck

Tell Jan what you hear and see

There’s a likeness between these two portraits, the left being Henry Beaufort painted by Jan van Eyck, and the right being “A Goldsmith in his Shop”, aka a self-portrait of painter Petrus Christus.

A Goldsmith in His Shop painting is based on some of the panels from the Ghent Altarpiece completed by Van Eyck in 1432 and, just as his mentor, Petrus has applied multiple identities to his figures. Not only is the man in the berry hat a reference to John, Duke of Berry, but also a pointer to Henry Beaufort, the man with the golden touch; so rich he was considered the Midas of his time. The portrait also represents St Eligius and, as already mentioned, the artist himself, Petrus Christus.

But for this presentation the focus is on Henry Beaufort and one aspect in particular – his ear. In Jan’s portrait which precedes the completion date of the Ghent Altarpiece, the Lord Chancellor of England, whose fortune bankrolled kings and princes of Europe, is portrayed with a sharp razored hair style trimmed above his temple. The trim line runs down to his rather large ear.

Christus makes the same point in his portrayal except it is the sharp rim of the cap which extends down along the temple and over the top of the ear which is also rather large.

 There is an explanation for this. Van Eyck was, as usual, playing word games and providing clues to anyone who wanted to play along. He was combining two words “temple” and “ear”, But first a trim is necessary – the last letter of the first word, and the first letter of the second word, the letter ‘e’ in both (and shaped as an ear!) – before the new word is formed: TEMPL-AR. (a new look, as the hairstyle!)

So did Van Eyck have knowledge of a connection between Beaufort and the Knights Templar? The organisation was disolved in 1312 and its assets transferred to another Christian military order, the Knights Hospitaller. Could Beaufort have stumbled on some of the Templar fortune possibly hidden at some time?

One of the many legends associated with the Templars is the Holy Grail chalice and connection to Jesus. The Templars were also said to have been keepers of Christ’s burial cloth, now referred to as the Turin Shroud.

Seemingly Van Eyck makes no reference to the Grail Cup, unlike Petrus who places it directly behind the ear in his portrait, but Jan does create a subtle reference to Christ’s tomb and eventual resurrection in Beaufort’s ear, often closed to the appeals of many and possibly even Van Eyck himself. Within the tomb is the shroud-covered corpse awaiting resurrection.

Supporting this point, Van Eyck makes a further reference to the Shroud and the tomb – Beaufort’s red garment, considered by many to be a cardinal’s robe. It isn’t, it represents a woolsack, symbolic of the tomb-shaped seat that the Lord Chancellor sat on in the House of Lords. The seat, without arm rests, was filled with sheep wool, hence the white wool trim. The white wool and its blood-colour cover symbolizes the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) and was considered a Templar symbol.

The ear reference appears several times in the Ghent Altarpiece which is centred on the Lamb of God. For instance, Henry Beaufort appears as the front rider in the group featured in the Just Judges panel and it is not without significance that his ear has been well and truly covered.

Again, there are other narratives relating to this symbolism, Here is one example: The deep-red crown of Beaufort’s fur hat in the image above points to the red cloak worn by another rider in the background. One of the identities of this particular rider is Humphrey Villersexel, Count de la Roche, and a guardian of the Shroud from 1418 until his death in 1438. Close inspection of the red cloak shows that Van Eyck has shaped the form of a shrouded face within the folds.

It’s not without reason that Van Eyck has connected the Shroud to the two outward riders in the group. They represent the two elements of the Pisces constellation that I pointed out in a previous post, Riders in the Sky. As always with Van Eyck he applies more than one level of meaning and understanding, but in this instance has specifically connected the two riders in this way to link to the Shroud.

It has been suggested that the Shroud may have been in England for safekeeping at some time in its history. Could it be that Beaufort, as bishop of Winchester and Lord Chamberlain of England, may have had some role in protecting or housing the Shroud? 

More on this at another time, along with further references to the Shroud found in the Ghent Altarpiece.

Images: metmuseum, closertovaneyck, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wikimedia Commons,

“A bit of the dog in all of us”

A priest was once heard to say to a group of pilgrims: “There’s a bit of the dog in all of us”. He was referring to the times when people break out from their ordered and obedient nature.

There is sense of disorder in the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece – a giant of a man leading a group of rough but seemingly ready-to-follow pilgrims, all men with the exception of the woman at the back of the group identified in the previous post as the Wife of Bath and one of the travellers featured in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Could it be that Jan van Eyck is hinting at “long and tall tales”, or even “shaggy dog” stories told by ‘shaggy’ pilgrims? The clue comes through the leader of the group, St Christopher. His collared hair and flowing beard has a hairy-dog appearance. Van Eyck has even given the saint’s nose a shine. Closer inspection of others in the pack with their squinting eyes suggests they too have a-bit-of-the-dog about them.

An Orthodox Christopher portrayed as a dog-headed saint.

The explanation is that in Eastern Orthodox iconography St Christopher is represented with the head of a dog. Apparently it came about from a mistranslation of the latin word Cananeus which means Canaanite (Cana in Galilee is where Christopher, who was originally named Reprobus, is said to have come from). Along the way Cananeus became misinterpreted as Canineus (canine). There was also a belief that a race of people with a head of a dog really did exist at one time! In The Canterbury Tales the Wife of Bath, seen at the rear of the group, also made mention of Cana in Galilee where Jesus miraculouly turned water into wine.

Reputed to stand over seven feet tall, St Christopher is also depicted here as a Colossus, possibly mirroring the smaller version portrayed by Jankyn, the youth behind him wearing a red tunic and representing a young Constantine. So in this instance Van Eyck is pointing to St Christopher as the Roman Emperor Constantine who moved the imperial capital to Byzantium and renamed it Nova Roma (later known as Constantinople) straddling the Bosphorus.

This East to West connection links to another panel in the altarpiece, so too does the straddling stance taken up by the “Colossus”. It is meant to mirror the straddling theme applied to Henry Beaufort in the Just Judges panel.

 Notice also how St Christopher’s feet are set wide apart, ready to take “one giant leap” across the Bosphorus for Christianity! And the man standing next to the clossus portrayed as Constantine the Great? Possibly St Paul, “called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.” (Romans 1:1) And if Van Eyck intended the white-haired figure to represent Paul, he may also have had in mind the missionary’s warning to the Philippians: “Beware of dogs!” (3:2) 

“Set apart” may also be Van Eyck referencing the East-West Schism of the Church and Constantine’s move to Byzantium, a move seen by some as rash and reckless, and so echoing the the metaphor from Proverbs 26:11: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool reverts to his folly.” But with this metaphor Van Eyck also points to the indiscretion of his mentor Roger Campin, and an adulterous liaison which initially resulted in him being banished from Burgundy and having to set up his ‘business’ elsewhere before he was pardoned and allowed to return. As mentioned in the previous post, Van Eyck has used Campin’s likeness to depict St Christopher.

Images: russianicons.wordpress.com and closertovaneyck

Jankyn van Eyck

A couple of months ago I posted this clip from the Pilgrim’s panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, and wondered who the smiling woman at the back of the group might represent.

Could she be the Wife of Bath, one of the pilgrims featured in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales? Could she also be Margaret van Eyck, the woman Jan married in 1431, just a year before the Ghent Altarpiece went on display?

The Wife of Bath married five times. Her fifth husband was a young apprenticed clerk named Jankyn, a religious and studious man according to the tale she told to the other pilgrims in the group on their way to Canterbury. After a turbulent start the marriage settled into a happy and loving relationship.

The young Jankyn is the beardless youth with the bowl-shaped hair style, and wearing a red cloak. He stands out among the crowd of hairy, elderly men, but not above the colossus of a man leading the group of pilgrims. He is St Christopher – the Christ Bearer – who carried Jesus on his back across a raging river.

Jesus is depicted as the young man on St Christopher’s shoulder, with curled hair and looking straight ahead with his Father’s words in mind: “Let your eyes be fixed ahead, your gaze be straight before you.” (Proverbs 4 : 28)

Jesus represents the New Adam. The Original Adam (mankind) is the man on his right with eyes cast downward. (Compare this likeness to the panel dedicated to Adam in the top register of the altarpiece.) The face of the grey-haired head alongside is covered by the martyr’s red cloak and is symbolic of Christ’s saving grace for the world through his own death and resurrection.

Jan van Eyck’s two versions of Adam

St Christopher is known as the patron saint of travellers. The Wife of Bath was a pligrim. She says in her account she made visitations – to religious feasts and processions, to listen to preachers and to plays about miracles. St Christopher is also the patron saint of batchelors, which may explain why the Wife of Bath with her track record in finding husbands is featured as the only woman among the group of ageing men, and also the reference to Van Eyck’s recent marriage.

While Jesus heeds the words of his Father and fixes his eyes firmly ahead, the eyes of the young Jankyn, the apprenticed clerk, look upwards to the towering giant in front, but not in the guise of St Christopher. In this instance Jankyn is presented as Jan van Eyck himself, in awe of and apprenticed to a painter with a giant reputation who led the way before him – Roger Campin.

The colossus Campin and the smaller Jankyn (notice the rhyming association pun) are paired in another way. While Van Eyck’s reputation is renowned, – he is depicted as the Colossus of Constantine with his fringed forhead and visible ear – his stature is not as great as his teacher and a probable father-figure.

The young Jankyn matched with the Colossus Constantine displayed in Rome

However, Campin also had a reputation other than as a painter. He was a convicted adulterer. Perhaps Van Eyck is hinting that Campin, just as the Wife of Bath confessed, also had ‘a colt’s tooth’ (a euphemism for having youthful and lustful desires) – although he is not portrayed “with teeth set wide apart” that “becomes the woman so well”.

Campin is often portrayed with a turban or, in the case of the St Christopher image, just with a Bourrelet, as shown in the images below.

• More about the Pilgrims panel in my next post.

Brothers by half

Here’s another profile of Henry Beaufort that can be found in the Ghent Altarpiece. Again it’s based on the original drawing of the cardinal by Jan van Eyck, although this version presents him as a younger man with a full head of hair – and there is a reason for it being so.

This image is part of the right-hand-side group of men on the central panel. Beaufort appears distracted. His head is turned towards the edge of the frame, perhaps wistfully looking back on his past, or could his gaze be directed at the man on his left – possibly Hubert van Eyck or even another brother, Barthélemy?

If the figure in the fur hat is one of the Van Eyck family it’s likely to be Barthélemy. Here’s why.

The red hat worn by Beaufort and loose strands of hair beneath is a reference to the figure in the red coat placed on the extreme left of the group of riders in the Just Judges panel. In this instance the faceless figure is of Henry IV (Henry Bolingbroke), half-brother to Henry Beaufort through their father John of Gaunt. In his later life the English king was said to have suffered severe disfigurement, hence his hidden face as one of the judges. This would explain why Van Eyck has shown what appears to be a younger version of Beaufort in the group above. He is saying “this isn’t the cardinal but the King of England (before his disfigurement), Beaufort’s half-brother Henry Bolingbroke… see the family resemblance on his father’s side!”

This also explains why Jan Van Eyck has turned the Bolingbroke head to face the edge of the frame. He is referring to a section of the Just Judges group at the edge of the frame and the man in the fur hat inbetween the figure of Jan himself and the rider at the point of the group, John, Duke of Berry, who commissioned the Limbourg brothers to illuminate the Très Riche Heures. They were never able to complete the work, having all died with the plague in 1406. Nevertheless, work on the book continued and art historians attribute some of the pages to Barthélemy van Eyck. His relationship to Jan and Hubert van Eyck has never been established, but in this central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece Jan has possibly clarified this uncertainty in his usual cryptic style by creating this half-brother analogy.

As for the half-brother connection between Beaufort and Hubert van Eyck, the men are two of the four identities given to the figure on the white horse in the forefront of the Just Judges panel.

Could the central figure in this group from the Just Judges panel be Barthélemy van Eyck,
half-brother to Jan and Hubert van Eyck? The figure in the top right corner is a familiar  and shared profile of the Limbourg brothers in the Très Riche Heures.  Another manuscript produced for the Duke of Berry is the Turin-Milan Hours, for which some leaves are attributed to Jan and Hubert van Eyck. So is Barthélemy the ‘bridge’ between between the two manuscripts. Is Jan also saying that just as Bartélemy worked on completing the TRH following the death of the Limbourg brothers, so also he was commissioned to complete the Ghent Altarpiece following the death of his brother Hubert?

More at this link: Not Niccolò Albergati but Henry Beaufort

Images: closer to van eyck