The butterfly effect

Barthélemy d’Eyck adapted several features from The Three Marys at the Tomb painting for his composition of the January folio in the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry. The field of gold representing the burial shroud of Jesus is one instance. In Barthélemy’s painting the Shroud is the cloth covering the banquet table. Like the field, it glitters with its gold plate and tableware.

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

It’s worth remembering that there is more than one narrative attached to the figures and groupings in the January folio. The reason for this was Barthélemy emulating the composition system used by Jan and Hubert van Eyck of embedding several underlying themes and identities in their paintings, notably in the Ghent Altarpiece and The Three Marys at the Tomb.

The “Field of the Lord” at Saint-Hippolyte-sur-le-Doubs attracted pilgrims for many years because the claimed burial cloth of Jesus, now known as the Shroud of Turin, was displayed there at Eastertime to commemorate the Resurrection of Jesus – a transformation to a new life.

Barthélemy may have likened visiting pilgrims to butterflies, flitting from one pilgrimage destination to another. There were many at that time to choose from, mostly associated with the display of a saintly relic of some sort. But butterflies are also the result of a kind of metamorphosis or transformation, forming their shape through egg, larva and pupa stages to finally become a colorful adult creature of wonder.

Gathered around “The Lord’s Table” set for celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Magi – pilgrims from the East – travelled to Bethlehem to bring gifts and pay homage to the new-born king, are guests of all all types and status, from servants to ‘kings’, all clothed in an array of colours. Even the armoured soldiers fighting in the battlefield tapestry are decked in colourful coats of arms.

Arms, representing wings, is the key to recognising the butterfly theme in the January folio, and there is more than one narrative attached to the theme. Arms and wings also link to another theme in the picture, that of warfare and the equipment and methods used for conducting sieges and conquering castles. Notice also some of the figures are placed shoulder to shoulder, i.e. paired or yoked, suggesting they share a fellowship of some kind, or of the same ilk. For instance, take the identical livery colours of two men in the corners or wings of the frame. At top level they represent the Duke of Berry’s servants. However, the kneeling figure also represents Richard II whose father was the Black Prince, Edward of Woodstock. It was also rumoured that Richard was the illegitimate son of one of his mother’s servants. Hence the pairing of livery colours for the two figures.

So where are the butterfly depictions in the January folio? Apart from bearing in mind the colourful display of some of the men’s garments we can start with the man guzzling at the drinks table, and the man behind eating bread. A list of caterpillar behaviours published on Wikipedia states “Many caterpillars display feeding behaviors which allow the caterpillar to remain hidden from potential predators.” This explains why the faces of the two men are partially hidden. Predators include birds and the drinking man’s hat is meant to represent a pelican arguing with a griffin. An explanation of for this motif is at this link.

Further along the back line is the blue-collared figure with the floppy head cover. The hat combines with the ear-shaped legs of two soldiers in the tapestry to represent a hare, a play on the word hair and a clue to unravel the connection to the group of three men ahead in the line. The flat cap also represents a sow’s ear. Apart from defining a female pig, a sow is a name given to a slow-moving covered apparatus used in siege situations. This is also echoed in the bell shape collar decorated with musical notes and meant to represent a belfry or siege tower, another slow-moving structure. Notice the collar is fur-trimmed and here we have the first reference to the slow-moving caterpillar known to cause significant destruction to crops. Wikipedia states: “ The English word caterpillar derives from the old French catepelose (hairy cat) but merged with the word piller (pillager). The “Cat” was also a mobile shelter used to approach a castle under siege.

The next figure in line, and another hidden face, also has a caterpillar collar. The crown of the hat resembles the shape of a torte cake. Torte is a pun on both taught and torque (as in tension). The figure in this instance represents Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV, who rebelled against Richard II and gathered a force against his cousin to usurp the throne. Torque applies to another medieval siege machine, that of a catapult or its larger version the trebuchet. The Old French word trebucher means “overthrow’.

In this scenario the figure in front of Henry Bolingbroke is the Duke of Gloucester, Thomas of Woodstock. Dressed in silk garments, his fur-lined sleeves represent caterpillars dangling from a tree branch when in the process of creating a silk cocoon. The figure’s face is half covered, his mouth muffled. This motif echoes the muffling feature found in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece and also links to the tonsure feature of Henry’s hat, explained at this link.

The covering of the mouth is a visual pun on the word moth, a transformation of the silkworm. It is while the moth is in its larvae stage, before its cocoon and adult span that it damages and targets animal-based fabrics such as silk. It can also be understood as damage to the fabric and stability of society, In a sense, the artist has portrayed the Duke of Gloucester as his own worst enemy.

Thomas was an uncle to Richard II who made him Earl of Buckingham at his coronation in July 1377. Many of the figures portrayed in the January folio are taken from an extant list of nobles assigned to duties at Richard’s coronation. Thomas was also created Duke of Gloucester in 1485. However, Gloucester was opposed to the king’s royal advisors, namely Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, and Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford. In 1388 Thomas led a group of nobles known as the Lords Appellant to impeach and force the dismissal of some of the king’s royal advisers which included Suffolk and Oxford. Afterwards Richard’s authority as king was somewhat limited but in 1389 with the help of his uncle John of Gaunt he was able to rebuild his power base and exert his authority as king once more. But after further fall-outs with Thomas the king clipped his uncle’s flitting wings and had him arrested and imprisoned in Calais. It is speculated that Richard ordered Thomas’s murder some months later when he was strangled or smothered, or both, and so another reference to the muffled mouth feature in the January folio.

The murder of Thomas, duke of Gloucester. Jean Froissart, Chronicles

The Duke of Gloucester did much to undermine his nephew’s authority as the rightful king, prompted in the background by another appellant and claimant for the throne, Henry Bolingbroke. However, Gloucester too would have felt undermined when Richard II’s father, the Black Prince, returned to England to assist in regaining his son’s control over his opponents.

Gloucester’s blue headdress is a reference to undermining, and a siege tactic where attackers dig or mine beneath a castle wall to weaken its structure. In medieval times miners believed in underground spirits named Kobolds or Bluecaps. Several legends are associated with them. Miners claimed the Kobbolds lived in the rocks and they could hear the spirits drilling and hammering. This is also a reference to the occupants of a castle under siege hearing the mining attempts of their aggressors on the outside. The colour cobalt blue takes its name from the Kobald spirit, hence the colour of Gloucester’s headdress.

The mining theme is also reflected in Gloucester’s ‘tunnelled’ sleeves and the ‘castle ramparts’ design of the cape covering his shoulders.

That Gloucester may have felt undermined on both sides is expressed both in the sense of the chaperon covering his head and as the two men chaperoning him on either side, his brother the Black Prince, and Henry Bolingbroke. Notice two fiendish shapes outlined on either edge of Gloucester’s blue headdress.

The three men as a group also refer to the maxim “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil. Bolinbroke has his eyes covered, Gloucester his mouth, and the Black Prince, his ears. This is another motif borrowed from Jan van Eyck’s Just Judges panel in the Ghent Altarpiece.

The figure wearing the light blue-grey chaperon and dressed in black silk with ‘caterpillar’ trims on the sleeves and collar, is Thomas’s elder brother, Edward of Woodstock, better known in history as the Black Prince. He was the eldest son of king Edward III and heir apparent to the English throne, hence the crown motifs on his black gown. The Black Prince died before his father and it was his son who succeeded to the throne as Richard II, bypassing any claim the duke of Gloucester or Henry Bolinbroke may have considered they had to become king.

The appearance of the trio warming themselves at the fire is not what it seems to be at first glance. There are other narratives embedded in the composition. Their arms are raised to reveal that there is nohing untoward is hidden in the sleeves of their garments. The marshall, in this instance depicted as Richard de Vere, Earl of Oxford, is inviting the three men to “Approach” but the trio appear hesitant. Hands are raised as if on guard. There are reasons for this: One is the fighting reputation of the marshall and another is the three figures behind him all died from the plague. Not only that the three guests represent English forces that fought on French soil in the Hundred Years War.

Royal arms of England

The royal heritage of the brothers Gloucester and the Black Prince is also depicted by their raised arms. The Black Prince strkes the pose of the heraldic Lion Passant Regardent. His head is turned as if looking over his shoulder, possibly wondering if his younger brother, the duke of Gloucester, may have ambitions to usurp his claim to the English throne. Gloucester strikes a similar pose except that both arms are raised to depict him as the heraldic Lion Rampant, while Henry Bolingbroke is shown with only one arm. Like his face, the other is hidden.

The Black Prince is heir apparent to his father’s throne, and here we have another pun incoporated by the artist – the word heir at the front of the sequence of the four-man group, and hare at the start of the line. In between there are several references to the word hair or hairy caterpillar. The pun is extended to the group of Appellants and the word apparent.

The identity of the figure at the start of the group is Jean Creton, a French knight and chronicler, who wrote The Metrical History of Richard II, hence the musical notes on his blue collar. The reference to his floppy hat being a sow – a siege apparatus – also points to the word creton as a French term for bacon fat.

Returning to the butterfly theme and the mention of riddles in an earlier post, here’s another:

First I was small, and round like a pearl;
Then long and slender, as brave as an earl;
Since, like an hermit, I lived in a cell,
And now, like a rogue, in the wide world I dwell

The answer is butterfly, and I shall explain in my next post how this riddle is translated in the January folio.

Joan of Arc, battering ram

Following on from my previous post, here’s another take on the profile image of Joan of Arc featured as one of the Singing Angels in the Ghent Altarpiece.

Detail from the Singing Angels panel in the Ghent Altarpiece

Jan van Eyck has shown her head tilted down to imitate a charging ram, as in a battering ram used in the siege of Orléans. Notice also the ram-horns motif on Joan’s headband.

Jan’s brother Hubert died on September 18, 1426. Two years later Joan took up arms against the English and Burgundians, later claiming heavenly voices directed her to do so. These dates can be be presented as evidence that Jan painted the Singing Angels panel and not Hubert.

It’s probable also that Jan was in turn pointing to the list of charges against Joan, one of which that she dressed as a man (hence another reference to the male sheep). It was on this specific charge she was declared guilty during her trial which provided her prosecutors a reason for burning Joan at the stake.

Joan’s battering persistence in the campaign she led against the English invaders resulted in the Dauphin Charles, the legitimate heir to the French throne, being crowned Charles VII of France in Reims Cathedral on July 17, 1429.

What’s in a name… Joanna or Joan, John or Jan?

In my previous post I explained how the woman in green featured in The Three Marys at the Tomb painting was Joanna, wife of Chuza, and not Mary Salome. I also described how the figure also related to St Peregrine and mentioned that Jan van Eyck had ‘translated’ the figure of Joanna to the Ghent Altarpiece. In similar fashion, Barthélemy d’Eyck translated Jan’s pointers to Joan to the January folio of the Très Riche Heures.

St Peregrine was known as the “Angel of Good Counsel” for the good advice he gave to so many people. Here we can relate the dual identity of Joanna and Peregrine to the angel figure kneeling on the cover of the tomb in The Three Marys painting. In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, the angel counsels the fearful women who came to the empty tomb to leave and report to the disciples that “Jesus has risen from the dead”.

Joanna, in her dual depiction as the Hebrew servant to the wife of Naaman the leper, also gave good counsel when she said to her mistress: “If only my master would approach the prophet of Samaria. He would cure him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5 : 3).

Joanna is also said to have retrieved the head of John the Baptist after he was decapitated on the orders of Herod Antipas, and there are embedded references to the Baptist’s head in the three linked paintings: The Three Mary’s at the Tomb, the Ghent Altarpiece and the January folio of the Très Riche Heures. The disguised pointers all refer to Templecombe in Somerset where, in 1945, a painting known as the Templecombe Head was discovered in the roof of an outbuilding. The panel has been dated to the 13th Century. Views differ as to who the painted head represents, Jesus or John the Baptist, but as the eyes and mouth are open, the Baptist is the more favoured opinion.

So how has Jan van Eyck translated Joanna to the Ghent Altarpiece? There are two panels where this transpires, the Just Judges, and the Singing Angels.

Detail from the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece

In the Just Judges panel, four identities are given to the ten riders. One of the riders is disguised to represent a woman – Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orléans. As Joan did not appear on the scene until after the death of Hubert van Eyck in 1426, it more than suggests that the panel was painted by his brother Jan. Joan was executed in May, 1431, just a year before the Ghent Altarpiece was officially celebrated in May 1432.

• Of the ten featured riders Joan is the only figure with her head uncovered.
• Her hair is cut short. It was cropped in May 1428, at the same time when she was made to dress in men’s clothes to disguise her femininity before journeying to Chinon to meet with the dauphin Charles.
• Her blue mantle is symbolic of heaven and holiness. Other figures in the frame wearing the colour blue also have a religious significance.
• The figure of Joan is fashioned to represent her family’s coat of arms, “Azure, a bow or in fess, thereon three arrows crossed …, on a chief argent a lion passant gules.”
• Azure is the blue coat, on which is a bow-or – the gold chain shaped as a bow. The three arrows are the three pointed segments of her collar, the fess. The chief is a charge that runs across the top edge of the shield, in this case the white, argent, fur trim of the blue mantle, while the lion passant gules refers to Joan’s shorn red mane. “En passant” (in passing) is also a pawn capture move in the game of chess and points to Joan’s capture at Compiègne on May 23, 1430. The pawn reference also connects to another figure elsewhere in the painting.

Detail from the January folio

In the January folio Joan is the partially hidden figure behind the man in the red turban (representing Jan van Eyck and also the dauphin Charles, who Joan helped crown as the French king Charles VII). Joan claimed to have been guided in her mission by the voices of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. The folio depicts Joan’s right arm on the shoulder of Charles. It’s a gesture of protection emphasised by the shape of his arm as a shield. As to any reference to an angel the shoulder on which Joan’s left hand rests can be understood as a wing. Like Joanna in the Tomb painting Joan’s right hand is hidden but her arm appears to point towards the rise in the back of the long seat. The ‘rise’ is known as a wing. The rise is also located next to the napier’s ‘feathered’ garment. His two arms represent the wings of a butterfly which relates to another narrative in the scene.

In the Just Judges panel. the dauphin Charles is shown riding behind Joan and positioned next to his father, Charles the Mad. Notice the shield-shaped arm of the dauphin. Jan van Eyck is the figure in black.

Detail from the Singing Angels panel of the Ghent Altarpiece
Detail from The Three Marys at the Tomb

The Joan and/or Joanna connection to angels is also reflected in the Singing Angels panel of the Ghent Altarpiece. The Maid of Orleans is shown in profile at the highest point of the arc at the top of the frame. Notice the end of her nose is clipped or missing, echoing the disfigured nose portrayal of the leper feature covering Joanna’s hand in the The Three Marys painting. It also symbolises Joan of Arc’s excommunicatuion from the Catholic Church, cast out from the Christian community and treated as a leper. It wasn’t until twenty-fours years after her death that the French heroine was declared by the Church to have been tried and executed unlawfully and her conviction reversed.

Detail from folio 394 Grand Chroniques de France

In the January folio the arm on the shoulder feature is also borrowed from the miniature featuring the lineup of knights belonging to the Order or Company of the Star. There are two instances in the scene showing a hand resting on someone’s shoulder.

That Joan is depicted with an arm around Jan van Eyck is also reflected in a painting by an artist said to have become the prinicpal painter in Brugge after Jan had died in 1441. He was Petrus Christus and his painting known as a Goldsmith in His Shop (1449) shows a mirror image of Van Eyck with his arm around a woman disguised as Joan of Arc. His hand rests on the point where Joan was wounded by an arrow during the Siege of Orléans. As in the January folio, Joan’s left arm stretches down at the ‘wing’ of the goldsmith. In fact there are several features in the Christus painting ‘translated’ from the January folio and, not surprisingly references to John the Baptist and Templecombe.

A Goldsmith in his Shop, Petrus Christus 1449, Robert Lehman Collection, Met Museum

Joanna is also indicated in Jean Colombe’s November folio of the Très Riche Heures. The main figure is portrayed as Bathélemy d’Eyck who served as a painter and “valet de chambre” to René d’Anjou, a similar position that the biblical Chuza held in the service of the army commander Naaman the leper. Joanna was the maid to the wife of Chuza.

The name Chuza is interpreted as ‘seer’ or ‘visionary’, and in the November folio Barthélemy (or Chuza) is shown looking up at the trees above.

Close examination of the golden glow of a section of the leaves reveals the shape of the Lamb of God, and so another connection to John the Baptist whose head was recovered by Joanna.

Eye for eye, tooth for tooth…

In a recent post (Lines of Succession) I mentioned the Latin ‘quatrain’ inscribed on four of the frames of the Ghent Altarpiece, part of which declares Hubert van Eyck “the greatest painter there was” and his “brother Jan second in art”.

Although Hubert was originally commissioned to produce the polyptych it was Jan van Eyck who later took on the commission after his brother’s death in 1426. The project was completed in 1432.

As to how much progress Hubert had made with the commission before his death is uncertain, but apart from the mention in the quatrain Jan acknowledged and paid homage to his brother in other areas of the altarpiece, which suggests where this is the case, the particular panels were executed by Jan “second in art”.

The method Jan used was not only to depict an image of Hubert in some of the panels but also to make reference to some of his brother’s earlier works, thereby building on his statement in the quatrain that his brother was “the greatest painter”.

Below is an example of Jan’s approach to reformatting a part of Hubert’s earlier work. I must say at this stage that the painting I am presenting for comparison is generally attributed to Jan himself, but there is a view held by some art historians that the work is by Hubert and not his brother.

The detail is from the Crucifixion panel of the painting known as the Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych housed at the Met Museum of Art, New York. The comparison is made with detail in the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

left: the Crucifixion scene… right: the Pilgrims panel from the Ghent Altarpiece

The Crucifixion detail portrays a bearded man nose to nose with a white horse. The most striking feature is the open mouths displaying their white teeth, while the eye of the horse looks down on the seemingly closed eye of the man. The grouping is an analogy for the biblical expression, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth”.

Detail from the Crucifixion scene of the Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych and the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece

Jan van Eyck echoes the expression in a different format. The woman is portrayed as The Wife of Bath, a feisty character who features in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (a theme in the Ghent Altarpiece). In lines 605-606 she claims “I was fourty, if I shal seye sooth, but yet I hadde alwey a coltes tooth. Gat-tothed I was, and that bicam me wel… (I was forty, if I tell the truth; but then I always had a young colt’s tooth. Gap toothed I was, and that became me well…)”

So in this instance we have a match for the teeth and colt (horse) reference in Hubert’s painting. As to the eye reference in the bearded man and horse, this is portrayed in the man alongside, depicted with one eye as if blind, and his hat shaped as the muzzle of a horse resting on a cushion. Notice also in Hubert’s version how the horse’s muzzle is cushioned on the brim of the hat belonging to another figure of a man below.

Jan van Eyck has included in the Ghent Altarpiece other elements of paintings attributed to his brother Hugo which I shall present in a future post.

Jan van Eyck and the Monsaraz fresco known as The Good and the Bad Judge

How did Jan van Eyck incorporate some of the elements of the Monsaraz fresco into the Ghent Altarpiece, notably the Just Judges panel?

He took the group of five figures in the fresco that make up the section representing the Bad Judge and transformed them into five figures that form the central group in the Just Judges panel.

Van Eyck applied four identities to each figure, but I will identify only those necessary to explain the transformation. The central rider is the French king Charles Vl, known as Charles the Mad. To his right, wearing the blue hat, is the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund. To the left of Charles, wearing black, is Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and on his left is the artist Pol Limbourg. Riding at the rear of Charles VI is his brother Louis l, Duke of Orleans. A sixth rider also plays a role in the narrative, the figure in blue placed above the French king.

As a trio, Sigismund, Charles and Philip represent the maxim “hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil (see earlier post for explanation). The maxim is also depicted as the evil figure representing temptation placed behind the judge in the fresco: large staring eyes, a wide mouth and elongated ears.

The fresco judge in the red hat is shown as Charles VI, also wearing a red hat. Both are key figures portrayed as being in two states of mind. In the original Just Judges panel the brim of Sigimund’s hat covers the king’s mouth (pictured below) as if it was an overgrown moustache causing his speech to be impeded. Unfortunately for Charles, he suffered from bouts of psychosis and struggled to communicate or make sense to others during these periods. The portrayal of his startled horse with its head turned indicates the turning head of the moustached judge seen in the fresco. Notice also the animal’s wide, staring eyes and pointed ears – an indication it has been spooked and uncertain which direction to take.

The demon behind the judge’s left shoulder and his claw resting on the right shoulder is also represented by Louis 1, Duke of Orleans, reputed to have been the lover of the king’s wife Isabeau of Bavaria.

The duke’s shoulder is shaped as a shield, symbolic of protecting himself (and not his brother). He is draped in three gold chains (symbolic of the claws of the demon resting on the judge’s back and shoulder), two of which are twisted which, in heraldic terms, is referred to as a tortilly or wreath. The chains form part of the insignia, along with an emblem of a gold porcupine on a green base, associated with the Order of the Porcupine founded by the Duke of Orleans in 1394. Van Eyck is equating the spiky symbol and the duke’s betrayal of his brother as a stab in the back. The pattern on the duke’s coat confirms the analogy.

The twisted chains are echoed in the twisted under-sleeve of the rider in blue that appears also to be protruding from the king’s hat. In the original painting the twist features the face of a demon. This serves a two-fold purpose as one of the identities of the rider in blue is Joan of Arc, said by her accusers to be possessed. The claim may also have been made to explain Charles’ mental state.

On the left of King Charles is Philip the Good (the kneeling figure in the fresco wearing the dark tunic). The French king was also Philip’s father-in-law as his daughter Michelle was the Duke’s first wife. Philip the Good can also be considered a counter-balance to the evil reputation of the Duke of Orleans, the pivot being King Charles known as both The Beloved and The Mad depending on the state of his mental health – sane or insane.

The mention of balance is associated with the French town of Troyes from where the Troy weight system is said to originate from and was a process measured in units of barley grain.

The grains are represented by the prayer beads suspended around the Duke of Burgundy’s neck. Another clue to a barleycorn connection is that the two strands of beads align with the ears of the startled horse. Ears of barley – pearl barley, hence the rosy pink tinge of the beads. Van Eyck has taken his inspiration for this feature from the holes in the two uprights of the judge’s chair next to the kneeling figure.

Alongside the rider in black is the artist Pol Limbourg representing the court scribe in the fresco who is observing and recording the scene in front of him. Limbourg’s baton is the scribe’s writing utensil. But notice the subtle detail Van Eyck has observed in the depiction of the scribe. It appears that the scribe is carrying the table top under his right arm. An illusion of course, but one Jan has replicated by giving the impression that the baton (representing an artist’s paintbrush) is carried by Pol Limbourg under his arm.

The fresco figure kneeling on the right side of the judge is the source for Van Eyck’s depiction of the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, who hears no evil as his ear is covered by the fur hat of another rider next to him. His ‘V’ shape neck chain is reflected in the pronounced ‘V’ shape of the collar of the bearded fresco figure. So is Sigismund’s beard. The two birds in the right hand of the fresco figure are echoed by Sigismund’s hands formed as wings, the right hand depicted in an offering gesture. Charles’ right hand is shown adjacent to Sigismund’s right hand, as are the two right hands in the fresco. The turned head of the horse mirrors the turned head of the judge.

As to the depiction of the startled horse this can be picked up from the shape and features seen at foot of the judge’s gown.

These matching observations, coupled with those pointed out in my previous post, are evidence that Jan van Eyck had sight of the Monsaraz fresco, known as The Good and the Bad Judge, before he began work on the Ghent Altarpiece which was completed in 1432, and that his lead was later followed by Hugo van der Goes in his attempt to emulate the Ghent Altarpiece and pay homage to the Van Eyck brothers.

Patching up with the past

The Monsaraz fresco known as The Good and Bad Judge, was discovered in 1958 during renovations to the town’s old court building. There is a consensus that the artwork was likely created in the latter part of the 15th century, although later additions (primarily depicting two coats of arms) and perhaps some restoration work were carried out later.

My understanding is that the fresco was painted at a much earlier date, before 1425 and the year the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck was part of the Burgundian diplomatic miission sent to Portugal to pave the way for the marriage of Philip ll, Duke of Burgundy, to Isabella, the only daughter of King John l.

There are elements of the fresco which afterwards Van Eyck incorporated in the Ghent Altarpiece completed in 1432, notably in the Just Judges panel.

In later years Hugo van der Goes seemingly had sight of and studied the fresco as he too was inspired to include some of its features in the St Vincent Panels in his attempt to emulate the Ghent Altarpiece and pay homage to the Van Eyck brothers.

As a citizen of Ghent, Van der Goes would have been more than familiar with the town’s famous altarpiece, and probably the hidden iconography embedded in its panels. For what other reason would Hugo choose to mirror many references to the iconic work of Jan and Hubert van Eyck in the St Vincent Panels?

Returning to the Monsaraz fresco as a source of inspiration for both Jan van Eyck and Hugo van Der Goes, it’s not difficult to match to sections in the St Vincent Panels. For starters, the three figures on the left side of the fresco’s lower register can be compared to the group of three men wearing white religious habits featured in the Panel of the Friars. Two are wearing black hats and one has a beard.

Detail from the Monsaraz fresco and the St Vincent Panel of the Friar

Van der Goes made some adjustment in his painting with the positioning of two of the friars, moving the notary to the front of the frame and the fairhead friar into the centre of the trio.

Now as to the question which artwork was produced first, the fresco or the St Vincent Panels, there are TWO notable clues in the fresco that provide the answer and which Hugo has referenced in his unique way in the Panel of the Friars.

The fresco is damaged in some areas. Paint and its plaster base is missing. In the lower section part of the right arm and hand of the seated judge is lost. Van der Goes has referenced the shape of this missing piece as the black hat worn by the kneeling friar and which covers the hands of the friar behind him.

Detail from the Monsaraz fresco and the St Vincent Panel of the Friar

The shape of the damaged arm in the fresco can also be matched to a ‘mirror’ image in the Panel of the Relic – the relic itself – confirming that Van der Goes had prior sight of the damaged fresco before he completed painting the St Vincent panels. Further confirmation is part of the hand protruding from beneath the damaged area. Hugo picks up on this as well and reproduces the fingers feature as extending from the sleeve of the bearded friar.

Another obvious missing section in the fresco is the top right segment of the upper register. The angel blowing the trumpet is almost obliterated, as is the head of the Suffering Christ in Glory as if decapitated from the body. A piece of the Saviour’s hair is all that remains visible. The word ‘hair’ is not only a key to discovering the Suffering Christ connection in the Panel of the Friars, but also to a series of embedded homophones revealing other identities and connections in the frame.

Christ on his throne… Monsaraz fresco…

Van der Goes also references this missing feature in the Panel of the Friars. Look closely at the head of the figure first in line on the back row. In this instance his identity is the Roman governor Pontius Pilate who was the judge at the trial of Jesus, the judge who responded to Christ’s claim to have been born to witness to the truth: “Truth, what is that?” before handing Jesus over to be crucified.

Pontius Pilate… his ear… and Lambert van Eyck… St Vincent Panels

Hugo has illustrated Christ’s crucifixion within the shape of Pilate’s ear, (a reminder that Pilate had listened to Jesus witness he was the Son of God. But notice that the head of Christ and part of the upper body is missing, hidden under Pilate’s hairline. This is not only a reference to the missing head of Christ in the fresco but also to the phrase found in the Nicene Creed: “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” Various references to the Nicene Creed can be found in other sections of the St Vincent Panels. Truth is also reflected in the head of Lambert van Eyck seen in the Panel of the Relic (and a pointer to Van Eyck’s famous mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait). Truth can be understood as the Holy Spirit shaped into Lambert’s hair, and to the first part of his name as Lamb (of God).

So while some may argue that the fresco was painted after and inspired by the St Vincent Panels, it is highly unlikely that whoever painted the fresco deliberately damaged the work to coincide with Hugo’s references to the missing limbs and head. Hugo has restored the missing parts of the fresco in new light, as if rediscovering or resurrecting lost relics.

“Then the One sitting on the throne spoke: “Now I am making the whole of creation new,” he said. “Write this, that what I am saying is sure and will come true.” And then he said. “It is already done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End…” (Revelation 21 : 5-6)

Notice the Alpha and Omega symbols below “the One sitting on the throne” in the upper register of the fresco!

• My next post will deal with a section of the fresco that inspired Jan van Eyck to utilise in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

Lines of succession

Another written source Hugo van der Goes called on so as to link Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert in the St Vincent Panel of the Relic was Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (Natural History). The Roman author’s ‘encyclopedia’ provides an account of a contest between two Greek artists, Apelles and Protogenes. Apelles was attached to the court of the Macedonian king Philip II, and later served his son Alexander the Great. His rival Protogenes resided in Rhodes.

Protogenes and Apelles

“A circumstance that happened to him [Apelles] in connection with Protogenes is worthy of notice. The latter was living at Rhodes, when Apelles disembarked there, desirous of seeing the works of a man whom he had hitherto only known by reputation. Accordingly, he repaired at once to the studio; Protogenes was not at home, but there happened to be a large panel upon the easel ready for painting, with an old woman who was left in charge. To his enquiries she made answer, that Protogenes was not at home, and then asked whom she should name as the visitor. “Here he is,” was the reply of Apelles, and seizing a brush, he traced with colour upon the panel an outline of a singularly minute fineness. Upon his return, the old woman mentioned to Protogenes what had happened. The artist, it is said, upon remarking the delicacy of the touch, instantly exclaimed that Apelles must have been the visitor, for that no other person was capable of executing anything so exquisitely perfect. So saying, he traced within the same outline a still finer outline, but with another colour, and then took his departure, with instructions to the woman to show it to the stranger, if he returned, and to let him know that this was the person whom he had come to see. It happened as he anticipated; Apelles returned, and vexed at finding himself thus surpassed, he took up another colour and split both of the outlines, leaving no possibility of anything finer being executed. Upon seeing this, Protogenes admitted that he was defeated, and at once flew to the harbour to look for his guest.”

Pliny the Elder, The Natural History
Jan and Hubert van Eyck, as Apelles and Protogenes

Jan van Eyck was sometimes referred to as Apelles by his contemporaries, such were his skills and knowledge as an artist, but there was another reason why he was compared to the Greek painter in this way. While Jan served Philip II, duke of Burgundy, as valet de chambre, he was also employed as the Burgundian court painter

“The Dukes  of Burgundy saw their ambitions in historical contexts. The fascination with Alexander the Great, revealed in their patronage, demonstrated their ambitions to be compared to this great ancient model. This interest further enhanced the status of individuals like Jan van Eyck. The comparison was made between the court of Alexander with his painter Apelles and the court of Philip the Good with his painter Jan van Eyck.”

Jan van Eyck as a Court Artist


But by relating Jan and Hubert van Eyck to the Pliny account of Apelles and Protogenes, Hugo van der Goes intended yet another connection to the Ghent Altarpiece – the Latin ‘quatrain’ inscribed on four of the frames of the Ghent Altarpiece, part of which declares Hubert van Eyck “the greatest painter there was” and his “brother Jan second in art”.

Part of the quatrain featured on one of the frames of the Ghent Altarpiece

However, although the consesus is that Jan is referring to himself as second best, Van der Goes may have interpreted the phrase “second in art” as “second in line”, that is Jan being the second artist born in the Van Eyck family, Hubert being the first – Protogenes (proto = original or first; gene = from genos, meaning generation of birth). Also, ‘Protogenes’… a subtle play on the word ‘Portuguese’ (Portogees) by Hugo van der Goes.

UPDATE July 21, 2021: So where in the Panel of the Relic is the “line of singularly minute fineness” to be found? It’s the black strap worn over the right shoulder of the figure of Jan van Eyck. In heraldic terms it represents a ‘bend’ or a line of partition placed on a shield (the shape of the white undergarment). A ‘bend’ is a band or strip running from the upper dexter corner of the shield to the lower sinster and can be further partitioned.

More details about the Panel of the Relic in my next post.

Panel of the Relic… more connections

Over the years art historians have speculated on the identity of the 60 figures in the St Vincent Panels, without ever able to agree on a definitive line-up. Their efforts, it seems, have always focused on linking the 58 males and two women to Portuguese society, perhaps led by the fact the panels were discovered in the 1880s – in the monastery of Saint Vicente de Fora, in Lisbon.

So for some figures multiple names have been posited for their identity. In a sense this mixed bag of identities held an answer historians were searching for, but had yet to consider since they were focused on producing a single identity for each figure. The fact is that each figure usually has more that one identity, depending on a particular theme the artist embedded. While the painting is officially attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves, my preference is the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes who is featured on the back row of the Panel of the Prince. It may be that the work and the commission was shared between the two men, similar to the Ghent Altarpiece attributed to the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

The Ghent Altarpiece is perhaps the principal source of inspiration for the St Vincent Panels, and especially for the concept of using multiple identities. In the Just Judges panel Jan van Eyck has applied four identities to each of the ten riders. This was the challenge for Hugo van der Goes, to create a similar work embedded with multiple identities. To truly get to grips with the St Vincent Panels one has to understand the embedded themes and iconography Jan introduced in the Ghent Altarpiece. Without this knowledge or understanding it is not possible to grasp and comprehend all that Van der Goes presented in the St Vincent Panels.

Another painter, Barthélemy van Eyck, had knowledge of Jan’s disguised iconography in the Ghent Altarpiece and incorporated parts in the January folio he produced for Les Très Riche Heures when the manuscript was later in the possession of René d’Anjou. It’s also likely, Lambert van Eyck, a brother to Jan and Hubert, had knowledge of the cryptic narratives in the Ghent Altarpiece.

In the Panel of the Relic, Hugo van der Goes depicted the likeness of the three Van Eyck brothers. Barthélemy is also referenced but not seen and is a second ‘hidden’ identity given to Jan van Eyck. Jan also appears as John the Baptist, his name saint and the name of the church the Ghent Altarpiece was originally commissioned for until it was later renamed as St Bavo after it was rebuilt in the 16th century. St Bavo is the patron saint of Ghent.

Hugo van der Goes sourced a painting by Rogier van der Weyden for the image of Jan Van Eyck. The painting, now fragmented, portrayed Jan as Joseph the husband of the Virgin Mary, The section, which is housed at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon shows part of a church tower with a vacant aedicula to house a statue of some kind. The platform and canopy are there but the statue is missing. It’s very likely this motif partly inspired Van der Goes to portray Jan standing in front of an empty wooden box, which most observers presume is a coffin.

The wooden box acts as a visible link between the two Van Eyck brothers, so does it have other levels of meaning associated with the two figures? It’s constructed from a number of panels. Could it point to the wood panels that Jan and Hubert painted on to create the Ghent Altarpiece, perhaps a particular unfinished panel started by Hubert before his death in 1426? The Ghent Altarpiece is also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.

Observe Van Eyck’s red hat, shaped as a resting lamb, and a pointer to Jan’s self-portrait titled Man in a Red Turban, painted a year after the Ghent Altarpiece was unveiled. Hugo would have understood that the turban’s intricate folds also depicted the ‘Lamb of God’.

The Ghent Altarpiece was commissioned by the prosperous Flemish merchant and nobleman Joos Vijd, for his funeral bay chapel in the Ghent church of St John the Baptist. When completed in 1432 the painting was placed above the St Bavo altar in what became known as the Vidj Chapel.

St Bavo is the patron saint of Ghent. He came to faith late in life ‘after leading a worldly and dissipated life’ as a knight for nearly fifty years. His conversion came following his wife’s death and after listening to the preaching of St Amand. For a while he attached himself to a Benedictine monastery in Ghent but eventually moved out and lived a more secluded life out of a hollow tree in the forest of Malemedum, surviving only on herbs and spring water. The hollow tree, a natural harbour for shelter and rest, and a bay within the forest, has partly inspired Hugo’s empty wooden box. The mention of forest connects to the figure alongside of St Hubert whose conversion took place while hunting in a forest. However, the principle connection to the empty coffin or the hollow tree, is a pun to reference All Hallows’ Evening (Halloween, also known as All Saints’ Eve) followed by All Hallows Day – the Christian feast of All Saints; hence the many references made to Christian saints in the Panel of the Relic. The reference also serves to link to the phrase “communion of saints” (sanctorum communionem) declared in the Apostles’ Creed, which in turn connects to an earlier mention of the medieval poem: William’s Vision of Piers the Plowman.

There are other links. Understood as a niche or a nook, the box leads to a prevalent theme in the Panel of the Relic, that of books, and one of the most obvious being the holy book held by Jean Jouffroy. At the time of the painting Hugo van der Goes was a lay brother in a religious community known as the Brethren of the Common Life based at the Red Cloister priory near Brussels that housed an impressive collection of books as well as a workshop for book production.

The pious way of life adopted by the brothers of the community was also known as Devotio Moderna (the Modern Devotion). An early follower was Thomas á Kempis who wrote the popular book on Christian meditation, The Imitation of Christ. One of the famous quotes attributed to Thomas is used by Hugo to link the wooden box with books: “I have sought everywhere for peace, but found it not, except in nooks and in books.” Hugo repeated the quote in a later painting known as the Dormition of the Virgin, depicting Kempes gripping the headboard of the Virgin’s bed and decorated with the carved shape of an open book.

Another written source Hugo called on so as to link Jan and his brother Hubert to a specific feature of the Ghent Altarpiece was Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (Natural History). The Roman author’s ‘encyclopedia’ provides an account of a contest between two Greek artists, Apelles and Protogenes. Apelles was attached to the court of the Macedonian king Philip II, and later served his son Alexander the Great. His rival Protogenes resided in Rhodes.

More on this in my next post

Plowmen, poems and puns

In a previous post I revealed how Hugo van der Goes embedded a reference in the Panel of the Relic to a medieval poem titled William’s Vision of Piers the Plowman. This was to mimic the references Jan van Eyck made to Geoffrey Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales in the Ghent Altarpiece. Another ‘tale’ that was provided a place in the Just Judges panel of the altarpiece was the Plowman’s Tale, said to have been sourced from Pierce the Plowman’s Crede. Van der Goes also included references to these two poems in the Panel of the Relic.

Barthélemy van Eyck picked up on Jan’s references and depicted the conversation between the Pelican and the Griffin in the January folio of Les Très Riche Heures. Hugo went further back in time for his source to a similar debate found in the poem, The Owl and the Nightingale.

It’s not difficult to recognise Hugo’s owl in the Panel of the Relic. It’s the figure portrayed as Jean Jouffroy, except that in this scenario the figure is given a fourth identity, William of Paris, a Dominican priest and theologian, and confessor to the French king Philip IV. He was made Inquisitor of France in 1303 and began a campaign against the Templars in 1307.

The other three identities Hugo has applied to the figure in black is Jean Jouffroy, René of Anjou and Pierre Cauchon.

Detail from Rogier van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments

The link to William of Paris comes via the group of three Van Eyck brother alongside Jouffroy. The four men are also grouped in one of the scenes from the triptych painted by Rogier van der Weyden, known as the Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1445-1450), now displayed in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp. 

William of Paris completed writing the Dialogus de Septem Sacramentis (Dialogue of the Seven Sacraments) in 1314, the same year the Templar knight Geoffroi de Charney was executed, burnt at the stake on a small strip of land in the River Seine.

The nightingale can be discovered in the central panel of the surplice worn by man in the red collar, already identified as symbolic of the Templar flag, the Beauceant. The panel also represents the island in the Seine, known as both Jews Island and Templars Island.

As stated in an earlier post Hugo van der Goes was an accomplished heraldic artist. ‘Engrailed’ around the top of the centre panel in the surplice is a series of of border arcs forming outward points. ‘Knight’ coupled with ‘engrail(ed)’ puns as ‘nightingale’! 

Not without coincidence is the engrailed feature and the eyes of the man in black placed on the same level, although the debate makes clear the owl and the nightingale did not see ‘eye to eye’.

Sourcing the sun and the moon

In yesterday’s post about the Panel of the Relic, I mentioned the Limbourg Brothers, John duke of Berry, and a partial solar eclipse. What I wasn’t aware of when I published the post was some parts of the world had or would experience different extents of a solar eclipse that day!

So who or what inspired Hugo van der Goes to reference a solar eclipse in the Panel of the Relic? The idea is rooted in the January calendar folio of the manuscript Les Très Riches Heures. The detail is presented here and shows the duke of Berry seated in front of a circular fire screen. Standing on his left is Pol Limbourg, his left arm and elbow cutting into the screen that represents the moon. The boat-shaped serving dish forms another eclipse motif – the golden sun.

Also mentioned in the previous post was the possibility that some parts of the Calendar folios were not completed until the 1440s, probably by Barthélemy van Eyck. His relative Jan van Eyck died in 1441, nine years after completing the Ghent Altarpiece. Barthélemy made references to the famous polyptych in the January folio, some of which Hugo has picked up on and transferred to the St Vincent Panels.

The duke of Berry’s spiked hat is another motif Hugo has matched with the porcupine relic reference explained in a previous post, except that Berry’s hat also represents the Crown of Thorns. The duke owned several ‘Holy Thorns’, one of which still exists and is mounted in a reliquary displayed in the British Museum.

Making straight highways…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revealing the Relic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through this sign you will conquer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detail from the Friars section of the St Vincent Panels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Three Crowns’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on this in my next post.

Dissecting the Panel of the Friars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choral clues to attribution date?

When Hugo van der Goes set about including choristers in two panels of the St Vincent polyptych there can be no doubt he was inspired by the two prominent panels of singing and musical angels that Jan van Eyck had painted in the Ghent Altarpiece. However, instead of angels, Hugo preferred Flemish painters in the guise of choristers.

Left: The Singing and Musical Angels panels from the Ghent Altarpiece, matched with the Knights and Relic panels from the St Vincent Panels.

Another reason was to point to the period in his life after he joined the Rood Klooster, an Augustinian community, in 1475 and suffered a mental breakdown some five years later. To aid Hugo’s recovery the prior Thomas Vessem arranged regular choral sessions as part of the painter’s therapeutic treatment. This rationale was based on the biblical account of David playing his harp for Saul who was plagued by an evil spirit. Whenever the evil spirit bothered Saul, David would play his harp, Saul would relax and feel better, and the evil spirit would go away. (1 Samuel 16 : 14-23)

Death of the Virgin, 1639, etching and drypoint by Rembrandt.

Rembrandt picked up on this in his etching referred to as Death of the Virgin (1639), except that the person in the bed is Hugo van der Goes and not the Virgin Mary! Hugo is surrounded, not by choristers or musicians, but by the many characters from the paintings he produced after his recovery.

Centuries later, and based on a chronicle account by Gaspar Ofhuys, a monk who resided at the Rood Klooster during Hugo’s time there, the Belgian artist Emile Wauters created a painting in 1872 showing a manic Hugo seated and listening to four choristers and two musicians.

The Madness of Hugo van der Goes. Wood engraving, 1890, from a painting by Émile Wauters, Wellcome Collection.

The work even drew comment from the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh in letters he wrote to his brother Theo, stating he likened his own appearance to the depiction of Hugo.

So does Hugo’s pointer in the St Vincent Panels to the treatment he received after his breakdown suggest that the polyptych was completed after his recovery, sometime during the years he was at the Rood Klooster, between 1475 and the less-than-certain date of 1482 given for his death?

Seeing double

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

Why do the St Vincent Panels show a double image of the martyred deacon in the two centre frames, and almost identical in presentation? What or who inspired this ‘mirror’ effect. Is it designed to prompt the viewer to contemplate and ‘reflect’ on a particular mystery, or does it simply relate to two episode’s in St Vincent’s life and perhaps those who surround him?

Standing near to the deacon in the Panel of the Prince is the Hugo van der Goes (right), and probably the Flemish artist responsible for the painting and production of the St Vincent Panels, and not Nuno Gonçalves the Portuguese artist the work is currently attributed to.

I would go as far as to say that the St Vincent Panels may be the painting the German humanist Hieronymous Münzer mentioned in his diary after visiting Ghent in 1495, and attributed to “another great painter” who was “driven mad and melancholy” attempting to emulate Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. He did not mention Hugo by name, but historians generally agree that Münzer was referring to Van der Goes who suffered a breakdown late in his life.

Hugo has made several references in the St Vincent Panels to the work of Jan van Eyck – also to other Flemish painters. Jan and his two brothers Hubert and Lambert are presented in the Panel of the Relic.

Van der Goes has sourced the Ghent Altarpiece for his two versions of St Vincent, deacon and martyr. Jan van Eyck included two tonsured deacons standing next to each other in the central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, walled in between a line of three popes and a row of seven bishops (right). The two deacons are St Stephen and St Lawrence. The latter shares a common birthplace with St Vincent. Both were born in Huesca in Spain.

St Stephen, who was stoned to death, is identifiable by the rocks gathered in his dalmic vestment, and the collar resting on his shoulders, studded with precious stones. St Lawrence holds a Gospel book but can be more readily recognised by the pattern on his collar, a reference to the manner of torture he suffered when he was placed on a gridiron with hot coals underneath. Another clue is that Lawrence is turned facing away from the direction most of the group are looking toward. This is a reference to the length of time he was being roasted and quipped to his torturers: “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over!”

Van Eyck placed these two particular deacons together for a reason, St Stephen was martyred in Jerusalem but eventually his relics were brought to Rome and laid to rest alongside those of St Lawrence, martyred in Rome. It is said that when Stephen’s bones were reinterred, Lawrence’s relics miraculously moved to one side to accomodate those of Stephen’s – perhaps another reason why Lawrence is shown turned towards his neighbour. The two deacon’s remains are interred under the high altar in what is now known as the Basilica Papale di San Lorenzo fuori le mura.

Although there is much mystery about the origin and history of the St Vincent panels, the assumption that the six sections formed part of a larger altarpiece dedicated to St Vincent in Lisbon Cathedral is widely promoted and referred to as the “Vicente thesis”.

At some time during its history, the six panels were presumed lost – as was the rest of the Lisbon Cathedral altarpiece – until they were discovered in the 1880s at the monastery of Saint Vicente de Fora in Lisbon. This find has led some researchers to consider the six panels were never part of the Cathedral altarpiece dedicated to St Vincent, and instead formed a single work commissioned solely for the São Vicente de Fora monastery. The monastery was founded in the 12th century by Portugal’s first king Alfonso Henrique for the Augustinian Order. It was rebuilt between 1582 and 1629, which may explain why the St Vincent panels were discovered “covered in dirt and soot” among scaffolding some 300 years, perhaps having been relocated during the reconstruction of the monastery – the monastery descibed as being “outside the walls”, just as the Basilica of St Lawrence in Rome is also descibed as being “outside the walls” (San Lorenzo fuori le mura).

So has the artist who painted the St Vincent Panels provided a clue to the location the polyptych was originally commissioned for by linking the two deacons in Van Eyck’s work to the double image of St Vincent and the fact that the two churches are referred to as being “outside the walls”?

Although a Vicente theorist, the Portuguese art historian Reynaldo dos Santos (1970) proposed the retable was destined for the monastery of São Vicente de Fora because he considered the only obvious relics of St Vincent depicted in the panels were the skull fragment and coffin, which were in possession of the monastery and not Lisbon’s cathedral.

Another point to consider is that Hugo van der Goes – if he was responsible for painting the St Vincent Panels – was also a lay brother from 1477 at the Rood Klooster (Red Cloister), an Augustinian priory near Brussels. It was around this period that he suffered a breakdown and attempted to self-harm. The method and instrument he used is illustrated in at least three of his later paintings including the St Vincent Panels.

The Red Cloister takes its name from the red tiles of the roof which could explain why the two St Vincent figures are wearing red hats – the artist confirming the work was produced during the time he lived at the priory. Or is this simply a hat-tip to Jan van Eyck’s self portrait of a Man in a Red Turban, shaped as a red rooster and a pun on Red Klooster? Perhaps both.

St Vincent’s red hat could also be viewed as a pointer to another painting by Jan van Eyck – the Arnolfini Portrait and its prominent mirror on the wall. Not only does it reflect the backs of the two main subjects but also shows two or possibly three other obscure figures in the room, one of whom is considered to be Van Eyck in the process of painting the couple and wearing his red hat.

This famous painting was echoed in a manuscript illumination attributed to Loyset Liédet and forrms part of a book titled Histoire de Charles Martel. The compiler of the text is thought to have been Jean Wauquelin, but the minature actually features David Aubert who transcribed or translated the text, and is shown wearing a similar red hat to St Vincent. His pose is also reminiscent of the saint as seen in the Panel of the Archbishop.

This folio provides the link to identifying two more of the figures in the St Vincent Panels. The man holding a book and standing at the right end of the line is Jean Wauquelin. Turning his head toward Wauquelin is David Aubert, minus his red hat. Van der Goes has ‘translated’ the hat onto the head of the figure in front who is Anthony of Burgundy, Aubert’s main patron and the favourite bastard son of Philip the Good. Anthony also features in the Loyset Liédet illumination. He’s the figure in the blue gown, wearing a gold chain and pointing to Aubert’s work.

The facial features of St Vincent are adapted from the Good and Bad Judge fresco in the old town hall of Monsaraz, where Van Eyck visited during his year-long diplomatic excursion to Portugal. The judge’s double-face or turned head was probably another feature what partly inspired Jan’s portrayal of the two deacons in the Ghent Altarpiece.

Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on this at Jan van Eyck’s ‘Pieta’ and His Name is John