Fishers of men… and shekels

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sons of Alphaeus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on the sons of Alphaeus in my next post.

Matching pairs

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

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

I mentioned in a post last month that the St Vincent Panels could be the painting the German humanist Hieronymous Münzer referred to in his diary after visiting Ghent in 1495, and attributed to “another great painter” who was “driven mad and melancholy” attempting to emulate Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. He didn’t mention Hugo by name, but historians generally agree that Münzer was referring to Van der Goes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detail from the Panel of the Prince, St Vincent Panels

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

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

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

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

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

Like assembling pieces of a jigsaw…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More names added to list of “Witnesses”

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

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

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

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

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

Witnesses to the Miracle of the Loaves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonah’s sea monster

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

Mark the Evagelist

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

Judas, a repentant betrayer of Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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