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.
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)
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 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?
Two panels from two altarpieces, both possibly by the same artist – Hugo van der Goes! On the left is the Panel of the Knights from the set of six frames known as the St Vincent Panels. On the right is the Donor Panel from a set of four known as the Trinity Altarpiece.
The right panel was probably produced c1477 while the left panel is undated but likely completed in the early 1470’s. The donor panel is attributed to Hugo van der Goes while the Portuguese painter Nuno Goçalves is credited with painting the St VIncent Panels. However, I would judge that both panels are by Hugo van der Goes.
The four principal figures in the Panel of the Knights are generally identified as four sons of King John l of Portugal: Henry the Navigator (kneeling), Peter Duke of Coimbra (in green), John Constable of Portugal (in red), and Ferdinand, wearing the steel helmet.
Certainly, the four knights have second identities, perhaps more. It’s a technique Jan van Eyck applied to the many figures in the Ghent Altarpiece and which Van de Goes tried to emulate, In fact, in the Just Judges panel Van Eyck gave each of the ten riders four identities! In the Arnolfini Portrait he morphed himself with the identity of the Duke of Burgundy.
Van Eyck’s influence is also seen in the donor panel of the Trinity Altarpiece and reminiscent of the Angel Musicians scene from the Ghent Altarpiece.
According to some researchers, Henry the Navigator pops up in two places in the St Vincent Panels: as the moustached man wearing the black bourrelet and standing alongside St Vincent in the Panel of the Prince, and secondly, as the foremost kneeling knight in the the Panel of the Knights, grey haired and without a moustache. The latter identification seems the most plausible, especially as he is grouped with three of his brothers.
The Panel of the Knights has a somewhat liturgical feel about it. Their coats of purple, green, red and blue could be said to represent the colours of liturgical vestments. The four men in surplices standing at the back resemble choristers, although in fact they are Flemish artists, identified left to right as Lambert van Eyck, Jacques Daret, Rogier van der Weyden and Dieric Bouts. They are likely to be lined up in order of their passing with Bouts being the last of the quartet to join the “celestial choir”. He died in May 1475. Could this feature provide an indication to dating the panel?
The four Portuguese princes or infantes were also dead prior to the painting, Henry (the Navigator) being the last of the brothers to survive. He died in 1460.
So what connection does this panel have with the Trinity Atarpiece panel? That the same artist was probably responsible for both works provides an important clue in discovering the second identity given to Henry the Navigator. The two kneeling figures are similar in features. We know the identity of the kneeling donor in the Trinity Panel. He is Edward Bonkil, the Provost of Trinity College Kirk in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Bonkil coat of arms appears on the angel’s chair: three buckles surrounding a chevron.
The same motif is disguised within the kneeling figure said to represent Henry the Navigator, except that it refers to the second identitiy given to Henry – that of another member of the Bonkil family, and likely Edward’s elder brother, Alexander. Three buckles feature on the belt, while the shape of the chevron (a rafter) is formed by the hands joined at the fingertips.
Although similar in features to Edward, Alexander’s hair is grey. His nose is not as sharp as his sibling’s but we have to take into account that the portrait is also morphed with Henry whose nose is pointed.
It is said that “every picture tells a story”. The profile image for the “OMG Van Eyck was here” campaign, features one of the “Singing Angels” from the Ghent Altarpiece. The campaign was conceived and developed by The Oval Office, a Belgian live communication agency.
There is a remarkable story associated with this particular “angel”, the lead singer in the choir of eight angels. At one level it represents Gabriel, the angel of the Annunciation. But this is an angel without wings – on an earthly level, a female chorister who perhaps had the voice of an angel? She is portrayed with an expression of innocence, wide-eyed and with a wide-open mouth – a look of amazement, perhaps? For sure, she stands out from the other angels in the group.
This lead chorister also has a place in the “Musical Angels” panel, but her expression is quite different. She’s the “angel” holding the viola, but no longer singing and wide-eyed. Instead, her lips are sealed; she seems downcast; her glow and freshness has disappeared. Is she blind, as the seated angel is, and as the other “angels” appear to be?
She is also portrayed as one of the women in the Hermits panel. This is not without significance as very little is known about the woman’s life in the wake of the tragic events which occured early in her marriage.
It is also quite possible that this “angel” met with Jan van Eyck on one of his visits to England. She may even have proclaimed at the time: “OMG! Van Eyck is here.”
More on this and the “angel’s” identity in a future post.
Each rider in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece has four identities. In this instance Jan van Eyck has grouped three English kings – Henry IV, Henry V and Richard II – to reference the Epiphany and link to a life-changing event featured in the Singing Angels panel.
Look to Henry V and his single-hump hat for the camel or dromedary reference. This also links to the rider on his left in the guise of René, Count of Piedmont, who kept a camel in his menagerie.
There was a news item published last week about scientists in Wales looking at how slag heaps can be used to remove CO2 from the air in the fight against climate change.
It caught my attention – but not for the most obvious reason. Slag, the waste left over from old ironworks, features in one of the panels in the Ghent Altarpiece, the Musical Angels (Praise with Strings and Organ).
It’s represented in the black blooms featured on the organist’s gown. The organ doubles up for a bloomery, an early type of furnace used for smeting iron, a by-product of which would be steel, hence the shiny steel organ pipes.
A close look at the left edge of the picture frame reveals a fiery figure and what appears to be a set of bellows, pumping air into the furnace and at the same time into the organ. The furnance dust and smoke has seemingly dulled the garments of the other ‘angels’ when, compared to the vivid colours of the ‘angels’ in the opposite panel.
Van Eyck makes another point by weaving the black blooms with expensive gold cloth. So from bloom he rhymes to ‘loom’ and the steel pipes now become the warp while the angel wefts her way across the keyboard, the outcome being the dark and shiny garment ‘drop’ from the loom onto the tiled floor.
As part of the musical narrative Van Eyck switches focus to mythology and the competition between Pan and Apollo as to who was the best musician, Pan on his pipes or Apollo on his lyre. The mountain god Tmolus was the judge. Also present was King Midas, now a follower of Pan. Tmolus judged Apollo the winner. He can be recognised in the painting as the angel holding the lyre and touching Apollo on the shoulder. Notice also the bovine shape of the lyre and its two horns – pointers to the death suffered by Tmolus after being gored by a bull.
King Midas disagreed with Tmolus’s decision and questioned the judgment. Apollo responded by declaring that Midas “must have the ears of an ass!” and with that the king’s ears turned into those of a donkey. The donkey’s ears are featured in gold below the organist’s shoulder. Everything that Midas touched, even his ears, turned to gold. But why did Van Eyck depict Timolus holding the lyre and not Apollo? What made him want to switch the instruments in this way? He had his reasons, which I shall explain in another post.
At surface level the organ-playing ‘angel’ represents St Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. Jan has also portrayed her as being blind. This is a pointer to another chapter from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales – The Second Nun’s Tale – which relates the story of St Cecilia and how she was able, with faith in God, to see beyond the ‘material’ world.
Much more on the Musical Angels panel and identifying the angels in a future post.
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