I mentioned in my previous post that I’ve been taking a fresh look at the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly the five lower register panels when opened.
The four outer panels on the lower register – Just Judges, Knight of Christ, Hermits and Pilgrims – depict four groups of society making their way through life (pilgrimage) towards a New Jerusalem, the focus of the centre panel, Adoration of the Lamb of God.
The four panels also point to four poems written annonymously and who medievalist scholars refer to as the Pearl Poet, or Gawain Poet.
Without going into any detail at this stage we can rename the panels with the poem titles:
Some of the connections will seem pretty. obvious, but I’ll explain at another time the iconography that links to the titles, probably a post for each panel.
And, yes, I now know the name of the elusive Pearl Poet according to Jan van Eyck, and his reason for revealing him in the Ghent Altarpiece – which was not just solely to connect to the poetry narrative embedded in the painting.
Two other poets of the period, Geoffrey Chaucer and Thomas Hoccleve, are also referenced in the altarpiece.
The masthead used for his blog shows detail (in reverse) from Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man, thought to be of the artist himself, and dated October 21, 1433. It is on display at the National Gallery, London. More information about the painting can be accessed at this link.
Whether the date on the painting is the completion or start date, I cannot say, but it places the work in the year following the installation of Van Eyck’s famous Ghent Altarpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral on May 6, 1432. As well as the proximity in completition dates, Van Eyck has inked the two works in other ways.
Jan van Eyck began his artistic career as an illuminator of books and manuscripts. Some samples of his early work appear in the Turin-Milan Hours manuscript, and he also referenced the work of other illuminators, notably the Limbourg brothers, in the Ghent Altarpiece.
An illuminator’s role was to illustrate the text in and decorate the pages of a book, creating a visual interpretation of a storyline or theme. In some cases the illustration would have more impact with the reader than the words. Invairably, some illuminators would shine the light beyond the subject matter and embed other narratives that were not part of the text. Jan van Eyck did this and continued with the technique when he started to paint on panels with oils, sometimes cross-referencing his embeded narratives with other works, his own included.
Perhaps a simple example of this is the Portrait of a Man (in a Red Turban) shown here. Jan van Eyck’s signature motto is inscribed on the frame, as is the date, so the painting is generally viewed as a portrait of its time, and probably of the artist himself, Jan van Eyck.
However, that the work is signed by Van Eyck suggests there is more to appreciate and discover in the painting than a striking portrait of a 15th century man.
There are hidden narratives which art historians have not uncovered.
This terracotta head of a young man is known as “Christo fanciulllo”. It came to light in 1931 after it was discovered in a convent at Ascoi Piceno. As to the sculptor, Leonardo da Vinci is considered a candidate. His name is linked to a claim made in 1584 by the Italian artist Gian Paolo Lomazzo who wrote: “I have also a little terracotta head of Christ when he was a boy, sculpted by Leonardo Vinci’s own hand…”
However, there is an earlier reference which also links to the terracotta Christo fanciullo(Christ as a young man). It appears in the Monforte Altarpiece painted by Hugo van der Goes. Although its current attribution is c1470, the painting has references which date the work to a later period, probably to sometime in 1482, the year that Van der Goes is said to have died.
The main panel of the Monforte Altarpiece depicts the Adoration of the Magi. Like Bottcelli’s Uffizi version it has underlying narratives and picks up on Botticelli’s references to Leonardo, his pointers to other artists and the assasination of Giuliano de’ Medici. Hugo is depicted in the Botticelli altarpiece and returns the compliment by featuring Botticelli in the Monforte painting.
The head sculpted by Leonardo or even of the artist as a young man, can be matched with the kneeling figure, whose left hand supports a golden chalice.
The Van der Goes painting is another work that assigns multiple identities to most of the figures. Hugo’s influence for this was likely Jan van Eyck who did the same – four for each figure – in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.
At surface level the golden-haired figure is presented as a servant to the second magus in the group. At another level he represents Maximilian I, Archduke of Austria, and son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. A third identity is Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia.
A fourth identity is Leonardo da Vinci, and in his role as an artist, he is positioned receiving a golden chalice from the dying Hugo van der Goes, symbolising a rite of passage. This can be interpreted in more than one way. The most obvious is Leonardo leaving Florence to start a new chapter in his life and career at the Milanese court. Next to the kneeling Leonardo is the figure of Ludovic Sforza, Regent of Milan, known as Il Moro – the Moor – because of his dark complexion, and who Leonardo served as court artist from 1482 until 1499.
The figure also represents St Augustine of Hippo, one of the four Doctors of the Church depicted in the painting. A third identity for this figure is Michael Szilágyi, uncle and guardian (regent of Hungary) to the young king Matthias. The regency role is matched to the identity of Ludovic Sforza, uncle and guardian to the young duke of Milan, the boy holding the sceptre and portrayed at suface level as a servant to the third magus. When the figure is identified as St Augustine, then the boy is recognised as his son Adeodatus who died in adolesence.
The rite of passage theme also connects to Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adorationof the Magi and to one of the frescos in the Sistine Chapel which shows Moses commissioning Joshua to lead the Isralites. The Testimony and Death of Moses was the last fresco completed in the series depicting the lives of Moses and Jesus. It was probably finished in 1483 and is attributed to Luca Signorelli and Bartolomea Gatta.
Joshua, the man shown kneeling in front of the ageing Moses, is represented by Leonardo da Vinci. The man standing immediately behind him is presented as his father Piero da Vinci, while Moses is represented by Leonardo’s grandfather and guardian, Antonio da Vinci.
Van der Goes repeats a similar motif in his painting, the bearded magus handing down the chalice to the young man kneeling alongside. While there is far more depth of meaning and significance in this motif and the composition of figures, the purpose of this presentation is to link Leonardo to the painting and back to the terracotta head.
Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration also shows a similar hand-over composition where Leonardo is depicted stooping with his right hand over the left hand of the man wearing a black coat, Lorenzo de’ Medici’s assassinated brother Giuliano. Notice also the handing over of the chalice to Lorenzo wearing the white gown by his father Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici.
So now we have three paintings with symbolism representing a rite of passage, a passing over, of life to death to new life, that includes Leonardo da Vinci.
Christ as a Young Man came of age around the time he was twelve years old. Luke’s Gospel mentions “the child grew to maturity, and he was filled with wisdom.” For Maximillian I the rite of passage at a young age was at 18 when he married Mary of Burgundy. Matthias Corvinius was just 14 when elected king of Hungary. Leonardo was also 14 years old when his family moved to Florence and he was placed as an apprentice in Andrea del Verrocchio’s studio.
So in age representation the head of “Christ as a Young Man” can be applied to all three identities. Van der Goes, it appears, had sight of the terracotta head, made a drawing or drawings of it, and included it in his painting to link Leonardo to the Botticelli and Signorelli/Gatta fresco. This would also suggest that Hugo van der Goes had sight of the relevant artworks both in Florence and Rome.
Professor Martin Kemp, a leading authority on the life and works of Leonardo wrote:
“Of the exant sculptures assigned to him [Leonardo] on grounds of style, none has decisively entered the accepted canon. Given the unlikelihood of any existing sculpture ever proving to be incontestably by Leonardo on the grounds of documentation and cast-iron provenance, any attribution must necessarily rest on less secure foundation of comparisons with his works in other media and with related sculpture of masters with whom he was closely associated, especially Verrocchio and Rustici.”
(‘Cristo Fanciullo’, Achademia Leonardi Vinci, IV, 1991, PP. 171-6)
Included in professor Kemp’s paper is a profile image (right) of the sculpture. The copy I have doesn’t show much detail but it is the profile itself that is of interest. When flipped, rotated and simply superimposed over the profile in the Van der Goes painting, the fit is an impressive match. Couple this with the deliberate references and connections Van der Goes has made to Leonardo in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi and the Sistine Chapel fresco, it would be reasonable to suggest that the “Christos fanciullo” head is the model for Hugo van der Goes adopted for the head of the kneeling servant in the Monforte Altarpiece.
The Belgian artist Kris Martin is putting his own spin on the Ghent Altarpiece by incorporating a site-specific piece into the armature of the famous 15th-century Flemish masterpiece. Martin’s mirrored work covers the Just Judges panel—currently represented by a reproduction—in the lower left corner of the altarpiece which was installed at St Bavo cathedral in Ghent in 1432… more at The Art Newspaper
This view of Shaftesbury’s famous Gold Hill was painted by artist Steve Crisp. It’s one of the ‘postcard’ scenes used in a wide range of jigsaws produced by Gibson Games.
It can also be said that “Jan van Eyck was here!” as he made telling references to the hill and Shaftesbury itself in the Ghent Altarpiece.
Not only that, the elevated view from Gold Hill is a pointer to the high persective position Van Eyck adopted for the five inner panels in the lower register of the Ghent Atarpiece.
Is it possible that the expansive panorama from the height of Shaftesbury inspired these viewpoints?
The elevation theme also points to Henry Beaufort, one of four identities designated by Jan to the rider on the white horse in the Just Judges panel. A second identity is Jan’s brother Hubert who died in 1426, coincidently, the same year Henry Beaufort was elevated to the rank of Cardinal by Pope Martin V.
Could it be that Jan van Eyck was in England that same year, commissioned to paint the Cardinal’s portrait?
Canterbury, Cirencester and Wells are other English towns referenced in the Ghent Altarpiece. All were popular pilgrimage destinations at the time. It is known that Jan was sent on pilgrimage on behalf of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good. The ducal accounts show in August 1426 that Jan was paid for a pilgrimage he made in lieu of the duke, but the destination is not recorded.
Earlier that year, on March 12, Henry Beaufort was forced to resign as Lord Chancellor of England. Two months later he was created Cardinal on May 24. The Ghent Altarpiece reveals that Van Eyck was in Shaftesbury the same month. Could it be that it was around this time that Van Eyck painted Beaufort’s portrait, not in his cardinal’s robes which were presented to him in Calais the following year, but in a red ‘woolsack’, a sort of symbolic ‘sackcloth’ to acknowledge his faults while Lord Chancellor?
It’s interesting to note that the sleeves of the robe are shaped as donkey’s ears, the humble donkey on which Jesus entered Jerusalem. It was around this time that Beaufort had expressed a desire to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But the ‘ears’ also probably point to Beaufort’s reputation of stubbornness and refusal to always listen. It’s not without reason that Van Eyck depicted Beaufort as one of the Just Judges with his ears covered! In the portrait painting he is shown with his hair razored and shorn – a sign of repentance – and prepared to listen with his ear uncovered. The donkey’s ears also show up in the pattern of the gown of St Cecilia depicted in the Musical Angels panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.
It’s the time of year when jigsaw puzzles, in a variety of subjects, sizes and complexity are popular gifts among families.
Engraver and cartographer John Spilsbury is credited with making the first jigsaw puzzles in 1760. He mounted maps of Europe on a wood backing, cut around the national boundaries and called them “Dissected Maps”.
The Ghent Altarpiece can be likened to a “disected map”. It has 24 pieces which fit together front and back, akin to a double-sided “jigsaw”. Simple enough. What is more testing, and has been for six centuries, is piecing together the iconography in each panel.
The Just Judges panel is probably the most complex, but if viewed as individual jigsaw pieces it starts to make sense. Each piece (or rider) has four interlocking attributes to allow four other pieces to fit. If only one attribute fits and not the others, then a wrong identification is the result. It’s Van Eyck’s way of confirming the identity of the riders. The puzzle can also be likened to a visual crossword. The clues are cryptic and often a play on words.
Coincidently, the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly the Just Judges panel, also highlights locations and national boundaries. Then there are the more obvious boundary references: heaven and earth, life and death.
Further investigation of The Goldsmith in his Shop by Petrus Christus leads me to advocate a new scenario for this painting, and one which relates to Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. It introduces three new identities not mentioned in my earlier presentation.
The first is Jan van Eyck, the gentleman central in the frame; the second is Joan/Jean Beaufort, illegitimate daughter of Henry Beaufort; the third is Edward Stradling, the man chosen by Henry Beaufort (represented by the goldsmith) as a husband for his daughter. Stradling is represented in the guise of Jan van Eyck who referred to the marriage in the Ghent Altarpiece.
Just as van Eyck used several identies for each rider in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, so Petrus has done likewise.
Genealogists identify Jean’s mother as Alice Fitzalan, whose husband John Cherleton died in 1401. But Jan van Eyck knew different and both the Ghent Altarpiece and the Petrus painting identify the mother as someone other than Alice.
The tip of a cross was a clue that recently helped bring together two Mantegna paintings. It appears at the base of The Resurrection of Christ and matches the cross cropped at the top of the frame in The Descent of Christ into Limbo. Both panels were reunited this week as part of the Mantegna and Bellini exhibition at the National Gallery in London.
A similar “crossover” occurs in the Ghent Altarpiece and also provides an important clue in uniting two paintings and, in particular, contesting an attribution to the main subject in one of them.
In previous posts I pointed out that the Just Judges panel and other parts of the Ghent Altarpiece form the basis of the painting A Goldsmith in his Shop, produced by Petrus Christus in 1449 and now exhibted in the Met Museum, New York.
The goldsmith was long considered to be St Eligius, patron saint of goldsmiths, partly because of a halo placed behind the seated figure in red. However, in 1998 the Dutch art historian Hugo van der Velden wrote:
Petrus Christus’s goldsmith used to be haloed, but in 1993, his aura was removed as a later addition at the museum’s conservation department, its authenticity had been doubted for decades. With his halo, the main protagonist of the painting was robbed of the only attribute that characterised him as a saint. Despite this desanctafication, the traditional identification of St Eloy has been challenged in only one of the publications that have since appeared. Lorne Campbell, in his review of the New York Petrus Christus exhibition, concluded that “there is no compelling reason to believe that the goldsmith is Eligius.”
Two years ago, I demonstrated that the figure was indeed meant to be St Eligius – Resurrecting St Eligius. In fact, Petrus had given the man more than one identity, similar to the way Jan van Eyck had done with the ten riders in the Just Judges panel.
One of the more distinct attributes associated with Eligius, often featured in paintings of the saint, is the legend of shoeing a reluctant horse said to have been possessed by demons. To solve the problem Eligius cut off one of the horse’s legs and left the animal standing on three. After Eligius had re-shod the hoof on the amputated leg he proceeded to miraculously attach it back on the horse!
So where in the Ghent Altarpiece does Petrus pick up on the severed leg and and make the connection to St Eligius (Elijah)? It appears in the bottom right corner of the Just Judges panel. Van Eyck also used this motif to make a connection to the prophet Elijah who is featured elsewhere in the altarpiece.
Each rider in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece has four identities. In this instance Jan van Eyck has grouped three English kings – Henry IV, Henry V and Richard II – to reference the Epiphany and link to a life-changing event featured in the Singing Angels panel.
Look to Henry V and his single-hump hat for the camel or dromedary reference. This also links to the rider on his left in the guise of René, Count of Piedmont, who kept a camel in his menagerie.
Can’t help but sense that the artist who produced this illustration for John Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes (with references to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales) was probably inspired by Jan van Eyck’s Just Judges panel.
The two central riders, the bearded rider on the right, and the white horse, are all modelled on figures from the Just Judges.
The British LIbrary attributes the illustration to probably Lucas Horenbout, son of the Ghent artist Gerard Horenbout (c 1465 – c 1541), who later moved with his family to work in England.
There’s a likeness between these two portraits, the left being Henry Beaufort painted by Jan van Eyck, and the right being “A Goldsmith in his Shop”, aka a self-portrait of painter Petrus Christus.
A Goldsmith in His Shop painting is based on some of the panels from the Ghent Altarpiece completed by Van Eyck in 1432 and, just as his mentor, Petrus has applied multiple identities to his figures. Not only is the man in the berry hat a reference to John, Duke of Berry, but also a pointer to Henry Beaufort, the man with the golden touch; so rich he was considered the Midas of his time. The portrait also represents St Eligius and, as already mentioned, the artist himself, Petrus Christus.
But for this presentation the focus is on Henry Beaufort and one aspect in particular – his ear. In Jan’s portrait which precedes the completion date of the Ghent Altarpiece, the Lord Chancellor of England, whose fortune bankrolled kings and princes of Europe, is portrayed with a sharp razored hair style trimmed above his temple. The trim line runs down to his rather large ear.
Christus makes the same point in his portrayal except it is the sharp rim of the cap which extends down along the temple and over the top of the ear which is also rather large.
There is an explanation for this. Van Eyck was, as usual, playing word games and providing clues to anyone who wanted to play along. He was combining two words “temple” and “ear”, But first a trim is necessary – the last letter of the first word, and the first letter of the second word, the letter ‘e’ in both (and shaped as an ear!) – before the new word is formed: TEMPL-AR. (a new look, as the hairstyle!)
So did Van Eyck have knowledge of a connection between Beaufort and the Knights Templar? The organisation was disolved in 1312 and its assets transferred to another Christian military order, the Knights Hospitaller. Could Beaufort have stumbled on some of the Templar fortune possibly hidden at some time?
One of the many legends associated with the Templars is the Holy Grail chalice and connection to Jesus. The Templars were also said to have been keepers of Christ’s burial cloth, now referred to as the Turin Shroud.
Seemingly Van Eyck makes no reference to the Grail Cup, unlike Petrus who places it directly behind the ear in his portrait, but Jan does create a subtle reference to Christ’s tomb and eventual resurrection in Beaufort’s ear, often closed to the appeals of many and possibly even Van Eyck himself. Within the tomb is the shroud-covered corpse awaiting resurrection.
Supporting this point, Van Eyck makes a further reference to the Shroud and the tomb – Beaufort’s red garment, considered by many to be a cardinal’s robe. It isn’t, it represents a woolsack, symbolic of the tomb-shaped seat that the Lord Chancellor sat on in the House of Lords. The seat, without arm rests, was filled with sheep wool, hence the white wool trim. The white wool and its blood-colour cover symbolizes the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) and was considered a Templar symbol.
The ear reference appears several times in the Ghent Altarpiece which is centred on the Lamb of God. For instance, Henry Beaufort appears as the front rider in the group featured in the Just Judges panel and it is not without significance that his ear has been well and truly covered.
Again, there are other narratives relating to this symbolism, Here is one example: The deep-red crown of Beaufort’s fur hat in the image above points to the red cloak worn by another rider in the background. One of the identities of this particular rider is Humphrey Villersexel, Count de la Roche, and a guardian of the Shroud from 1418 until his death in 1438. Close inspection of the red cloak shows that Van Eyck has shaped the form of a shrouded face within the folds.
It’s not without reason that Van Eyck has connected the Shroud to the two outward riders in the group. They represent the two elements of the Pisces constellation that I pointed out in a previous post, Riders in the Sky. As always with Van Eyck he applies more than one level of meaning and understanding, but in this instance has specifically connected the two riders in this way to link to the Shroud.
It has been suggested that the Shroud may have been in England for safekeeping at some time in its history. Could it be that Beaufort, as bishop of Winchester and Lord Chamberlain of England, may have had some role in protecting or housing the Shroud?
More on this at another time, along with further references to the Shroud found in the Ghent Altarpiece.
A priest was once heard to say to a group of pilgrims: “There’s a bit of the dog in all of us”. He was referring to the times when people break out from their ordered and obedient nature.
There is sense of disorder in the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece – a giant of a man leading a group of rough but seemingly ready-to-follow pilgrims, all men with the exception of the woman at the back of the group identified in the previous post as the Wife of Bath and one of the travellers featured in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
Could it be that Jan van Eyck is hinting at “long and tall tales”, or even “shaggy dog” stories told by ‘shaggy’ pilgrims? The clue comes through the leader of the group, St Christopher. His collared hair and flowing beard has a hairy-dog appearance. Van Eyck has even given the saint’s nose a shine. Closer inspection of others in the pack with their squinting eyes suggests they too have a-bit-of-the-dog about them.
The explanation is that in Eastern Orthodox iconography St Christopher is represented with the head of a dog. Apparently it came about from a mistranslation of the latin word Cananeus which means Canaanite (Cana in Galilee is where Christopher, who was originally named Reprobus, is said to have come from). Along the way Cananeus became misinterpreted as Canineus (canine). There was also a belief that a race of people with a head of a dog really did exist at one time! In The Canterbury Tales the Wife of Bath, seen at the rear of the group, also made mention of Cana in Galilee where Jesus miraculouly turned water into wine.
Reputed to stand over seven feet tall, St Christopher is also depicted here as a Colossus, possibly mirroring the smaller version portrayed by Jankyn, the youth behind him wearing a red tunic and representing a young Constantine. So in this instance Van Eyck is pointing to St Christopher as the Roman Emperor Constantine who moved the imperial capital to Byzantium and renamed it Nova Roma (later known as Constantinople) straddling the Bosphorus.
This East to West connection links to another panel in the altarpiece, so too does the straddling stance taken up by the “Colossus”. It is meant to mirror the straddling theme applied to Henry Beaufort in the Just Judges panel.
Notice also how St Christopher’s feet are set wide apart, ready to take “one giant leap” across the Bosphorus for Christianity! And the man standing next to the clossus portrayed as Constantine the Great? Possibly St Paul, “called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.” (Romans 1:1) And if Van Eyck intended the white-haired figure to represent Paul, he may also have had in mind the missionary’s warning to the Philippians: “Beware of dogs!” (3:2)
“Set apart” may also be Van Eyck referencing the East-West Schism of the Church and Constantine’s move to Byzantium, a move seen by some as rash and reckless, and so echoing the the metaphor from Proverbs 26:11: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool reverts to his folly.” But with this metaphor Van Eyck also points to the indiscretion of his mentor Roger Campin, and an adulterous liaison which initially resulted in him being banished from Burgundy and having to set up his ‘business’ elsewhere before he was pardoned and allowed to return. As mentioned in the previous post, Van Eyck has used Campin’s likeness to depict St Christopher.
Here’s another profile of Henry Beaufort that can be found in the Ghent Altarpiece. Again it’s based on the original drawing of the cardinal by Jan van Eyck, although this version presents him as a younger man with a full head of hair – and there is a reason for it being so.
This image is part of the right-hand-side group of men on the central panel. Beaufort appears distracted. His head is turned towards the edge of the frame, perhaps wistfully looking back on his past, or could his gaze be directed at the man on his left – possibly Hubert van Eyck or even another brother, Barthélemy?
If the figure in the fur hat is one of the Van Eyck family it’s likely to be Barthélemy. Here’s why.
The red hat worn by Beaufort and loose strands of hair beneath is a reference to the figure in the red coat placed on the extreme left of the group of riders in the Just Judges panel. In this instance the faceless figure is of Henry IV (Henry Bolingbroke), half-brother to Henry Beaufort through their father John of Gaunt. In his later life the English king was said to have suffered severe disfigurement, hence his hidden face as one of the judges. This would explain why Van Eyck has shown what appears to be a younger version of Beaufort in the group above. He is saying “this isn’t the cardinal but the King of England (before his disfigurement), Beaufort’s half-brother Henry Bolingbroke… see the family resemblance on his father’s side!”
This also explains why Jan Van Eyck has turned the Bolingbroke head to face the edge of the frame. He is referring to a section of the Just Judges group at the edge of the frame and the man in the fur hat inbetween the figure of Jan himself and the rider at the point of the group, John, Duke of Berry, who commissioned the Limbourg brothers to illuminate the Très Riche Heures. They were never able to complete the work, having all died with the plague in 1406. Nevertheless, work on the book continued and art historians attribute some of the pages to Barthélemy van Eyck. His relationship to Jan and Hubert van Eyck has never been established, but in this central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece Jan has possibly clarified this uncertainty in his usual cryptic style by creating this half-brother analogy.
As for the half-brother connection between Beaufort and Hubert van Eyck, the men are two of the four identities given to the figure on the white horse in the forefront of the Just Judges panel.
The sitter for this portrait painted by Jan van Eyck was identified in 1904 by the art historian James Weale as Italian cardinal Niccolò Albergati (1375 – 1443).
In more recent times there has been scholarly doubt cast on Weale’s identification, and in 1963 the Dutch art historian Josua Bruyn presented a case for identifying the portrait as Henry Beaufort (c1375-1447), Lord Chancellor of England, bishop of Winchester, and later a cardinal.
Now it can be confirmed that the man in the red gown is Henry Beaufort, and the clues are provided by Jan van Eyck himself.
In my previous post I proposed that the key to understanding the role and identities of the ten riders was to relate to them as “figures of speech”. I also mentioned Jan van Eyck’s fondness for word games.
Take the word ‘rider’. Jan implies four different meanings. The number four has a significant role in the painting and also the altarpiece as a whole – the quatrain on the outside panels is an example, as are the references to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Each rider in the Just Judges is given four identies. In The Canterbury Tales each pilgrim is requested to present four narratives.
Firstly, ‘rider’ is viewed and applied in a literal sense – someone on horseback. This links to its second meaning, the colloquial term Rider or Rijder given to the Cavalier d’or, a Flemish gold monetary unification coin issued by Philip the Good around the time the painting was produced. This extends to ‘rider’ applied in a legislative sense, as in law-making; and the fourth use sees a slight change of spelling to create the word ‘rudder’, as a steering component.
The legislative sense also references the Ten Commandments brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses. Ten commandments to steer the people on their pilgrimage through life to the Promised Land. Ten legislative riders or ten “figures of speech’. Moses is also represented in the paintng by the French king Charles VI, the man wearing the white collar and red hat in the centre of the group. Mount Sinai is also a ‘sign’ to reference other uses of the word ‘mount’ in the painting.
The rudder or steering reference also applies to the end riders on the two wings. Not only do they flank the column but they also represent two elements of the constellation Pisces (see montage above). They are the tail (rudder) part of the two symbolic fish that form the Pisces symbol, repeating the knot symbol mentioned in the previous post. The knot is represented by the rider wearing the green hat at the point of the cavalcade. He is John, Duke of Berry, seen as a peacemaker setting out to steer and unite two cadet branches of the French royal family engaged in the conflict known as the Armagnac-Burgundian Civil War.
From this we can begin to see a unification theme developing, finally manifesting in the central panel of the altarpiece; friend and foe making a “triumphant entry” towards a new Jerusalem.
This is but a brief analysis of just one narrative from Jan’s montage of many woven into the painting. There are 40 identities in total and nearly all of them inter-relate or are cross referenced.
Petrus Christus has picked up on the four meanings for the word ‘rider’ in his painting, A Goldsmith in his Shop. The tower of coins pictured below is one example. It shows a Rider or Cavalier d’or propped against the stack.
Ever wondered why the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece is so named? Ever asked the question why the ten riders are considered just judges and who they may be? Ever thought that Jan van Eyck was being his usual cryptic self and playing word games – again?
Over the past couple of months I’ve spent time researching the identities of the riders, trying to understand their complex arrangement and how they connect to each other, as well as the various narratives they present and link to. There’s no doubt that Jan van Eyck has mined Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales as well as literary gems by other writers – painters, sculptors and jewellers, too.
So how does the title Just Judges fit into all of this? Is it to be understood in a literal sense? Could Jan van Eyck be making his own judgment in some way that is related to events or people featured in the painting?
A key to understanding the role and identities of the ten riders is to view them as “figures of speech”. In this way the title can be considered simply as a “figure of speech” in an ironic sense and not taken literally.
This would also suggest that Van Eyck is expressing a sense of injustice, that justice was not served correctly.
There’s a clue in the latin title painted on the frame. Compare the upright letter ‘S’ in the word JUST to the same but slanted letter in JUDGES.
Upright, as in righteous… Slant, as to maliciously or dishonestly distort or falsify.
So who is Van Eyck referring to in the painting when he points to injustice? The most obvious person is Joan of Arc, who Jan parallels with the false judgment against Christ and as a lamb led to slaughter.
Joan was condemned to death and burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. The Ghent Altarpiece had its public presentation less than a year later on May 6, 1432. Considering the painting was presented so soon after her execution, Joan’s portrayal as a lamb led to slaughter was a remarkable risk on Jan’s part, especially as the Catholic Church didn’t overturn the trial verdict and pronounce her innocence until 1456.
The slanted ‘S’ also resembles the formation of an open-ended knot. It begs the question: which is its beginning and which is its end, and a conclusion that there is no beginning and no end. It was always this way.
This motif is replicated in the Petrus Christus painting, A Goldsmith in his Shop, as is much of the iconography from the Just Judges. And, as for Van Eyck’s painting, the same question can be asked: Which is the beginning and which is the end of the knot?
It’s not wihout reason that Petrus has placed the red knot emblem on the wood counter. It serves to echo the frame where the knot is placed on the Just Judges panel. Notice also the knot clue next to the ribbon.
• More insights on the Just Judges in my next post.
This is a clip from the Prayer on the Shore illumination mentioned in yesterday’s post. Unfortunately the detail is not the best. Nevertheless it is sufficient to make a comparison with a similar feature in the Just Judges panel.
My assessment is that the two men represent Jan van Eyck and John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy. The minature from the Turin-Milan Hours is attributed to Hand G, generally thought to be Jan van Eyck or his brother Hugh.
The Prayer on the Shore makes references to the Hook and Cod wars, “a series of wars and battles in the County of Holland between 1350 and 1490.”
Jan’s hood is shaped as a trawl dragged behind a boat to catch fish – the bulging end is known as the “cod-end”. The tail of the duke’s chaperon is shaped to represent a hook.
The two men face in opposite directions to represent the polarised positions taken up by the Hook and Cod factions over the title to the Count of Holland.
The shape of the space between the two heads also corresponds to the area of Holland in dispute; the red region representing the hook countered by the hood or cod-end shape on the opposite side of the bay.
Here’s how Jan van Eyck replicated the iconography when he came to paint the Just Judges panel.
The clip alongside shows the bearded man wearing a hooded chaperon with a “cod-end”. The man below represents Philip the Bold, and his grandson Philip the Good who doubles up as Jan van Eyck (a common motif repeated by the painter and also used in the Prayer on the Shore). Jan’s chaperon is tied and shaped to form a hook. The hook is also meant to refer to the hook nose common to the three Burgundian dukes, Philip the Bold, John the Fearless and Philip the Good.
The cod-end also picks up on the painting’s connection to The Canterbury Tales. In this instance it represents a pelican’s elastic pouch designed for catching fish! This in turn is used by Van Eyck to link to the fish as a Christian symbol and the biblical reference to “fishers of men” (Matthew 4 :19), not forgetting that the pelican is also a symbol of Christ’s Passion and the Eucharist.
Succession is a prominent theme in the Just Judges painting, most obvious in Jan van Eyck succeeding his brother in completing the Ghent Altarpiece after Hubert’s death in 1426.
The two rows of riders can also be viewed as being placed in succession, one following another, akin to each pilgrim’s story in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
Hereditary examples of succession also feature – kings and princes – as do talents and trades passed down through families.
Jan van Eyck makes these connections through ‘groupings’. For example, I pointed out in the previous post that the principal identity he assigned to the central rider in the Just Judges panel is the French king Charles VI (d. 1422). Other identities are Philip’s court painter Jan Maelwael (d. 1416), the sculptor Claus Sluter (d. 1405/06), and his nephew Claus de Werve (d. 1439)
A key ‘connector’ in this grouping is the relationship of uncle:
• Jan Maelwael was the uncle of the three Limbourg brothers whose work is referenced elsewhere in the panel.
• Claus Sluter was the uncle of Claus de Werve. Their work is also alluded to in the painting.
The ‘uncle’ key also helps unlock the grouping and one of the identities of the rider in black next to Charles VI as being Philip the Bold, an uncle of the French king. When Charles inherited the French throne at the age of 11, the government was entrusted to a regency council comprising his four uncles until he reached the age of 21.
Another point Van Eyck is making about succession is that what follows each rider is the certainty of death and a final judgment.
He illustrated this point (or was it his brother Hugh?) in the Prayer on the Shore illumination, an earlier work that forms part of the Turin-Milan Hours. As in the Just Judges the composition is based on a procession of riders. The main group is followed by three men with visors closed on their skull-shaped helmets. They are a personification of death.
With the coming of evening that same day, Jesus said to them, “Let us cross over to the other side.” Mark 4 : 35
Prayer on he Shore by Hand G, Turin-Milan Hours, Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino
Compare these two copies of a section from the Just Judges panel of the the Ghent Altarpiece. The left image is a photographic copy taken by art historian Max Friedländer sometime before the original panel was stolen in April 1934. The right image is a copy painting completed by the Belgian art restorer Jef Van der Veken in 1945 and used as a replacement part for the altarpiece.
There is a noticeable difference in the two copies. In the photographic copy the brim of the hat worn by the bearded man is extended to cover the mouth of the man behind him. In the Veken copy the wide brim is reduced so as to show the mouth.
It is claimed that Veken replaced one of the riders with the face of the Belgian king Leopold III to distinguish the copy painting from the original, which may explain the brim reduction, presuming, of course, the uncovered face is that of Leopold.
However, in doing so Veken also destroyed clues that could help identify three of the riders. Apart from the Frieländer photograph and the Veken version there is another copy painting which was produced by Michiel Coxcie sometime in the mid-16th century. It remains close to the original and retains the wide-brimmed hat.
As mentioned in previous posts, several identities are attributed to each rider, but in this instance the rider with the covered mouth represents the French king Charles VI or Charles the Mad as he was sometimes referred to because of his frequent bouts of psychosis, a symptom of which can be incoherent speech.
There is further connection to Charles’ covered mouth which relates to the rider above in the guise of Joan of Arc, but this is a seperate narrative to be revealed at another time.
The extended brim is also to identify the man wearing the ‘galero’ style hat as Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester, who was elevated to the rank of Cardinal in 1426, the same year Jan van Eyck’s brother Hubert died. Beaufort is also linked to other riders in the painting.
A second identity given to the figure is St Bavo, a nobleman who gave up his riches to lead the life of a hermit. He later received the ‘tonsure’ at a monastery in Ghent, hence the emphasised rim of of hair. St Bavo is the patron saint of the Ghent diocese.
A third identity is St Judoc whose body, according to tradition, was said to be incorrupt, and whose hair continued to grow after death and had to be continually cut. The inclusion of St Judoc is also a hat-tip to the patron of the altarpiece Joos (Judoc) Vijd.