Ahead of his time

The masthead used for his blog shows detail (in reverse) from Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man, thought to be of the artist himself, and dated October 21, 1433. It is on display at the National Gallery, London. More information about the painting can be accessed at this link.

Whether the date on the painting is the completion or start date, I cannot say, but it places the work in the year following the installation of Van Eyck’s famous Ghent Altarpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral on May 6, 1432. As well as the proximity in completition dates, Van Eyck has inked the two works in other ways.

Jan van Eyck began his artistic career as an illuminator of books and manuscripts. Some samples of his early work appear in the Turin-Milan Hours manuscript, and he also referenced the work of other illuminators, notably the Limbourg brothers, in the Ghent Altarpiece.

An illuminator’s role was to illustrate the text in and decorate the pages of a book, creating a visual interpretation of a storyline or theme. In some cases the illustration would have more impact with the reader than the words. Invairably, some illuminators would shine the light beyond the subject matter and embed other narratives that were not part of the text. Jan van Eyck did this and continued with the technique when he started to paint on panels with oils, sometimes cross-referencing his embeded narratives with other works, his own included.

Perhaps a simple example of this is the Portrait of a Man (in a Red Turban) shown here. Jan van Eyck’s signature motto is inscribed on the frame, as is the date, so the painting is generally viewed as a portrait of its time, and probably of the artist himself, Jan van Eyck.

However, that the work is signed by Van Eyck suggests there is more to appreciate and discover in the painting than a striking portrait of a 15th century man.

There are hidden narratives which art historians have not uncovered.

More on this in a future post

Brim of extinction

brim

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.

images sources: closer to van eyck and rkd

Colour-coded judges

Riders_900image source: closer to van eyck

The sky is blue and so its colour symbolises heaven and holiness. In the Just Judges panel there are five figures that bear the colour blue. Two riders wear blue coats and two others are given blue hats. The fifth figure, the rider at the corner point of the group, wears a hat with a band of blue circles.

Blue is also the colour associated with the Virgin Mary.

Seemingly Jan van Eyck has colour-coded the four riders to associate them with some aspect of holiness.

The bearded figure placed behind Jan’s brother Hubert in the forefront has four identities. All of them are associated with “holiness”. At this stage I’ll mention just one: St Bavo, patron saint of Ghent and the Cathedral Basilica where the painting is housed.

St Bavo was a soldier said to have led a disorderly early life. After hearing a sermon by St Amand preaching against a life based on riches, he became a Christian and later a monk.