In my previous post I pointed out the connection to the ‘coffin’ in the St Vincent Panel of the Relic to the ‘hollow tree’ that St Bavo made his abode for a time, and how this further linked to another theme in the panel, Halloween and All Saints Day (All Hallows Day)
What I didn’t mention at the time was also the connection to the birth name given to St Bavo – Allowin.
The Relic Panel is ‘mirrored’ in a section of Rembrandt’s 1639 etching Death of a Virgin, which I posted a year ago at this link. The ‘hollow tree’ is also featured in the etching, and features Rembrandt, aka St Bavo, looking into the scene through a gap (the hollow) in the curtain representing the tree.
The likeness of Rembrandt is similar to a 15th century limestone sculpture of St Bavo shown above, now housed at the Met Museum in New York. Look closely at Rembrandt’s left arm in the etching and you will see the faint outline of the shape of a bird. This represents a falcon, one of the attributes associated with St Bavo.
Another etching of St Bavo was published in 1650 by the Dutch artist Pieter Southam. The saint is depicted in all his glory as a noble soldier before his conversion, but notice the way his cloak is open widely and the similarity to Rembrant’s version of appearing through an open curtain. Is Southam’s illustration a hat-tip to his contemporary as Rembrandt’s is to the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes?
That the representations of St Bavo appear to be stepping out from the coffin or from behind the curtain relates to a passage from St Matthew’s gospel: The veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom; the earth quaked; the rocks split; the tombs opened and the bodies of many men holy men rose from the dead, and these, after resurrection, came out of the tombs and entered the Holy City and appeared to a number of people (29 : 51-53).
This passage also relates to Hubert van Eyck, placed right of the coffin in the Panel of the Relic, and one of his few extant paintings: The Three Marys at the Tomb (of the Risen Christ).
Rembrandt picked up on this, and made a group of the three women, two of them with their back to the viewer. (replacing Hubert and Lambert van Eyck). The Virgin Mary is seated on a ‘cushion’ chair, a reference to one of the other identities in the Panel of the Relic – the priestly figure in black, Pierre Cauchon.
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.
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.
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.
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.