When stones cry out

One of many questions asked about the St Vincent Panels is: Why are there so many figures crammed into the panels and who do the men standing in the back rows represent?

The St Vincent Panels, attributed to Nuno Gonçalves.

It’s as if each panel is divided into two sections – front stage and back stage. In all there are a total of 60 figures in the panels. The St Vincent figure is featured twice and central around which the other 58 figures are gathered, perhaps explaining why the painting is sometimes referred to as the Adoration of St Vincent.

A scene akin to this is the central panel in the lower register of the Ghent Altarpiece – the Adoration of the Lamb. That an adoration scene is common to both works is not without coincidence. Both paintings drew inspiration from the Monzara fresco known as The Good and Bad Judge. Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert were the first to incorporate elements of the freso in their famous work. The painter of the St Vincent Panels knew this and followed the example of the Eyck brothers, except that he also drew further inspiration from the Ghent Altarpiece which had been completed in 1432.

Monsaraz Castle, once a home to the Templars.

There is little doubt that Jan van Eyck visited Monsaraz during one his diplomatic excurrsions to Portugal. The infamous stolen Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece points to the Good and Bad Judge fresco in Monsaraz. The Knights of Christ panel references Monsaraz castle and its Templar connections. The Hermits panel, is a pointer to the caves in the area adopted as hermitages. The Pilgrims panel is probably the most interesting. It depicts St Christopher leading pilgrims across the river, probably the Guadiana that borders Spain and Portugal and runs close to Monsaraz.

St Christopher and his band of dog-head pilgrims. Ghent Altarpiece, Pilgrims panel.

With his collared hair and flowing beard, St Christopher, reputed to stand over seven feet tall, has the appearance of a hairy dog. 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!

The adjective describing someone as having the head of a dog, or jackal, is cynocephalic, and it is this term that Van Eyck has taken and linked to local landmarks near to Monsaraz – the megalithic stones of Herdade de Xerex (since relocated to a new site close to Monsaraz) and in particular the large phallic menhir that stands central among the square ring of stones. Van Eyck has referenced these stones in three of the Ghent Altarpiece panels, sculpting them into a form representing biblical scenes.

Sculptured rocks, a feature in the Knights of Christ panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

Some of the stones are inscribed with symbols and these too have been incorporated into both sets of panels by the painters.

Megalithic stones of Herdade de Xerex, now relocated and known known as the Xerex Cromlech (below)

Nuno Gonçalves has also taken the stones and reformed them to represent the figures in the St Vincent Panels, particularly the Saint himself portrayed as the tall menhir. Fifty-five stones form part of what is now known as the Xerex Cromlech. There may even have been 60 before the stones were relocated, which would have matched the number of the figures in the painting. A similar site known as the Almendres Cromlech is near to Évora, about halfway between Monsaraz and Lisbon. This megalith may also have inspired both artists, although there are almost 100 stones still standing.

While Gonçalves made some canine mentions in his painting he chose instead to generally refer to a race of people generally known as Beakers. He did this in two ways, first by alluding to the making of pottery and secondly by emphasising the noses of some of the figures to link to narratives in the painting about birds and beaks.

Upright men from the Panel of the Knights… Beakers, Potters and Painters.

For instance: the brown earthy colours prominent among some of the men in the background are meant to suggest the earth in which the monoliths stood, but in in the Panel of the Knights the four men wearing cottas (or surplices) is linked with the word ‘terra’ (earth) to form terracotta, the brown colour of the earthenware produced by local potters. The range of ‘beaker’ styles are represented by some of the men’s hats.

Translating hidden relics

In my previous post I explained how the iconography relating to the pages of the mysterious script in the Panel of the Relic translated into a passage from Isaiah (40 : 3-5), and is echoed in John’s gospel (1 : 23) by John the Baptist. But the artist also used another source to translate from: a section of the Knights of Christ panel that forms part of the Ghent Altarpiece.

The translation is focused on the central knight leading two other knights and a group of kings and princes. In this particular narrative the knight is a depiction of two people of a young age, Jan van Eyck and Henry Beaufort. Both men are also placed in the Panel of the Relic. Beaufort, as a Cardinal in later life, is on his knees holding the relic.

In the Knights of Christ panel the group is making a “straight way” to the Holy Land or the “New Jerusalem”.

So how is the passage from the Book of Isaiah, referenced by John the Baptist in John’s Gospel, identified in the iconography surrounding the knight? At this stage it is worth repeating Isaiah’s words:

A voice cries, “Prepare in the wilderness a way for Yaweh. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill laid low, let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley; then the glory of Yaweh will be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of Yaweh has spoken.”

The “straight way” is the red cross on the knight’s shield, similar to the vertical and horizontal spaces between the written words on the pages displayed by Jean Jouffroy in the Panel of the Relic. The valleys, mountains, hills and cliffs are the various shapes formed from the shields. The ridges are the highlight’s on the knight’s breastplate but “made plain” on the front of the knight to his right.

Another “straight way” is the straight strap across the knight’s breastplate. It’s stems from a descending, scrolling pattern of light, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, and ends in shadow at the point of the cross on the shield, and also at the elbow of the knight alongside the central knight. “Elbow” translates as EL-BOW, God’s bow (a rainbow) symbolising his Covenant promise (Genesis 9 : 12-13).

Amidst the shadow area is a red triangular shape intended to represent the head of Christ as he hangs on his Cross. The upward sweep of the strap represents one of his arms, while his back is connected to another arm, that of the red cross on the shield. This represents God’s New Testament or New Covenant fulfilled by Christ’s death and resurrection.

Below this motif is a galaxy of “stars’ on a blue background. However, one star has risen to appear in the groove of the shield. Not only is symbolic of the Resurrection but it also represents the rising star the wise men saw and followed and which led them to Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant king. So the three knights can also be viewed as “wise men” making a straight way to Bethlehem. A similar motif is seen in the composition of the Panel of the Relic (and other panels) – the three front men are arranged as three wise men bearing gifts and paying homage.

The straight strap is also present in the Panel of the Relic. It falls across the chest of Van Eyck the pilgrim and ends at the elbow of Jean Jouffroy. While the prelate’s hand turns the pages in the book, the star is settled above another passage from Isaiah that prophesied “the coming of the virtuous king” (Isaiah 11 : 1-2).

In the previous post I mentioned what appears to be a head under the camel coat of Van Eyck, portrayed also as John the Baptist in the Panel of the Relic. The shape represents the head of the Baptist who while imprisoned was beheaded on the orders of Herod because the king had promised Salome anything she wanted after dancing for him. She requested the head of John on a dish.

The bloody head of John appears on the right arm of the knight from the Ghent Altarpiece, mounted on a green cushion. The curved piece of armour supporting his head is the dish.

This piece of iconography relates to the latter part of Isaiah’s prophecy: “… then the glory of Yaweh will be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of Yaweh has spoken” – the mouth of Yaweh being both Isaiah and John the Baptist.

Unfortunately, since the recent restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece the face depicted on the arm is now hardly noticeable. The version shown here is before the altarpiece was “restored”.

The fact that the knight is a double image – Jan van Eyck and Henry Beaufort – is interesting. A connection is being made between the two men and the head of John the Baptist. Nuno Gonçlaves also connects the two men and the head in the Panel of the Relic, the relic beign a part of John’s skull. Both paintings also point to a location in England – Templecombe in Somerset – where a painting of John the Baptist was discovered in the roof of an outhouse that had a connection with a Templar priory and later the Knights Hospitaller (Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem), John being John the Baptist.

A case of déjà vu

This section of the St Vincent Panels is known as the Panel of the Relic, so called because of the kneeling prelate holding the fragment of a skull. Some say the relic belongs to St Vincent of Zaragoza, the saint who is the focus of the two panels in the centre of the altarpiece, while others suggest it belongs to Ferdinand the Holy Prince, the youngest son of John l of Portugal who was taken as a hostage following the Siege of Tangier and eventually died in captivity.

The panels are attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves and one of the main narratives is the translation to Lisbon of the relics belonging to St Vincent and Ferdinand. But what makes the Panel of the Relic notably different from the rest is that there are no Portuguese representatives. The kneeling prelate is English whose father was Flemish, and the four other men represent the House of Valois-Burgundy. So why should any of them be associated with a relic of St Vincent or Ferdinand the Holy Prince?

If the relic belonged to neither of these two saintly men then what relic could link the Portuguese House of Aviz with Cardinal Henry Beaufort, son of John of Gaunt, and the rest of the group of Flemings? The clue lies is in ‘translating’ the open pages of the book held by the prelate dressed in black. He is Jean Jouffroy, one time almoner of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. The two men standing in the back row are assistants to Jouffroy, but unnamed. The figure portrayed as a humble pilgrim is Jan van Eyck.

Gonçlaves has sourced two of Van Eyck’s paintings and the work of another Flemish painter, Rogier van der Weyden, to build on the ‘translate’ narrative found in the altarpiece. Van der Weyden is portrayed as one of four artists featured in the Panel of the Knights.

The two works of Van Eyck are the Knights of Christ panel in the Ghent Altarpiece, and the portrait of Henry Beaufort, currently mistitled, Portrait of Cardinal Niccolò Albergati. The Van der Weyden paintings are: The Seven Sacraments, the Altarpiece of the Virgin and Child with Saints (now fragmented with some parts lost) and the Exhumation of St Hubert.

By using some of the iconography created by other artists in their paintings and translating it to a new location, Gonçlaves is, in a sense, paying homage to the particular artist and their work. This echoes the foremost theme of the St Vincent panels – paying homage and celebrating the translation of St Vincent’s lost relics to Lisbon, and so establishing a new creation and a spiritual rebirth for the city, commemorated annually.

The translation of Jan van Eyck

There is a reference by the art historian James Weale in his book on the life and works of Hubert and John van Eyck, that in March 1442, at the request of Lambert van Eyck, the Chapter of St Donatian, Bruges, “grants permission for the body of his brother John, buried in the precincts, to be, with the bishop’s licence, translated into the church and buried near the font, on condition of the foundation of an anniversary and of compliance with the rights of fabric.”
 
In his Seven Sacraments painting, Van der Weyden depicts this translation of Van Eyck’s remains as the raised stone covering the grave and supporting the baptismal font. Hence the ‘raised’ coffin also signifying the upright baptismal font. The child in the baptism scene is Van Eyck’s own, and the Sacrament signifies being raised to new life in Christ. And so in death Van Eyck is resurrected to new life through the Sacrament. Close inspection of the priest performing the baptism reveals the same priest that stands next to the coffin Van Eyck is placed in front of in the Panel of the Relic.

But there is another reason why Jan is portrayed standing in front of the coffin, and it connects to another painting by Rogier van der Weyden. It’s part of the cut-down altarpiece referred to as the Virgin and Child with Saints. The figure of Joseph is represented by Jan van Eyck, frail and seemingly approaching the end of life. The head and upper part of his body is now a portrait presentation housed at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon.

The building in the background shows an empty tabernacle or aedicula. The pedestal and canopy are there but the statue is missing. This may be seen as Van der Weyden preparing to elevate his humble friend Jan to kingly or even saintly status. “King of Painters” was an epithet awarded to Jan.

So the empty coffin is also symbolic of the empty tabernacle. However the surplice worn by the priest alongside the coffin also depicts a tabernacle, but not vacant. It contains the presence of the Holy spirit, symbolised by the flames shown within the veil.

The Holy Flame is reflected in the Panel of the Friars, under the figure with the long beard. The figure also has his right hand placed on what is said to be the lid of the coffin behind Van Eyck. But the plank has other meanings as well.

The figure of Jean Jouffroy, who later became an influential ‘Prince of the Church’ – a Cardinal – is shown holding open a book of Scripture. The text is unreadable (although it has been claimed that some Hebrew words can be identified) but its message can be understood when read as a piece of iconography. It relates to the passage from Isaiah (40:3-5), echoed in John’s gospel (1-23) by John the Baptist:

A voice cries, “Prepare in the wilderness a way for Yaweh. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill laid low, let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley; then the glory of Yaweh will be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of Yaweh has spoken.”

Close inspection of the book’s pages reveals the straight highways between columns and verses, and the ridges and valleys on the turning pages. The wise men who came from the East to pay homage to the new-born King had to travel across the desert, and were led straight to Bethlehem by following a star. That’s the red star seen on the front of Jouffroy. It also represents a military order of that time known as the Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem.

A second connection to John the Baptist is the Jan van Eyck figure dressed in a camelskin coat. The hind legs of the camel are shaped in the folds below his belt. His coat is opened at the front and beneath the belt is a suggestion of a head in profile. The profile is facing the head of Henry Beaufort, and in his hands he holds part of the skull of John the Baptist. How the relic came into the possession of Van Eyck and eventually Beaufort is another story, but for the artist to link this feature to a painting that is primarily about St Vincent and the Portuguese House of Aviz is a pointer to where the skull relic was translated from to arrive in England.

The connection also links to what is known as the Templecombe Head, a painting on wooden boards of a head discovered in 1945 in the roof of an outhouse in Templecombe. The painting is of the beheaded John the Baptist.

More on the Panel of the Relic in a future post.

Removing the veil of mystery

Detail from the month of January, Très Riche Heures de Duc de Berry, Condé Museum, Oise.

It’s almost three months since I last posted on the January folio of the Très Riche Heures calendar section. Here’s a little more information which ties in with yesterday’s post on the update to the restoration work carried out on the Ghent Altarpiece.

Some of the features in the Altarpiece relate to the January folio produced by Pol Limbourg. It was not unknown for Jan to incorporate elements from other paintings and reconstruct a fresh presentation.

In my previous post I made mention of the Holy Face feature in the sleeve of Henry Beaufort, one of the riders in the Ghent Altarpiece Knights of Christ panel, and how it had been almost obliterated in the recent restoration.

Beaufort’s predecessor as bishop of Winchester is the prelate seated at the end of the table, shown above in the detail from the January folio. Standing alongside William of Wykeham is Sir Thomas Blount who served as napperer (having charge of the table linen and which he would be allowed to keep) at Richard II’s coronation. He is seen carefully folding a napkin or face cloth. The square cloth is folded down twice to form a triangle pointing to Wykeham. The table is laid out in a way to represent an altar cloth, but more precisely the burial cloth of Jesus, now referred to as the Shroud of Turin. The meat dish of lamb cuts is composed to represent the face of Christ that appears on the Shroud; the napkin represents the sudarium used to cover his face.

What Pol Limbourg is implying is the napkin and possibly even the table cloth (or Shroud) found its way into the possesion of bishop Wykeham, considered one the richest men in England.

Thomas Blount was a loyal servant to Richard II. He took part in what is known as the “Epiphany Rising” in January 1400, a failed attempt to restore Richard to the throne after the king was usurped by Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV). For this he was hung, drawn and quartered. The quartering is represented by the folded napkin, the hanging by the cloth draped around his wrist. Some of his internal organs were cut out and he was made to watch them burn in a fire before him. He was also beheaded when quartered.

The red dagging pattern represents both the cutting and the flames. Notice also the facial image in the black part of his left sleeve, a feature Van Eyck mirrored in Beaufort’s red sleeve seen in the Knights of Christ. The black sections also suggest that the quartering – cutting the body into four parts – was done by removing Blount’s two arms and his head.

Blount’s execution took place at the Green Ditch outside Oxford. This is indicated by the man standing behind Blount, wearing a green gown. There’s a familiar look about him. He resembles Jan van Eyck, or d’Eyck – dyke being the dutch translation of ditch. But it’s not. However, some seventeen years after Pol Limbourg had died in 1416, Jan van Eyck painted a self-portrait of the Man in a Red Turban, taking his inspiration from the detail and narrative revealed in this section of the January folio.

More on this in a future post.

Detail from the month of January, Très Riche Heures de Duc de Berry, Condé Museum, Oise.

Other posts on the January folio of Très Riche Heures:
Checking the guest list
There’s a book in this…
Identifying Pol Limbourg
Thoughts on the “wise men”
Telling tales about Chaucer
Happy New Year!
We’re going on a boar hunt!
The Pearl Poet… another sighting
A very rich duke and his bear
Playing hide and seek
A who’s who, what’s what list

Restoration buries relic symbol

Detail from the restored panel, Knights of Christ, on the opened section of the Ghent Altarpiece.

News from Belgium this week is that the second stage of restoring the Ghent Altarpiece (the five lower panels when opened) is finished. Before and after examples have been distributed to the media worldwide. Some of these can be seen at the-low-countries website.

However, I did note with some disappointment that one particular area in the Knights of Christ panel has been very poorly treated (if the published reproduction is accurate). In fact the subtle detail devised by Jan van Eyck and which refers to an important narrative in the altarpiece has been practically obliterated.

The figure in question is the central knight leading the group of other knights and royals in the crusade against the Hussites in 1427. He is Cardinal Henry Beaufort. Beaufort also features in the Just Judges panel and the main panel depicting the Adoration of the Lamb. He was in fact present in Ghent for the installation of the altarpiece in 1432.

The area where detail has been lost in restoration is the red upper section of Beaufort’s right arm. Previously the folds in this had been highlighted for a particular reason. Now they have disappeared. The folds were meant to define a Christian relic, and Van Eyck was stressing the fact that Beaufort had at some time possession of this relic.

But now, seemingly, this subtle connection Van Eyck made in the Knights of Christ panel is lost unless the overpaint is rectified. There is other iconography close to the sleeve that is associated with the relic image, but without the detail the composite and connection falls apart.

The relic is part of the skull said to belong to John the Baptist, beheaded by KIng Herod at the request of Salome.

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Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man (Léal Souvenir), “an exceptional loan”

According to The Guardian newspaper, “the National Gallery in London is to make an exceptional loan of a painting by Jan van Eyck to a one-off exhibition celebrating the 15th-century Flemish master. Portrait of a Man (Léal Souvenir), one of the earliest dated works by the painter, will be among the star exhibits in Van Eyck – an Optical Revolution, which will open at the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK) in Ghent, Belgium, in February.”

The newspaper added that “theories abound as to who the sitter was” for Van Eyck’s Léal Souvenir. The “sitter” is also portrayed sat on a horse in the Knights of Christ panel of the Ghent Altarpiece. He is Pierre de Bauffremont (c1400 – 1472), Count of Charney and Lord of Montfort. He was Sénéchal of Burgundy and a Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece founded by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Pierre was also married to Marie de Bourgogne, a legitimised daughter of the Duke. It was his third marriage.

Incidently, what is often referred to in the painting as a parapet, isn’t. It represents an inscribed foundation stone. The painting is also linked to two other works by Van Eyck, the Arnolfini Portrait and Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban. He also features in Rogier van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments Altarpiece.

Pierre de Bauffremont, as a Knight of Christ and the sitter in Van Eyck’s Léal Souvenir

The Pearl / Gawain Poet in Ghent

Detail from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. British Library.

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.

Four lower-register panels of the Ghent Altarpiece… lambic links to the Lamb of God

Without going into any detail at this stage we can rename the panels with the poem titles:

PEARL – for Just Judges
SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT – for Knights of Christ
PATIENCE – for Hermits
CLEANNESS – for Pilgrims

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.

Still searching…

just-judgesCould we be one step closer to solving Belgium’s most enduring mystery – the disappearance of the Just Judges panel from the world-famous altarpiece known in English as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Jan Van Eyck and his brother Hubert? The work is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of early Netherlandish art, and was created for St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, painted by Jan Van Eyck between 1430 and 1432, according to a design made by Hubert a decade earlier.

More at The Brussels Times

• I have since discovered that the panel to the right of the Just Judges, referred to as the Knights of Christ, has features that connect to the Arnolfini Portrait and Jan’s Portrait of a Man (Léal Souvenir).

Another discovery is that the Petrus Christus painting, A Goldsmith in his Shop, was also inspired by these three works of Van Eyck. More about this at a later date.