by JAN VAN EYCK
Having previously posted on Jan van Eyck’s self portrait, Man in a Red Turban, I recently discovered Van Eyck’s source of inspiration for the painting, a book authored in 1354 by Henri de Grosmont, First Duke of Lancaster; its title: Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines (The Book of Holy Medicines). A translation of the text into modern English by Catherine Batt was published in 2014 by ACMRS (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies).
It’s very likely Van Eyck possessed or had access to a copy of this book that can be described as a literary form of confession and penitence.
Written in the first person, the text also serves as a mirror for self examination by the reader. It focuses on the narrator’s spiritual wounds in a physical sense. Body parts, particularly those associated with the five senses, are described as gateways for the seven cardinal sins: pride, greed, anger, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth. Healing grace ministered by Christ the doctor, accompanied by his mother Mary, is compared allegorically with a variety of medicinal remedies used by the people in Henry’s time.
As a mirror of reflection, the book is echoed in Van Eyck’s self-portrait made with the aid of a mirror. The painter presents himself as both sinner and penitent.
The modified chaperon is contoured in ways that refer to the passion and death of Jesus, particularly his denial by Peter, the disciple who had been entrusted earlier with the mission to build Christ’s church on earth and pasture his flock. After Jesus was arrested and taken into custody, Peter denied he knew him three times when questioned. At the third denial Peter wept bitterly when he remembered the words Jesus had spoken to him earlier: “Before the cock crows, you will have disowned me three times” (John 13:38).
Van Eyck has portrayed himself as a rooster staring out from darkness. The red chaperon represents the bird’s comb, the black coat its body, the sharp nose its beak, while the piercing, hooded eyes keep careful watch on all who come near to its roost. For Christians, the cockerel also symbolises Christ’s resurrection.
By turning the chaperon 90 degrees clockwise it can be seen how Van Eyck has depicted the rooster’s head and beak, as well as it’s comb or ‘crown’. Other forms connected to the Passion can also be made out.
Another image to emerge at this angle is Christ crucified. It depicts his suspension from the cross, hanging by his left arm, and his bowed head capped or crowned. A third image is Mary, the mother of Jesus, resting her head against the rooster. When viewed at the normal angle the turban reveals the presentation of the ‘Lamb of God’. Also, when the images of the Lamb and Mary resting her head are united, the combination is recognised as a ‘Pieta’, a subject in Christian art depicting Mary cradling her crucified Son.
Henry de Gosmont describes his heart as a whirlpool that swallows up all the sins of the world. Van Eyck has translated this as the passion and death of Christ whose self-sacrifice as the Lamb of God takes away or “swallows up” the sins of the world. Christ’s crucifixion and the Lamb of God are outlined in the “whirlpool” or “turbulent” presentation of the red turban. Jan was not slow to embed word-play in to his paintings. “Whirl and “world” is another example. Some observers may insist that Jan’s head-cover is actually a chaperon, but the artist’s intention was two-fold, both chaperon and turban.
Van Eyck also embedded the reference to chaperon as implied in “chaperone”, a person who accompanies and takes care of another individual or group, and in this instance the most obvious reference is the outline of the mother of Jesus who accompanied her Son on his way to Calvary, stood by him during his crucifixion, and was there to receive his body when it was taken down from the cross. The painting reflects Christ’s call for all to carry their cross and follow him. A similar message is mirrored in The Book of Holy Medicines In which Henry de Grosmont – “weak from his wounds and bodily sickness that he has lost his wits” – expresses his desire to be healed of his delirium, delusions and sinful thoughts in mind, body and spirit by meditating on the passion of Christ.
Grosmont’s remedy for healing his delirium is both practical and metaphorical. It was to place a cockerel on one’s head, “all split and dismembered and fully spread out, with the blood still hot […] the blessed cockerel who sang for us at dawn when we were in darkness and in shadows. […] I am the weak delirious wretch, and our precious Jesus Christ is the cockerel…” (translation by Catherine Batt, The Book of Holy Medicines, p217)
This remedy explains why Van Eyck has depicted the turban as the cockrel on his head. Batt also points to another treatise, Liber de Diversis Medicinis, which “recommends in cases of madness, a black cockerel, to be applied for three days”. This may also be the reason why Van Eyck is painted wearing a black coat.
Another description Grosmont applies to his heart is to liken it to a fox’s den of earth where the sinful creature of mischief retreats and hides during the day only to appear again at night under the cover of darkness to pursue its wicked vices. Grosmont relates how his eyes and ears, nose and mouth are all portals to the fox’s lair, his heart.
Apart from his portrayal as a cockerel, Van Eyck presents himself as an image of a fox. The entrance to his lair is the fox-trimmed collar; the small triangle shape depicts the white markings seen on a fox’s throat; his sharp nose points to the animal’s long snout, and his clamped thin lips to the long line of the fox’s mouth when closed. Van Eyck’s observant eyes depict those of a watchful fox eying its prey – the red cockrel disguised in the artist’s turban.
Already mentioned is that the cockerel represents Christ. In this portrait the fox represents the Galilean ruler Herod Antipas. The combination of cockerel and fox refers to the passage from Luke’s gospel (13 : 32). When warned by some Pharisees that Herod meant to kill him, Jesus responded, “You may go and tell that fox this message: Learn that today and tomorrow I cast out devils and on the third day attain my end…” He was speaking about his three days in the tomb and resurrection on the third day.
Grosmont also relates his sins and heart to “when a salmon wants to reproduce and have its young, it swims far from the sea, upstream towards the mountains and changes its nature completely.” In other words, the nature of sin is regarded as deadly, once it has entered and reached the heart via the senses.
In this instance Van Eyck depicts an observant eye as the spawning ground for salmon, the portal where sin enters his heart. His eyelid is shaped as a ‘leaping’ salmon. The eye and its pupil can be understood as the egg and food sac, and the small highlights the gravel that covers the egg. One corner of the eye is seemingly the point of entry for salmon to spawn; the other corner is bloodshot and represents the sinful wound.
One of the seven ‘deadly’ sins Grosmont warns about in detail is “Lady Sloth”, a creature of comfort and laziness who arrives at the gate of his ear pleading to enter and once inside is reluctant to leave the castle that is his body. Sloth encourages the body to rest and tend to the needs of the soul “some other day”. Grosmont confesses to the Lord he has badly conducted the defence of his castle and guarded his heart, the tower stronghold, even less so.
In Van Eyck’s self-portrait the sin of Sloth is expressed as the animal of the same name noted for its slowness and hanging upside down on trees. He depicts it as the shape in the turban showing Christ crucified, hanging on a tree. The feature covers Van Eyck’s ear, the gate where Grosmont allowed sloth to enter his castle. Christ is also considered as a gate to a heavenly kingdom and his Church on earth, his body, as a holy temple which the gates of Hell can never prevail against (Matthew 16 : 18). Unlike Sloth whose work is never completed, Christ hangs upright on the tree and confesses that his redemptive mission on earth is achieved. His final words before lowering his head and giving up his spirit were: “It is accomplished” (John 19 : 30).
Mary the mother of Jesus also has a role in Grosmont’s treatise. She is presented as a “most sweet Lady” who dresses and bandages the wounds of the sinner. The bandages of “Mary’s Joys” is portrayed as Van Eyck’s “bandaged” turban, and Mary as a chaperone accompanying Jesus, shown as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1 : 29).
Jan van Eyck’s self-portrait is not the only painting the artist is associated with that has embedded references from The Book of Holy Medicines. The Three Marys at the Tomb is another work that testifies to Grosmont’s confession, so also is the Agony in the Garden folio from Les Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry.
• I shall present more on this in a future post.
• Previous posts about the Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban are at the following links: