Down by the waterside

The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

A feature which could be easily overlooked when viewing Botticelli’s painting of the so-called Birth of Venus (it wasn’t given that name until as late as the 19th century) is the cluster of tall bulrushes placed in the bottom left corner of the picture.

Detail from the Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

Art historians Ronald Lightbown and Frank Zöllner both point out that these species of rushes grow only beside freshwater and not a marine beach. Lightbown suggests Botticelli had not much knowledge of the sea strand, while Zöllner identifies the species as Typha latifoli, and surmises that the presence of bulrushes has an erotic significance and be regarded as phallic symbols.

That Botticelli has planted bulrushes alongside saltwater and not freshwater was deliberate, suggesting other elements and narratives within the painting are not what they appear to be, some clearly hidden or out of sight.

The four visible seed pods among the rushes can be compared with a similar motif present in Jan van Eyck’s famous painting known as the Arnolfini Portrait – the pair of pattens in the bottom left corner of the frame. This would suggest Botticelli was familiar with and probably had sight of the Arnolfini Portrait at some time. The Arnolfini family were wealthy cloth merchants based both in Bruge, Flanders, and also Lucca, Italy. Botticelli included several references to Lucca in his Primavera painting and to the Arnolfini Portrait. So it’s not by chance he borrowed another motif, the pair of pattens, to provide one explanation for the bulrushes. 

Van Eyck’s pattens refer  to a biblical passage from Exodus. They are arranged to represent the hands of a clock, one pointing to the number 3 position, the other to the number 5 position and so chapter 3, verse 5 of Exodus and the command given to Moses as he approached the burning bush: “Take off your shoes, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”

Notice the four pods of the bulrushes are split into two pairs. Although they are not pointing out of the frame but upwards instead, it can be safely understood that they also reference a passage from Exodus – chapter two, verse two – a passage that describes The Birth of Moses. The verse reads: “She conceived and gave birth to a son, and seeing what a fine child he was, kept him for three months.”

So who was this woman and her son that Botticelli alludes to? The passage from Exodus provides more clues, as do the bulrushes.

When the Hebrew mother could no longer conceal her child – Pharaoh had earlier decreed that all new-born Hebrew boys be drowned – the woman placed her child in a papyrus basket and laid it among the reeds beside the river. Later, the Pharaoh’s daughter and her maids were walking on the bank of the river when they discovered the child in its basket. A nurse was fetched. She happened to be the infant’s mother and was told to take the child and suckle it. “When the child grew up she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter who treated him like a son; she named him Moses because, she said, ‘I drew him out of the water’.” (Exodus 2 : 10)

That the infant Moses did not join Pharaoh’s family until he had grown is akin to Giulio de’ Medici, son of the assassinated Giuliano de Medici and Fioretta Gorini, being fostered by the family of Antonio Da Sangallo (the Elder) until the age of seven before he was handed over to the Medici family under the guardianship of his uncle Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Back to the bulrushes and the four seeded pods pointing in an upward direction to the winged couple usually described as the wind god Zephyr and his wife Chloris. She clings to Zephyr in a manner that suggests she is fearful of falling, despite having wings. 

The woman is pregnant, but her swelling is hidden. Instead, Botticelli has exposed and framed the belly of Zephyr. Notice also the grip of the womans hands, and her fingers arranged to represent sexual union.

Detail from the Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

What is also noticeable is the wing of another bird wrapped around the right arm of Zephyr. Its elongated beak rests on his shoulder. The bird is depicted as a stork, perhaps symbolic of the bird associated with birth, but more likely the Egyptian hieroglyphic representing the soul or spirit.

So are the two flying figures modelled on Giuliano  Medici and Fioretta Gorini? Fioretta, yes, but unlikely Giuliano. My understanding is that the flying angel represents Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli set out to identify him by association with Moses and the bulrushes, and the exodus from Egypt.

An early painting by Andrea del Verrocchio depicting the Baptism of Christ has a similar composition to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus except that Christ is the central figure while John the Baptist is the figure on the right with his arm raised in similar fashion to the Hora representing the season of Spring. The two kneeling figures are Leonardo da Vinci, with his back to the viewer, and Sandro Botticelli. But observe the bulrush with its seeded pod alongside the clearwater stream and placed in the left-hand corner of the frame pointing up to Leonardo. Rushes also surround the base of the garment that Leonardo holds ready to cover Christ with after his baptism.

Detail from the Baptism of Christ, 1472-75, Uffizi, Florence

So the bulrushes in the Birth of Venus painting can be understood as a device to make a connection to Leonardo and also find him, as Moses was, among the bulrushes.

There is another link to Leonardo and bulrushes, a drawing that is part of the Royal Collection Trust and described as “a study of a bulrush, with one seed-vessel”. Although the RCT dates the drawing between 1506 and 1512, other sources assign the drawing circa 1480.

As for linking Leonardo with Moses there is a series of frescoes in the Sistine Chapel depicting the life of Moses. Botticelli had a hand in producing some of these when he and a group of painters from Florence were sent by Lorenzo de’ Medici to Rome to decorate the newly-built chapel as an act of reconciliation and diplomacy between Florence and Pope Sixtus IV in the wake of the Pazzi Conspiracy (1478).

Detail from The Trials of Moses, Sandro Botticelli, 1482, Sistine Chapel.

Two of the frescoes depict Leonardo face to face with Moses: The Trials of Moses in which Leonardo is portrayed as the Egyptian slain by Moses; and The Testament and Death of Moses which shows Leonardo in the guise of Joshua kneeling in front of the prophet receiving the baton of command as his successor.

Detail from The Testament and Death of Moses, Sandro Botticelli, 1482, Sistine Chapel.

Leonardo features in another part of the fresco (right) as being on trial after an anonymous accusation of sodomy was made against him. He is portrayed as a fallen angel, and for a reason which I shall reveal in my next post.

Primavera… past and present sources

So what was the inspiration behind the composition of Botticelli’s Primavera, particularly the arrangement and placing of its figures.

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Firstly, the direction of the flow of figures can be understood as pointing to the painting’s presence and influence of Leonardo da Vinci, the polymath whose mirror-style of writing in his notebooks started from the right side of the page and moved to the left. Other mirror or reflection features are also present.

A sample of Leonardo da Vinci’s mirror writing

But perhaps the most unexpected source of inspiration are two illustrations which appear in a 14th century history of Florence by Giovanni Villani, Nuova Cronica. They record the assassination of a young Florentine nobleman called Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti. He was murdered on Easter Sunday, 1216, the morning of his wedding day. Botticelli links this date to the death of Giuliano de’ Medici who was also assassinated on an Easter Sunday – in 1478 – while attending Mass in the Florentine church of Santa Maria del Fiore.

Ms L VIII 296, fol. 69v, Vatican Library, © Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

Figures from both illustrations can be matched to figures in the Primavera. I should point out at this stage that the group of three horses and the lone horse are matched to the group of Three Graces and the figure of Chloris. The groom holding the reins of the horse in the first illustration is matched to Zephyrus. The woman dressed in blue and raised on steps with her right hand extended and her left hand at her side can be compared to the figure of Venus. The woman’s family name is Donati. Her daughter in red, shielded in the doorway, is the inspiration for Flora. The arched windows can be compared to the arched silhouette behind the head of Venus, while the circular windows or roundels are echoed in the oranges. The figure wearing a brown gown is Buondelmonte. The side door to the building also features in the Primavera painting which I shall explain in a later post.

Ms L VIII 296, fol. 70r, Vatican Library, © Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

The second illustration depicts the slaughter of Buondelmonte. He has just crossed the Arno river via the Ponte Vecchio where the old Roman statue of Mars was located before it was swept away in a flood. Notice Mars is facing in the opposite direction of the nearest horse, in the same way he is depicted with his back turned to the nearest figure of the Graces. Notice also the pronounced tail of the horse and the ‘tail’ feature on the Grace figure. The horse saddle is another borrowed feature by Botticelli. He replaced this with Chloris’s cleft-shaped right hand about to be grafted onto Floris’s thigh. 

An unusual feature seen on the three horses is the horn between their ears. The group can also be recognised as three mares. The word mare in Italian translates as ‘sea’. In this context Botticelli has referenced the Three Graces as the three seas that meet at Istanbul, the Marmara Sea, the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn (explained in an earlier post). Notice the golden horn hairstyle on the central figure. Her family name is also Donati. She is Lucrezia Donati, said to have been the platonic love of  Lorenzo de’ Medici.

This is the account of Buonedelmonte’s assassination as it appeared in Villani’s Nouva Cronica:

In the year of Christ 1215, M. Gherardo Orlandi being Podestà in Florence, one M. Bondelmonte dei Bondelmonti, a noble citizen of Florence, had promised to take to wife a maiden of the house of the Amidei, honourable and notable citizens; and afterwards as the said M. Bondelmonte, who was very charming and a good horseman, was riding through the city, a lady of the house of Donati called to him, reproaching him as to the lady to whom he was betrothed, that she was not beautiful or worthy of him, and saying: “I have kept this my daughter for you;” whom she showed to him, and she was most beautiful; and immediately by the inspiration of the devil he was so taken by her, that he was betrothed and wedded to her, for which thing the kinsfolk of the first betrothed lady, being assembled together, and grieving over the shame which M. Bondelmonte had done to them, were filled with the accursed indignation, whereby the city of Florence was destroyed and divided. For many houses of the nobles swore together to bring shame upon the said M. Bondelmonte, in revenge for these wrongs. And being in council among themselves, after what fashion they should punish him, whether by beating or killing, Mosca de’ Lamberti said the evil word: ‘Thing done has an end’; to wit, that he should be slain; and so it was done; for on the morning of Easter of the Resurrection the Amidei of San Stefano assembled in their house, and the said M. Bondelmonte coming from Oltrarno, nobly arrayed in new white apparel, and upon a white palfrey, arriving at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio on this side, just at the foot of the pillar where was the statue of Mars, the said M. Bondelmonte was dragged from his horse by Schiatta degli Uberti, and by Mosca Lamberti and Lambertuccio degli Amidei assaulted and smitten, and by Oderigo Fifanti his veins were opened and he was brought to his end; and there was with them one of the counts of Gangalandi. For the which thing the city rose in arms and tumult; and this death of M. Bondelmonte was the cause and beginning of the accursed parties of Guelfs and Ghibellines in Florence, albeit long before there were factions among the noble citizens and the said parties existed by reason of the strifes and questions between the Church and the Empire; but by reason of the death of the said M. Bondelmonte all the families of the nobles and the other citizens of Florence were divided, and some held with the Bondelmonti, who took the side of the Guelfs, and were its leaders, and some with the Uberti, who were the leaders of the Ghibillines, whence followed much evil and disaster to our city, as hereafter shall be told; and it is believed that it will never have an end, if God do not cut it short. And surely it shows that the enemy of the human race, for the sins of the Florentines, had power in that idol of Mars, which the pagan Florentines of old were wont to worship, that at the foot of his statue such a murder was committed, whence so much evil followed to the city of Florence. The accursed names of the Guelf and Ghibelline parties are said to have arisen first in Germany by reason that two great barons of that country were at war together, and had each a strong castle the one over against the other, and the one had the name of Guelf, and the other of Ghibelline, and the war lasted so long, that all the Germans were divided, and one held to one side, and the other to the other; and the strife even came as far as to the court of Rome, and all the court took part in it, and the one side was called that of Guelf, and the other that of Ghibelline; and so the said names continued in Italy. source

That Botticelli sourced two illustrations from the Nuovo Cronica, which Villani was inspired to write after attending the first Christian Jubilee in Rome in 1300, suggests the artist may also have been similarly inspired to paint the Primavera after returning in 1482 from his year-long commission in Rome frescoing the Sistine Chapel. The Jubilee year was an opportunity for pilgrims to visit Rome, confess their sins and receive absolution from the Church

The oldest manuscript of the Nuovo Chronica is held in the Vatican Library, formally established in 1475 by Pope Sixtus IV. So could Botticelli have set eyes on this manuscript while he was in Rome? 

The Pray Codex is kept at the National Széchényi Library of Budapest.

What may have also inspired Botticelli to utilise the two illustrations from the Nuovo Cronica is the knowledge that Jan van Eyck took a similar approach when painting the Arnolfini Portrait. He sourced two illustrations from the Hungarian manuscript known as the Pray Codex to embed references to what is now referred to as the Turin Shroud. Like the Primavera, the Arnolfini Portrait has penitential and rebirth themes. The word Lent, a shortened form of the Old English word Lencten, means “Spring season” or “Springtime”, which translates in Italian as “Primavera”.

There is one other important manuscript that inspired Botticelli’s composition and lineup of figures he painted in Primavera. More on this in a future post.

Renaissance… rebirth… resurrection

“How can a grown man be born? Can he go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” These were questions the Pharisee called Nicodemus asked after Jesus had said to him, “I tell you most solemnly, unless a man is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3-4)

Jesus answered Nicodemus, “I tell you most solemnly, unless a man is born through water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5)

Botticelli referenced this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus in Primavera as a way of highlighting one of the painting’s main themes – rebirth, but not solely in the sense of the Renaissance period of his time. Rather, Botticelli’s aim was directed at highlighting the need for reformation of hearts and souls towards higher values than offered by the rebirth of Greek and Roman antiquity and its pagan overtones.

The wall of mythological figures in the Primavera serve as a facade that masks deeper truths. Art historians are generally in agreement when identifying the nine figures at an individual level, but struggle to recognise the purpose or role of the group as a whole – probably because the artist has deliberately composed an arrangement meant to suggest an overtone of discord which can never be reconciled – that is pagan mythology. 

In referencing the Pharisee known as Nicodemus, Botticelli introduces another narrative that could be considered a myth in itself – the account of the Holy Face of Lucca, an ancient crucifix said to have been sculpted by Nicodemus and which miraculously found its way from Palestine to Lucca, a town about 60 miles east of Florence, in 782.

The legend records that Nicodemus fell asleep while sculpting the crucifix. He had completed most of the work except for Christ’s face. As he slept an angel appeared on the scene to finish the feature. Centuries later a bishop by the name of Gualfredo was directed in a dream to a cave in the Holy Land where he rediscovered the crucifix. He loaded the relic on a ship without sails or crew. The ship miraculously drifted out to sea and eventually berthed at Luni in Tuscany. However, every time the people of Luni attempted to board the ship it retreated out to sea again. Another bishop, Johannes of Lucca, dreamt that a ship transporting a holy relic had arrived in Luni and so he made his way to the port accompanied by clerics and many people from Lucca. When the Lucchese arrived at Luni they prayed to God and the ship returned to shore and opened its gangplank for the bishop to board.

The eight-foot-tall crucifix was brought ashore and loaded into a cart drawn by oxen. Once again it made what the people considered another miraculous journey – the cart had no driver – and arrived at the San Frediano church in Lucca. But it’s transfer didn’t end there. Another miracle occurred when the crucifix appeared unexpectedly in Lucca’s church of San Martino. It is still there today.

San Martino, or St Martin of Tours, also makes an appearance in the Primavera painting as one of many identities represented by the military figure standing at the end of the lineup, for which I shall present details in a future post.

In an earlier post I pointed out the iconography connecting St Luke, symbolised as an ox, with the central figure in the painting representing the Virgin Mary. This feature also links with the legend of the Holy Face relic and its journey or translation led by oxen to Lucca. Botticelli puns Luke with Lucca; he also make a comparison with the Holy Face coming to light again after its entombment and rediscovery in a cave with the resurrection of Jesus following his crucifixion and burial in a tomb carved out of rock.

The medallion worn by the Virgin Mary depicts the deposition of Jesus in his tomb. It is suspended above the Virgin’s swollen belly, indicating her expectancy of new life. In this scenario “new life” represents a resurrection to an everlasting life and how a “grown man” can be born again and so “see” and “enter the kingdom of God”. 

The span of life on Earth is sometimes expressed as a journey “from the womb to the tomb”. As for being “born through water and the Spirit”, man is born again through “Mother Church” – Ecclesia – by being baptised with both Holy Water and the Holy Spirit.

The Resurrection scene is disguised in the Virgin’s red mantle. So is Christ’s descent into Hell after his crucifixion. To be able to recognise the Resurrection feature the painting requires to be viewed turned upside down.

The Virgin’s left hand is shaped to draw attention to the highlighted area over her thigh, a “dim reflection” of the head and beard of Jesus as he exits his oval-shaped tomb. He is slightly turned so that his left shoulder and the folds of his gown are prominent and nearest the viewer. The oval entrance represents the open mouth of the large fish that swallowed Jonah for three days before vomiting the prophet onto dry land. The Old Testament account of Jonah and the fish is symbolic of Christ’s Resurrection. 

The “dim reflection” of the Holy Face points to a passage in St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that refers to resurrection: “Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror, but then we shall be seeing face to face” (13:12).

Botticelli has used this reference to paint a portrait and “a dim reflection” created with the aid of a mirror – a self portrait – not of Botticelli but of Leonardo da Vinci, and very likely the red chalk drawing owned by a private collector but brought to public attention in 2020 by the Leonardo scholar, Annalisa Di Maria

A feature of most Leonardo portraits, and even his figures, is that the model is shown  in three-quarter view with a shoulder nearest the viewer, hence Botticelli’s emphasis and detail in the folds of the gown or shroud of the “dim reflection”.

When viewed in its normal position the detail serves to represent the blood-soaked sudarium that covered the face of Jesus when he was wrapped in his tomb. The “agonised” depiction is presented looking downwards and meant to represent Christ’s descent into Hell, sometimes referred to as the Harrowing of Hell. Notice the wing-shaped folds indicating God’s Spirit descending.

That Leonardo’s self-portrait was drawn with the aid of a mirror is for a particular reason why Botticelli has referenced it as representing the Holy Face of Lucca, and not solely to fit with the verse from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

The mirror connection introduces another artist and specifically one of his paintings: Jan van Eyck and the Arnolfini Portrait, sometimes referred to as the Arnolfini Wedding, or the Arnolfini Marriage

Art historians are undecided as to which member of the Arnolfini family the “bridegroom” represents – Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini, or his cousin Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini. Both men were Italian merchants from Lucca but resident in Bruges.

There are other connections in the Primavera painting to the Arnolfini Portrait, the most obvious being the way the two artists identified themselves. Van Eyck wrote his name above the large mirror central in the painting; Botticelli has depicted himself as the Cupid figure above the image of the “Mirror of Justice”, one of many titles associated with the Virgin Mary. 

There are more Lucca references in the Primavera which I will explain in a future post.

Unless a man is born through water and the Spirit… *

A couple of months ago I posted an item titled The Annunciation and the Primavera. It explained how the so-called figure of Venus in Primavera also represented the Virgin Mary and how some of its iconography connected to Luke the Evangelist and his gospel account of the Annunciation. 

Luke, who is a patron saint of artists, is often depicted with or as a winged ox or bull. This originates from the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the Chariot of the Lord drawn by four winged creatures of human form, each with four faces: a lion, a bull, an eagle, and a human (Ezk 1:4-12). This image, referred to as a tetramorph, is generally presented as representing the four gospel writers, Matthew (human), Mark (lion), Luke (bull) and John (eagle). All four creatures are disguised in the Primavera painting.

Tetramorph… Nicolaus de Lyra, Postilla litteralis in Biblia. Source: gallica.bnf.fr

Botticelli referenced a passage from Luke’s account of the Annunciation to identify the evangelist –  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with his shadow” (1:35).

Detail from Primavera, c1482, by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The swelling of the Virgin’s belly represents her pregnancy as well the muzzle of an ox [or bull]. The eyes are formed by the shape of the strapping across her bosom, and the neckline of her dress is shaped to represent the horns. The straps outlining her bosom also form the wings of the Holy Spirit descending upon her (and refer to the winged ox), while the dark area beneath her left breast depicts the shadow of the Most High.

I also wrote in my earlier post: The reference to verse 35 is indicated by the number of fingers shown on both hands, three and five. While it appears that the numbers are reversed, reading from right to left, this is a pointer to Leonardo da Vinci’s presence in the Primavera. In his notebooks, Leonardo wrote in a mirror style from the right side of the page. Leonardo’s model for the Virgin in his Annunciation painting is a younger version of the same woman depicted as the Virgin in Botticelli’s Primavera.

Taurus the bull symbol

The morphing symbolism not only connects to Luke’s representation as a bull but also to the shape of the two bulls silhouetted in the trees behind the Virgin’s head and their connection to the already mentioned Papal Bulls. This imagery, in turn, springs from from the opening statement made in Ovid’s Metamorphoses poem – “I intend to speak of forms changed into new identities” – confirming Botticelli’s intention to do the same with his painting. The declaration also aligns with the angel Gabriel’s words to Mary in Luke’s gospel when he announced that the Virgin would conceive a child and was to be named Jesus, after earlier appearing to Zechariah to announce that his barren wife would bear a son to be named John (the Baptist).

Baptism of Christ, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Botticelli utilises this double declaration to link back to a painting known as the Baptism of Christ, painted by his tutor Andrea del Verrocchio with the assistance of another apprentice, Leonardo da Vinci. In the painting, Verrocchio is portrayed as Christ while Leonardo features in two roles – as John the Baptist and the foremost angel at the waterside. The other is Botticelli.

Another biblical prophet to take into account at this stage is Elijah and his connection with the bull sacrifice on Mount Carmel mentioned in a previous post. The Baptist is also identified as Elijah by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel (11:14)

Primavera, c1482, by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Only one angel or cherub is visible in the painting – the blindfolded Cupid – portrayed as Botticelli. There is a reason for his lofty position above the Virgin which I will explain in a future post. 

Leonardo, who was portrayed as the other angel or cherub in The Baptism of Christ painting, now transforms into the Baptist figure, as the forerunner or precursor to Jesus. In other words, Botticelli has depicted Leonardo as both the Baptist and Jesus. This figure is disguised in the Virgin’s red garment, although to recognise the feature the image requires to be turned upside down, just as the silhouette features in the tree arch have to be turned to recognise the shape of the bulls.

However, to fully understand or recognise the Jesus figure, there is another narrative to be taken into account, and one which provides the link to Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait mentioned in a recent post. The narrative also provides a connection to the figure of Flora who is shown distributing flowers from her apron.

I will detail the narrative and its iconography in a future post.

* Unless a man is born through water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
(John 3:5)

An unlikely pairing, but well matched

Forever together… The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, and Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera

I wonder if any art curator would ever consider aligning these two paintings on a gallery wall? If so, for what purpose? That Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait was completed in 1434, and Botticelli’s Primavera some fifty years later, reflecting both Northern and Italian Renaissance styles of painting, could be a reason; that the two paintings relate to marriage could be another.

While art historians have generally focused on literary sources of ancient poets to identify and understand the Primavera figures and the painting’s composition, the wellspring and source of inspiration dates to just a decade before the birth of Botticelli – to Jan van Eyck and the Arnolfini Portrait.

This would indicate that Botticelli had seen the Van Eyck painting at some time, and also had knowledge of Jan’s own inventiveness and rationale behind the painting’s composition and narratives. 

More on this in a future post.

Mirrror men and more…

In my previous post, “Comparing coats of arms” I revealed similarities in composition between Jan van Eyck’s famous painting known as the Arnolfini Portrait, and the Panel of the Archbishop, the second of two centre sections in the St Vincent Panels.

One of features I pointed to was the fur collars of the two men at the end of the back row, referring to the tinctures associated with heraldic designs. What I didn’t mention was that ‘collars’ and ‘necks’ are part of an identification scheme embedded in all six panels.

I also pointed out the comparison of light reflections in the Arnolfini mirror with highlights on the plate armour of the two standing knights. What I didn’t mention was the light source in the Arnolfini Portrait beaming through the window. The central frame forms a cross, meant as a reminder of the cross Christ carried for his crucifixion. Hugo van der Goes picked up on this, perhaps as a reminder of his own suffering and the cross he carred at the time he attempted to self harm or, as some believe, to kill himself.

The cross, reflection and collar are combined as an identifier for the kinght wearing the red hat and positioned at the left shoulder of the deacon.

Look closely at his collar and notice the reflection. It shows a two-bar cross described in heraldic terms as a patriarchal or archiepiscopal cross. This makes a connection to the group of prelates and their archbishop. The two-bar style is also known as the Cross of Lorraine.

In this scenario the cross is intended to reflect or mirror the other guard standing opposite, and so connects the two men in a significant way. The mirror motif is a ‘hat-tip’ to the reflection in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait which records the painter wearing a red hat similar to the one worn by the knight depicted with the Cross of Lorraine. He is Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, son of Isabella, duchess of Burgundy, the daughter of the Portuguese king João I.

His ‘mirrored’ opposite or opponent is René II, duke of Lorraine, who “inherited the two-barred cross as a symbol from his distant ancestors from the House of Anjou of Hungary”. At that time the symbol was referred to as the Anjou Cross. René attached the symbol on his flag before he faced the army of Charles the Bold in the Battle of Nancy in January 1477.

The Burgundian duke, who had earlier seized the Duchy of Lorraine in December 1475, was defeated and killed by a blow to his head with a halberd. His body, pierced with spears, was discovered two days after the battlle. One side of his face had been eaten by wolves. This injury is depicted as a dark shadow on Charles’ face.

The injuries to his cheek and by the spears is confirmed by the spear held by Reneé. It points at the cheek of the figure placed in the top left figure of the frame. He is a mirror image from the Panel of the Prince and represents Pluto, king of the underworld, and the Greek philosopher, Plutarch. Both connect to the figure of Charles representing a second identity which I will reveal and explain in a future post.

Charles the Bold also serves as another link to the Arnolfini Portrait. Van Eyck dated his painting 1433, the same year that Charles was born on November 10.

The woman in the green dress appears to be pregnant. She is Isabella, the mother of Charles. Van Eyck has recorded the birth of Charles, while Van der Goes has recorded his death.

Van der Goes embedded iconography in another way to confirm the identity of Charles the Bold. Some months before the Battle of Nancy the duke of Burgundy and his army were confronted by the Swiss Confederate army outside the village of Concise in what became known as the Battle of Grandson. A defeat ensued and Charles fled with a small group of attendants. He abandoned a large booty of treasure that included a silver bath and a precious crown jewel known as The Three Brothers.

Van der Goes portrayed the flight of Charles in another painting titled – The Monforte Altarpiece. The detail shown above is a play on the name of the village where he was attacked – Concise – derived from the Latin ‘concisus’ meaning ‘cut off’, hence the reason why Charles is shown separated from his treasure possessions and white charger captured by the Swiss. One of the hind legs of the black horse represents a tail between Charles’ legs, symbolising his loss and retreat after defeat in battle. The river is a ‘tributary’ that runs into Lake Neuchâtel and Van der Goes incorporated the feature to link wth the main scene in the Monforte Altarpiece – the Magi paying ‘tribute’ to Jesus, the new-born King of the Jews. This scene also connects with The Three Bothers Jewel.

The Adoration of the Magi by Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Another connection between the portrayal of Charles the Bold in both paintings is that in the original under-drawing for the Panel of the Archbishop, the duke wears a Swiss-style hat with a rather large feather. Hugo changed his mind on this and replaced it with the red cap minus the feather. However, in the Monforte Altarpiece Charles is featured holding a feathered Swiss cap in his left hand.

Charles was killed in battle on January 5, 1475. This date indicates that both paintings could not have been completed until after that date.

More on this in my next post along with details confirming the identity of Reneé II, duke of Lorraine.

Comparing coats of arms

I’ve pointed out in previous posts how Hugo van der Goes incorporated elements from the work of Jan van Eyck into the St Vincent Panels, the most notable being the Ghent Altarpiece. The composition of the Panel of the Archbishop is another example. It not only references the Musical Angels panel from the Ghent polyptych but also Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.

I shall put aside the comparison with the Musical Angels for a future post and explain the similarities between the Panel of the Archbishop and the Arnolfini Portrait.

In its simplest form the Arnolfini Portrait can be viewed as a coat of arms. The two figures either side of the mirror ‘shield’ are ‘supporters’. Their appearance is defined in heraldic tinctures of ‘metals, colours and furs’. The dog and its position is symbolic of the ‘motto’. The chandelier and its three candles represent a royal crown. The red cushion and seat with its foot rest are symbols of authority. The mirror with its 10 golden roundels depict the Passion of Christ and therefore adds a religious significance to the painting. The artist’s signature is at the ‘helm’ or ‘visor’ position supporting the crown and steering the wheel-shaped mirror of reflection.

These elements can be matched to features in the Panel of the Archbishop. The coat of arms theme is indicated by the wide ‘stoles’ covering the arms of the priests standing in the back row. The kneeling figures are ‘supporters’. The armed guards serve as protectors (matched by the lions placed in a guard position on the seat of authority in the Arnolfini Portrait). The three red hats represent the candles and crowns of the chandelier. The religious significance of the group of priests and their golden “coats” can be compared to the mirror’s golden roundels. The group behind the priests are men at the helm – writers and painters – and therefore matched to Van Eyck’s signature. The winding shape of the rope in the motto position echoes the winding white trim of the woman’s dress. As for the heraldic tinctures, the metals and colours are obvious, the furs less so, but they can be found in the collars of the two men standing at the end of the line on the right.

Apart from the composition being similar to a coat of arms, there are other comparisons to the Arnolfini Portrait. The shape of the man’s tabard and the deacon’s dalmatic; the downcast head of the kneeling soldier and his green jerkin with the bowed head of the woman and her green dress; the light reflections in the mirror with those on the soldiers’ armour; the raised right hand of the soldier with that of the man wearing the tabard; the golden rod with the baluster on the window ledge; the ‘pointy’ footwear with the pointed patten shoes.

However, the Arnolfini Portrait is not the only artistic work Hugo van Eyck incorporated in the Panel of the Archbishop. Three other painters are referenced. So too is the work of three authors.

More on this in my next post.

On the fifth day of Christmas…

“On the fifth day of Christmas my true love sent to me five gold rings…” is probably the most memorable line from the Christmas carol, The Twelve days of Christmas.

Another recognisable five-rings motif is the Olympic Games symbol created by Pierre de Coubertin who founded the International Olympic Committee. The educator and historian was also a talented designer.

The original flag displayed for the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games. Source: olympics.com

The five-rings design first saw the light of day during preparations for the 1914 Olympic World Congress in Paris, but is wasn’t until after the First World War that the symbolic flag made its official world debut at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium.

Although the new Olympic flag was displayed in the stadium throughout the four weeks of the Games, the symbol wasn’t incorporated on the 90,000 posters printed in 17 languages advertising the event.

The poster features a naked discus thrower as a reference to the Games of Antiquity. The figure is wrapped in a ribbon of national flags representing the competing nations. The coat of arms of the host city Antwerp – a castle with three towers, two hands and a wreath of laurel and six roses – is placed in the top right corner. In the background is the city of Antwerp and one of its most notable landmarks, the tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Antwerp.

The Cathedral is approximately five kilometres from Antwerp’s Olympic Stadium, now home to the Belgian football club, Beerschot. It houses a stunnng set of the Stations of the Cross painted by two Belgian artists, Louis Hendrix and Frans Vinck. The 14 paintings were produced between 1864 and 1868.

The fourth station – Jesus meets his mother – is attributed to Hendrix. Like Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, it is structured as a coat of arms. The group of supporters on the left side of the frame depicts the Virgin Mary, John the Evangelist, Mary Magdalene, Mary Clophas and Joanna the wife of Chuza.

All five figures of the group are presented with halos shown as five gold interlocking rings!

So while the Olympic five-rings flag was flown only at the stadium during the month-long event, a similar motif had been present and on display in Antwerp for 50 years prior to the 1920 Olympic Games. I sometimes wonder if Pierre de Coubertin was aware of the connection to the “five gold rings” in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Antwerp.

Confessions of Jan van Eyck

Some months ago, in June, an interesting report appeared about the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck. A discovery in the Vatican archives by historian Hendrik Callewier, director of Bruges State Archives, Belgium, revealed Van Eyck had requested a “confessional letter” from Pope Eugenius IV for himself and his wife Margareta.

It stated: “May Your Holiness be deemed worthy to grant Jan van Eyck and Margareta, his wife, from the diocese of Liège, perpetual confessional letters”.

Normal practice at the time was for the penitent to confesss their sins at least once a year in their own diocese. A “confessional letter” would grant the person permission to confess outside of their diocese. In Van Eyck’s case it is thought he wanted to confess in Rome.

The letter to Pope Euginius IV was dated 26 March 1441. Van Eyck died less than four months later, 9 July 1441.

The original document is lodged at Vatican City’s Apostolic Penitentiary Archive, Reg. Matrim. ey Divers. 2,f. 165v

So what’s with the detail of Van Eyck’s eye taken from his iconic self-portrait Man in a Red Turban (1433)? Well, the painting in itself is a confessional type portrait, a form which requires self-analysis and was likely produced with the aid of a mirror. Another mirror, a puzzler for some observers, is the one that features in the famous so-called Arnolfini Portrait (1434). Both paintings are housed in the National Gallery, London. The Arnolfini Portrait also contains confessional or penitential themes. In fact, it could be said that Van Eyck had a fixation about embedding penetential subject matter as there are other paintings attributed to him which link to pilgrimage and confession.

I intend to expand on Van Eyck’s mirror and confession themes in a future post, but in the meantime here’s a reminder that man’s soul-searching and for peace within echoes through every generation.

In 1934, exactly five hundred years after the completition of the Arnolfini Portrait featuring its famous mirror, Peter ‘Dale’ Wimbrow wrote a poem titled The Guy in the Glass.

When you get what you want in your struggle for pelf,
And the world makes you King for a day,
Then go to the mirror and look at yourself,
And see what that guy has to say.
For it isn’t your Father, or Mother, or Wife,
Who judgement upon you must pass.
The feller whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the guy staring back from the glass.
He’s the feller to please, never mind all the rest,
For he’s with you clear up to the end,
And you’ve passed your most dangerous, difficult test
If the guy in the glass is your friend.
You may be like Jack Horner and “chisel” a plum,
And think you’re a wonderful guy,
But the man in the glass says you’re only a bum
If you can’t look him straight in the eye.
You can fool the whole world down the pathway of years,
And get pats on the back as you pass,
But your final reward will be heartaches and tears
If you’ve cheated the guy in the glass.

No water, no life; no blue, no green*

A maritime theme is embedded in the miniature of the Agony in the Garden, portrayed in folio 30v of the Turin-Milan Hours.

The artist, be it Jan or Hubert van Eyck, has translated one of the questions posed in Proverbs 30: “Who has wrapped the waters in his cloak?” as a basis for merging references to both sea and land.

The colours of the cloaks worn by the three disciples represent three seas: the Red Sea, the Sea of Galilee (also called Lake Tiberias), and the Mediterranean Sea (called the Great Green by the Ancient Egyptians).

The cloak worn by Jesus also represents water, the waters under and above the vault (called Heaven) created by God (Genesis 1 : 7-8).

In the next passage God said, “Let the waters under heaven come together under a single mass. and let dry land appear” And so it was. God called the dry land ‘earth’ and the mass of waters ‘seas’. (Genesis 1 : 9-10)

This quotation corresponds to another question in Proverbs 30: Who has set all the ends of the earth firm?

In all four figures can be found several references to Proverbs 30 and other verses from Scripture. However, the figure of Jesus is also shaped and presented to point to a series of events current during the life of the artist and known as the Hook and Cod Wars – “a series of wars and battles in the County of Holland between 1350 and 1490”. The ‘fish’ reference also links to the three disciples as being fishermen and also “fishers of men”.

The visual reference to Cod is Christ’s cloak, shaped as a trawl dragged behind a boat to catch fish – the bulging section is known as the ‘cod-end’. The hook is shaped as his bent arms and praying hands.

Another miniature from the Turin-Milan Hours which references the Hook and Cod Wars is the Prayer on the Shore, also said to be by Jan or Hubert van Eyck.

Some of the iconography embedded in the Agony of the Garden has been translated to the Arnolfini Portrait, possibly suggesting that Jan van Eyck painted both works. However, it can also be understood that Jan is simply paying homage to his brother by mirroring the iconography and so affirming the inscription on the Ghent Altarpiece declaring Hubert as “the greatest painter there was”.

* No water, no life; no blue no green. – Sylvia Earle

Patching up with the past

The Monsaraz fresco known as The Good and Bad Judge, was discovered in 1958 during renovations to the town’s old court building. There is a consensus that the artwork was likely created in the latter part of the 15th century, although later additions (primarily depicting two coats of arms) and perhaps some restoration work were carried out later.

My understanding is that the fresco was painted at a much earlier date, before 1425 and the year the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck was part of the Burgundian diplomatic miission sent to Portugal to pave the way for the marriage of Philip ll, Duke of Burgundy, to Isabella, the only daughter of King John l.

There are elements of the fresco which afterwards Van Eyck incorporated in the Ghent Altarpiece completed in 1432, notably in the Just Judges panel.

In later years Hugo van der Goes seemingly had sight of and studied the fresco as he too was inspired to include some of its features in the St Vincent Panels in his attempt to emulate the Ghent Altarpiece and pay homage to the Van Eyck brothers.

As a citizen of Ghent, Van der Goes would have been more than familiar with the town’s famous altarpiece, and probably the hidden iconography embedded in its panels. For what other reason would Hugo choose to mirror many references to the iconic work of Jan and Hubert van Eyck in the St Vincent Panels?

Returning to the Monsaraz fresco as a source of inspiration for both Jan van Eyck and Hugo van Der Goes, it’s not difficult to match to sections in the St Vincent Panels. For starters, the three figures on the left side of the fresco’s lower register can be compared to the group of three men wearing white religious habits featured in the Panel of the Friars. Two are wearing black hats and one has a beard.

Detail from the Monsaraz fresco and the St Vincent Panel of the Friar

Van der Goes made some adjustment in his painting with the positioning of two of the friars, moving the notary to the front of the frame and the fairhead friar into the centre of the trio.

Now as to the question which artwork was produced first, the fresco or the St Vincent Panels, there are TWO notable clues in the fresco that provide the answer and which Hugo has referenced in his unique way in the Panel of the Friars.

The fresco is damaged in some areas. Paint and its plaster base is missing. In the lower section part of the right arm and hand of the seated judge is lost. Van der Goes has referenced the shape of this missing piece as the black hat worn by the kneeling friar and which covers the hands of the friar behind him.

Detail from the Monsaraz fresco and the St Vincent Panel of the Friar

The shape of the damaged arm in the fresco can also be matched to a ‘mirror’ image in the Panel of the Relic – the relic itself – confirming that Van der Goes had prior sight of the damaged fresco before he completed painting the St Vincent panels. Further confirmation is part of the hand protruding from beneath the damaged area. Hugo picks up on this as well and reproduces the fingers feature as extending from the sleeve of the bearded friar.

Another obvious missing section in the fresco is the top right segment of the upper register. The angel blowing the trumpet is almost obliterated, as is the head of the Suffering Christ in Glory as if decapitated from the body. A piece of the Saviour’s hair is all that remains visible. The word ‘hair’ is not only a key to discovering the Suffering Christ connection in the Panel of the Friars, but also to a series of embedded homophones revealing other identities and connections in the frame.

Christ on his throne… Monsaraz fresco…

Van der Goes also references this missing feature in the Panel of the Friars. Look closely at the head of the figure first in line on the back row. In this instance his identity is the Roman governor Pontius Pilate who was the judge at the trial of Jesus, the judge who responded to Christ’s claim to have been born to witness to the truth: “Truth, what is that?” before handing Jesus over to be crucified.

Pontius Pilate… his ear… and Lambert van Eyck… St Vincent Panels

Hugo has illustrated Christ’s crucifixion within the shape of Pilate’s ear, (a reminder that Pilate had listened to Jesus witness he was the Son of God. But notice that the head of Christ and part of the upper body is missing, hidden under Pilate’s hairline. This is not only a reference to the missing head of Christ in the fresco but also to the phrase found in the Nicene Creed: “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” Various references to the Nicene Creed can be found in other sections of the St Vincent Panels. Truth is also reflected in the head of Lambert van Eyck seen in the Panel of the Relic (and a pointer to Van Eyck’s famous mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait). Truth can be understood as the Holy Spirit shaped into Lambert’s hair, and to the first part of his name as Lamb (of God).

So while some may argue that the fresco was painted after and inspired by the St Vincent Panels, it is highly unlikely that whoever painted the fresco deliberately damaged the work to coincide with Hugo’s references to the missing limbs and head. Hugo has restored the missing parts of the fresco in new light, as if rediscovering or resurrecting lost relics.

“Then the One sitting on the throne spoke: “Now I am making the whole of creation new,” he said. “Write this, that what I am saying is sure and will come true.” And then he said. “It is already done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End…” (Revelation 21 : 5-6)

Notice the Alpha and Omega symbols below “the One sitting on the throne” in the upper register of the fresco!

• My next post will deal with a section of the fresco that inspired Jan van Eyck to utilise in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

More signs and pointers

It’s about three weeks since I last posted information about the St Vincent Panels and in particular the Panel of the Relic. All previous posts with links are listed in the masthead menu under the title St Vincent Panels.

Detail from the Panel of the Relic (St Vincent Panels).

In a post made in April I identified the figure in black from the Panel of the Relic as being two French prelates, Jean Jouffroy doubling up as Pierre Cauchon, and connected them to the French heroine Joan of Arc and the surplice worn by Hubert van Eyck, suggesting the shaped arch in the centre represented the stake Joan was tied to when burnt alive, and its pattern symbolised the flames.

There is also a secondary French connection to the shaped arch or stake which relates and plays on the name Jouffroy.

The link is what was a small island in the middle of the River Seine in Paris known as île aux JuifsJews Island. It was named for the number of executions of Jews that took place on it during the Middle Ages. The Island is also known as Île des TempliersTemplars Island – after several members of the Order of Templars were executed by being burnt at the stake on March 18, 1314.

The Burning of the Templars at Paris (British Library). Notice the Isle in the River Seine.

One notable Templar was Geoffroi de Charney, Preceptor of Normandy for the Knights Templar  – the name Geoffroi connecting to the name Jouffroi.

Also known as Guy d’Auvergne, Geoffroi de Charney and the Knights Templar reference is disguised as a third identity for the figure already revealed as representing Hubert van Eyck and St Hubert. The white surplice, the red colour and the black background to the figure are a combination of colours that make up the Templar beauceant; the cross-bow shape of the collar is substituted for the conventional red cross.

The Templar flag, the Beauceant, matched to the colour arrangement seen in the figure of Hubert.

Another Geoffroi de Charny (not Charney) came to prominence as a French knight and author after the death of Guy d’Auvergne. He wrote books on chivalry and along with the French king John II was a founding member of the Company of the Star. De Charney was also the carrier of the Oriflamme (Golden Flame), the standard of the crown of France, and died at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 defending the French king. 

The Battle of Poitiers shows the fallen figure of Geoffroi de Charny, bearer of the Oriflamme.
Illustration by Graham Turner, from the book: Poitiers1356, The Capture of a King, by David Nicolle.

Observe that the ‘flamed’ centre section of the surplice is crowned, and the transparency of the fabric allows for “see through” to the red cassock underneath, a subtle pointer to the garment representing the Oriflamme. This provides a link to the ‘pilgrim’ figure of Jan van Eyck in the guise of John the Baptist, depicted wearing a white garment under his camel-skin coat. 

The Company of the Star was an order of chivalry and its insignia was a white star on red enamel inscribed with the motto: The star show the way to kings, a reference to the star that led the three kings or magi to Bethlehem. So here we have a link to the star featured on the breast of Jouffroy representing the Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem. The star also unites with the two saints in the back row, Hubert and Lambert. Both served as bishops of Maastricht, and the city’s coat or arms features a white star on a red shield. As a group, the three red-shield references, link to the coat of arms of the de Charny family: three white shields or escutcheons emblazoned on a red shield.

Left to right: The Order of the Star, the Star of Maastricht, the star depicteed on Jean Jouffroy and associated with the Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem, and the coat of arms of Geoffroi de Charny.

Geoffroi de Charny and his wife Jeanne de Vergy were once owners of what was known as the Holy Shroud – the Shroud of Turin – said to have been the cloth that covered the body of Jesus when he was entombed after his crucifixion. Jan van Eyck referred to the Shroud in at least two of his famous paintings: The Arnolfini Portrait and his self portrait of a Man in a Red Turban. The Shroud is also featured in the illuminated manuscript The Turin-Milan Hours on one of the leaves attributed to Jan van Eyck, The Birth of John the Baptist.

The manuscript once belonged to John, Duke of Berry, third son of King John II of France, founder of the Company, or Order, of the Star. The Duke, a collector of books (as Jouffroy was) also owned another famous manuscript: Les Très Riches Heures (The Very Rich Hours), magnificently illustrated by the three Limbourg brothers, Paul, Herman and Johan but incomplete when all three brothers and the Duke of Berry died in 1416, probably of the plague. It is suggested that the calendar miniatures were worked on as late as the 1440s, possibly by Barthélemy van Eyck, thought to be related to the three Van Eyck brothers. Barthélemy was in the service of Duke René of Anjou who became the owner of Les Très Riche Heures following the death of John of Berry who is the third identity that Hugo van der Goes has given to the figure in red.

Detail from the March folio of the Calendar series featured in Les Très Riches Heures.

Barthélemy van Eyck is also identified with being the “Master of René of Anjou” and the alias “Master of the Shadows”, the latter associated with the shadow features depicted in Les Très Riche Heures. Van der Goes points to this style by showing the right elbow of the man in black ‘eclipsing’ the right arm of the pilgrim, except in this scenario the composition is points to a shadow or eclipse feature in the March calendar folio of the Très Riche Heures. Here we see a field being ploughed by two oxen. The one in the forefront is brown; the other black, seemingly eclipsed or a shadow of the brown ox.

Detail from the Panel of the Relic suggesting a partial Lunar eclipse.

The ‘elbow’ eclipse also refers to a solar eclipse where a segment of the Earth is immersed in shadow cast by the Moon partially blocking out sunlight. The brown colouring of the pilgrim’s coat represents the earth, while the crescent-shaped, white hair of the kneeling man in red represents the moon. Notice, too, the sun flare extending from the elbow, and another reference to the Oriflamme. More on this theme in a future post.

This eclipse motif leads to another identity given to the pilgrim figure, and is one of a “series of pointers’ Hugo van der Goes has embedded in the panel… pointing stars, pointed weapons, porcupine needles, pointing fingers and hands, pointed ears – hare and donkey and the left ear of Jouffroy, pointed stake,  pointed saw teeth, cutting instruments, hence the reference to the plough (and symbolic of another heavenly navigator. All these pointed motifs can be summed up by the word ‘pierce’ – even the fingers and hand, a reference to Christ’s invitation to Thomas to examine the piercing he suffered on the Cross. And this brings us to connect the piercing action of the plough to the medieval poem: William’s Vision of Piers the Plowman, attributed to William Langland.

More on this in a future post.

Panel of the Relic… more links

The above detail depicting John the Baptist is from the left wing of the Donne Triptych painted by Hans Membling and housed at the National Gallery in London. Model for the Baptist figure is Rogier van der Weyden. In the background is another Flemish painter, Dieric Bouts.

This pairing is repeated in the Panel of the Knights, the fifth section of the St Vincent Panels as shown here. Hugo van der Goes has featured several artists and made references to their paintings in the St Vincent Panels, usually placing them on the back row.

However, Hans Membling is given a more prominent position. He is one of the identities applied to the kneeling figure in the Panel of the Relic and is shown well advanced in age compared with the some of the other paintings in which he appears as a young man, sometimes in the role of the youngest apostle John the Evangelist.

Membling portrays himself as John in the right wing of the Donne Triptych, holding the poisoned chalice he was invited to drink from by a pagan priest. Hugo has also made a connection to the chalice and the skull fragment held by the ageing Henry Beaufort whose likeness is based on the painting of the Cardinal by Jan van Eyck.

Here Hugo has attempted to morph the two men into one likeness, just as Van Eyck did with himself and the figure of Philip the Good in the Arnolfini Portrait, and so we have another indication for Hugo attempting to emulate the work of Van Eyck.

But there is more to this connection. Beaufort had amassed a great fortune in his life-time and was considered to be one of the wealthiest men in England, so rich that kings and emperors came to him for loans to finance their military and war efforts.

According to the art historian Til-Holger Borchert, so successful was Hans Membling during his painting career and at making investments (he owned several houses) that he was listed among the richest citizens in Bruge, and so an obligatory subscriber to the loan raised by Maximillian I of Austria to finance hostilities towards France in 1480.

Was Hugo van der Goes making a judgement on the success of Membling, or was the reference to the descent into Hell featured in the red-robed figure (as explained in a previous post) a pointer to one of Memling’s most famous and dramatic paintings, The Last Judgment triptych, now housed at the National Museum in Gdańsk, Poland?

Close inspection of the St John figure and the poisoned chalice shows a fold in the red gown shaped to represent a demonic figure with its nose pointing to the rim of the cup.

A similar motif with a sharp nose can be seen “attacking” the skull fragment in the Panel of the Relic.

The chalice and the skull fragment connect to another narrative disguised in the St Vincent Panels, but more on this at another time.

Hugo also combines two elements from Membling’s two triptychs into one of his own – the towers which appear in the left wing of The Last Judgment and the right wing of The Donne Tryptich – to form the wooden upright box in the Panel of the Relic.

Finally, the inspiration for the coupling of Rogier van der Weyden and Dieric Bouts in the Panel of the Knights can also be found in The Last Supper painting by Dieric Bouts painted in the 1460’s and probably around the same time as Membling produced The Last Judgment.

The two portraits shown in the serving hatch of The Last Supper painting are Dieric Bouts and Hans Membling. Another ‘servant’ depicted in the painting is Rogier van der Weyden who died during the time Bouts was painting The Last Supper, and so another possible reason for Van der Goes to link Bouts and Van der Weyden in the St Vincent Panels. Bouts died in 1475.

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

Four Knights and a Marriage

In my previous post I pointed out the connection in the Panel of the Friars to the Three Kings who travelled to Bethlehem with gifts for the new-born Saviour. The Magi motif is repeated in different ways in all of the six sections of the St Vincent Panels. It is why each panel is structured with groups of three figures in the forefront.

However, there appears to be an exception to this format in the Panel of the Knights where four knights are shown, and not three. The knights represent four sons of King John l of Portugal. Kneeling at the front is Henry (the Navigator). Behind him is Peter, Duke of Coimbra. Next in line is John, Constable of Portugal, backed by the ‘Holy Prince’ Ferdinand wearing the steel helmet.

I’ve mentioned in past posts that the St Vincent Panels is an altarpiece inspired by the Ghent Altarpiece produced by the Van Eyck brothers, Jan and Hubert, and probably the work of Hugo van der Goes and not the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves it is currently attributed to.

The Panel of the Knights is a section inspired by another famous painting by Jan van Eyck – The Arnolfini Portrait, now displayed in London’s National Gallery. It is from this painting that Van der Goes makes the connection to the Three Kings, or Magi.

The Arnolfini Portrait is no only linked with an Italian merchant named Giovanni Arnolfini who had business connections in Flanders – but it also relates to Portugal and the House of Aviz. Philip the Good, duke of Burgndy is depicted alongside his third wife, Isabella, daughter of King John l of Portugal and sister to the four brotherly knights.

The Arnolfini Portrait is noted for its large mirror, centrally placed. It shows a mysterious reflection. The backs of the man and woman are clearly identifiable, but the other figures – there are three – are not. Some people speculate that the figure in red may represent Jan van Eyck painting the portrait.

Certainly, other artists of the time understood the composition of the reflection in the mirror, notably Rogier van der Weyden, but some 80 years later Joos van Cleeve revealed the mystery in his panel painting of The Annunciation which also depicted a scene of the Three Wise Men behind the open door of a tabernacle. So Van Eyck’s three figures represent in this sense the Magi arriving to pay homage to the infant-king and Philip and Isabella arere portrayed as a type of Joseph and Mary.

Van Eyck’s tabernacle is housed behind the mirror. It probably contained the miraculous ‘bleeding Host of Dijon’ given to the couple as a gift by Pope Eugenious IV, and therefore considered the Real Presence of Christ by the Catholic Church.

In another sense, Isabella was about to or had recently given birth to her third son, Charles Martin, later nicknamed The Bold, and so the Wise Men or Three Kings had come to pay homage to the new-born heir.

The Panel of the Knights is primarily intended to depict the reflection seen in Van Eyck’s mirror. The first three knights represent the Magi who followed the Star of Bethlehem. The bearded fourth knight, the Holy Prince Ferdinand, is depicted as an image of Christ, his steel cap representing the tomb in which he was laid to rest. Its highlight is matched to the beam of light above the head of one of the kings in Van Eyck’s mirror reflection. The red hat and jacket worn by John can also picked up in the refelection, as can the blue and black colours in the sleeve of Henry’s undercoat.

That the wise men were guided by a star is echoed in the celestial symbols attached to the garments of the knights. The most notable is the quadrant for measuring angles worn on Henry the Navigator’s elbow.

This brief presentation is simply to reveal the connection to The Arnolfini Portrait. There is much, much more to ‘break open’ but at another time.

Meanwhile, there is a detailed analysis of the Arnolfini Portrait at my other website arnolfinimystery.com

Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban

Having already identified references to the Turin Shroud in some of Jan van Eyck’s paintings, notably the Arnolfini Portrait and the Ghent Altarpiece, it came as no surprise when I discovered that Van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban is another work linked to what is claimed to be the burial shroud of Jesus. The painting is dated 1433, a year after the unveiling of the Ghent Altarpiece, and the two works are connected.

The website of the National Gallery in London, where the portrait is housed, provides a high-res image, some key facts and a brief description. Wikipedia also publishes a page with details, particularly about the inscription on the frame of the painting.

Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban, Jan van Eyck, 1433, National Gallery, London.

The most obvious focal point of the portrait is the sitter’s vivid red chaperon and its intricate folds, but there is a more subtle feature paired with the headwrap – the Christ-like face unveiled on the sitter’s left temple.

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 the 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. So is Van Eyck issuing a wake-up call of some kind with this portrait, a possible warning or reminder of betrayal? The rooster is an iconic emblem of Christianity. Also, as a weathercock and a familiar sight on church towers, it indicates which way the wind is blowing.

Jan van Eyck was known to travel abroad on missions for the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good. It is possible that one such excursion brought the artist to England in 1426. Ducal records show that Van Eyck was paid for trips that year on assignment for Philip. One such payment was made in October, perhaps to cover his expenses for an upcoming journey. It is notable that Jan was absent when his brother Hubert died on December 18th that year.

In England, Van Eyck’s turban or chaperon would be called a cocks-comb and, presuming he did travel there on a secret mission for the Duke of Burgundy, he would be familiar with the term. So what would be Jan’s reason for emphasising this feature in the portrait, apparently painted some seven years later? In the first instance the comb is meant to combine with the temple feature  – TEMPLE and COMB. When the two words are cleaved or joined they form TEMPLECOMB(E), which identifies a small village in Somerset.

Van Eyck would often employ punning examples in his work. His name Eyck as a signature motto on the frame of this painting is an example – AIC IXH XAN (AS I CAN). That he used Greek letters for this is not without reason and provides a further clue to unravelling the painting’s narratives and features disguised in the turban.

Jan’s motto is not only a pun on his name but can be also understood as “AN ICON”, or even “JAN ICON” – a religious work of art – its iconic features or themes to be found in the red chaperon. The icon theme also connects to the village of Templecombe and what is known as the Templecombe Head, a painting on wooden boards, discovered in the roof of an outhouse in the village in 1945. It is claimed by some to represent the head of Christ with a link to the Turin Shroud. Details of its discovery and further information at this link.

The iconic Templecombe Head, Church of St Mary, Abbas and Templecombe.

That the painting was discovered beneath the roof of an outhouse makes another connection to the rooster theme in Van Eyck’s portrait. The building is thought to have been part of the Templecombe Preceptory established in the village by the Knights Templar in 1185. After the suppression of the Knights Templar in 1307 the Preceptory was granted to the Knights of St John until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. The Templecome Head is considered to date to the 13th century and is now displayed in the village Church of St Mary. It is also referenced by Jan van Eyck in the Ghent Altarpiece and in this way connects to his Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban.

More on this at Jan van Eyck’s ‘Pieta’ and His Name is John

Hugo’s matching panels

Two panels from two altarpieces, both possibly by the same artist – Hugo van der Goes! On the left is the Panel of the Knights from the set of six frames known as the St Vincent Panels. On the right is the Donor Panel from a set of four known as the Trinity Altarpiece.

The right panel was probably produced c1477 while the left panel is undated but likely completed in the early 1470’s. The donor panel is attributed to Hugo van der Goes while the Portuguese painter Nuno Goçalves is credited with painting the St VIncent Panels. However, I would judge that both panels are by Hugo van der Goes.

The four principal figures in the Panel of the Knights are generally identified as four sons of King John l of Portugal: Henry the Navigator (kneeling), Peter Duke of Coimbra (in green), John Constable of Portugal (in red), and Ferdinand, wearing the steel helmet.

Certainly, the four knights have second identities, perhaps more. It’s a technique Jan van Eyck applied to the many figures in the Ghent Altarpiece and which Van de Goes tried to emulate, In fact, in the Just Judges panel Van Eyck gave each of the ten riders four identities! In the Arnolfini Portrait he morphed himself with the identity of the Duke of Burgundy.

Van Eyck’s influence is also seen in the donor panel of the Trinity Altarpiece and reminiscent of the Angel Musicians scene from the Ghent Altarpiece.

According to some researchers, Henry the Navigator pops up in two places in the St Vincent Panels: as the moustached man wearing the black bourrelet and standing alongside St Vincent in the Panel of the Prince, and secondly, as the foremost kneeling knight in the the Panel of the Knights, grey haired and without a moustache. The latter identification seems the most plausible, especially as he is grouped with three of his brothers.

Left and centre, two variations of Henry the Navigator featured in the St Vincen Panels.
Far right, Edward Bonkill, said to be the Donor of the Trinity Altarpiece.

The Panel of the Knights has a somewhat liturgical feel about it. Their coats of purple, green, red and blue could be said to represent the colours of liturgical vestments. The four men in surplices standing at the back resemble choristers, although in fact they are Flemish artists, identified left to right as Lambert van Eyck, Jacques Daret, Rogier van der Weyden and Dieric Bouts. They are likely to be lined up in order of their passing with Bouts being the last of the quartet to join the “celestial choir”. He died in May 1475. Could this feature provide an indication to dating the panel?

The four Portuguese princes or infantes were also dead prior to the painting, Henry (the Navigator) being the last of the brothers to survive. He died in 1460.

So what connection does this panel have with the Trinity Atarpiece panel? That the same artist was probably responsible for both works provides an important clue in discovering the second identity given to Henry the Navigator. The two kneeling figures are similar in features. We know the identity of the kneeling donor in the Trinity Panel. He is Edward Bonkil, the Provost of Trinity College Kirk in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Bonkil coat of arms appears on the angel’s chair: three buckles surrounding a chevron.

Three buckles and the shape of a chevron
identify the Bonkil coat of arms.

The same motif is disguised within the kneeling figure said to represent Henry the Navigator, except that it refers to the second identitiy given to Henry – that of another member of the Bonkil family, and likely Edward’s elder brother, Alexander. Three buckles feature on the belt, while the shape of the chevron (a rafter) is formed by the hands joined at the fingertips.

Although similar in features to Edward, Alexander’s hair is grey. His nose is not as sharp as his sibling’s but we have to take into account that the portrait is also morphed with Henry whose nose is pointed.

“I was there!”

Last week I published an article on my website revealing how The Good and Bad Judge fresco at Monsaraz in Portugal, partly inspired the famous St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves. I also stated that the SV Panels were also influenced by the Ghent Altarpiece.

What I didn’t know at the time is that Jan van Eyck had also sourced The Good and Bad Judge fresco for the Ghent Altarpiece. At sometime during one of his diplomatic visits to Portugal he must have travelled to Monsaraz and viewed the fresco.

Here’s an example of how Van Eyck recycled some of the fresco’s iconography for the Pilgrims panel in the Ghent Altarpiece. The youth in red is meant to portray a young Jan van Eyck. Just as his statement on the wall in the Arnolfini Portrait, Van Eyck was visually confirming: “I was there!”

My presentation on The Good and Bad Judge is at this link.

See, hear, speak no evil

Detail from the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece – mouth covered, and uncovered.

In October 2018 I posted an item titled Brim of Extinction, pointing out that the repainted verson of the Just Judges panel in the Ghent Altarpiece was missing an important detail that was present in the stolen original.

Recently, I discovered that the missing detail represents part of the maxim: “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”, an appropriate expression for the Just Judges.

The detail is a hat brim which coverered the mouth of one of the central riders, the French king Charles Vl who, at times, was inclined to shout his mouth off, so to speak, during his frequent bouts of psychosis. It’s there on the original version but missing on the copy painted in 1945 by the Belgian art restorer Jef Van der Veken.

More detail from the Just Judges panel meant to portray the maxim, “hear, see, speak no evil”.

“Hear no evil” is depicted by the front rider’s hat covering his ears, and “see no evil” is the self portrait of Jan van Eyck looking out from the picture directly at the viewer. Was Van Eyck saying he saw no evil in anyone, or was this just another “mirror” technique like that in his famous Arnolfini Portrait?

A painter very much influenced by the work of Jan van Eyck was Hugo van der Goes. He lived in Ghent and would no doubt have studied the Ghent Altarpiece in detail. Both Van Eck and Van der Goes are featured in a six-panel altarpiece known as the St Vincent Panels. Like the Ghent Altarpiece there is mystery about some of the detail in the painting and who the sixty figures are or represent.

The six St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves.

The St Vincent panels are attributed to the Portugues artist Nuno Gonçalves but there is also some speculation that Van der Goes may have had a hand in the work or contributed to it in some way. It so happens that the “hear, see, speak no evil” maxim also appears in the first frame of the St Vincent Panels (referred to as he Friars Panel), as it does in the first panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

Detail from the Friars panel of the St Vincent Panels, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga , Lisbon.

The three men standing at the top of the panel, depict the maxim in the order of: “hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil”. The latter is easy to recognise, his mouth, like the French king, is covered by a hat. Next to him is the man who sees no evil, because he does not see the plank held by the the bearded man. The plank also represents part of a crucifixion analogy.

The third man is Pontius Pilate who does not want to hear the cries of the crowd chanting for Christ’s crucifixion. Close inspection of his ear reveals it is shaped as the lower half of Christ’s body on the cross and the overlap of white hair represents his Spirit he offered to the Father. And the reason for Pilate being placed in the corner is that he cannot escape the crowd’s will to have Jesus crucified because of their threat to report him to Ceasar.

This three-part maxim can be applied as an attribute of Pilate’s judgement. He didn’t want to HEAR the demands of the people; he didn’t SEE anything wrong in what Jesus had done; and he didn’t SPEAK evil of him.

This three-man motif is mirrored on the far right panel of the altarpiece, except that only two men appear in the back row lineup. The third place is occupied by an empty coffin.

Detail from the Relic Panel of the St Vincent Panels, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga , Lisbon

Like Pilate, the man in the corner has no choice. His windswept hair is symbolic of the Holy Spirit coming down and resting on him – “Do not be surprised when I say you must be born from above. The wind blows wherever it pleases; you hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from of where it is going” (John 3 : 7-8). This is the man who hears the good and not evil.

The windswept hair representing the resting of the Holy Spirit.

Next to him is the man who sees no evil. Like the Van Eyck self portrait he is staring out directly to the viewer. Is he blind?

Finally, the third place ocupied by the coffin represents the maxim of not speaking evil of the dead. Simple as that!

All is well

Detail from ADORATION OF THE SHEPHERDS (c1480), Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Staying with Hugo van der Goes and his self portrait in the Adoration of the Shepherds.

On visiting Ghent in 1495, some years after Hugo’s death in 1482(?), the humanist Hieronymus Münzer wrote that the Ghent Altarpiece had no rivals and “another great painter” who had attempted to equal the Ghent Altarpiece in his own work had been “driven mad and melancholy”. Art historians assume that Münzer was writing about Hugo van der Goes.

Whatever pressures Hugo put himself under which may have affected his mental state, it appears that he came through his crisis and all was well at the end. So well that he was able to recognise and accept the reasons for his affliction and record his ordeal and recovery in his latter paintings – the Adoration of the Shepherds being one of them.

It would be surprising that living in Ghent and able to admire the Ghent Altarpiece at any time, Hugo would not be influenced by the exceptional creativity of Jan van Eyck and, like oter artists of the time, he incorporated and acknowledged Jan’s influence in his own work – a hat-tip, so to speak. He did so in the Adoration of the Shepherds. The Joseph figure represents Jan van Eyck, but the motif is borrowed from the work of Rogier van der Weyden, another admirer of Van Eyck.

Top row: Hugo van der Goes. Bottom row: Jan van Eyck and Philip lll, Duke of Burgundy.

The self-portrait of the well-again Hugo looking upwards to heaven is borrowed from Van Eyck’s self portrait of himself as a young man that appears in the centre panel (Adoration of the Lamb) of the Ghent Altarpiece. Jan is also looking up. As Augustine heard the voice of a child saying “Take and read” (the bible), so Hugo is listening to the voice of the young Van Eyck to take and read his paintings. And that’s why, like Van Eyck, Hugo’s paintings encompass so many Scripture references.

Another self-portratit of Hugo is found the Vienna DiptychThe Fall and Rise of Man, mournful and repentant as the crucified Christ is taken down form his cross. Hugo has matched this pose with the so-called Mr Arnolfini from Van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini Portrait. In fact the man has a dual personality (notice the cleft chin): Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, as a repentant sinner, combined with the features of Jan van Eyck who sometimes acted as the duke’s proxy, especially when making pilgrimage. Notice also how Hugo has featured the fur trim and the hand that seems to be making a blessing.

Finally, Hugo’s red skull cap, is a match for the ‘skull’ portrait of Philip the Good, a traditional symbol usually featured at the foot of the cross to remind the viewer that life is short, but the red strap of Hugo’s cap also indicates his despair when he declared himself unworthy and damned while returning from visiting Cologne – a pilgrimage – with members of his community. The hand sign is the action of a cut across his throat. Such is Hugo’s self-loathing and lack of peace that he looks down towards the place he is convinced he is heading for.

Fortunately for Hugo he was brought through his crisis of faith and self-doubt, as witnessed by his transformation depicted in the Adoration of the Shepherds.

More on Hugo’s Adoration of the Shepherds in a future post.

A case of mistaken identity

In my opinion, conjecture that the Arnolfini Portrait painted by Jan Van Eyck is of the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao di Arnolfini and his wife, who were living in Bruge at the time, doesn’t fit the picture. Neither does the premise lend itself to Van Eyck’s tendency to ‘paint’ or pun with the written word, especially when signing his work.

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck is
housed at the National Gallery, London

The first-known catalogue entry for the Arnolfini Portrait was made in July 1516 as part of a collection belonging to Margaret, Duchess of Savoy and Governess of the Hapsburg Netherlands. The inventory described the painting as “a large picture which was called Hernoul-le-fin with his wife in a room, which was given to Madame by don Diego, whose arms are on the cover of the picture. Made by the painter Johannes.” (Carola Hicks, Girl in a Green Gown)

Seven years later, in July 1523, Margaret’s inventory referred to the painting as “a very fine picture with two shutters attached, where there is painted a man and a woman standing, with their hands touching; made by the hand of Johannes, the arms and motto of don Diego the person named on the two-shutters Arnoult fin.” (Carola Hicks, Girl in a Green Gown)

Arnoul of Metz, patron saint of brewers

I have shown here how Van Eyck’s painting is formatted as a coat of arms, and has a dynastic theme. The names Hernoul-le-fin and Arnoult Fin are part of this theme and refer to an ancestral line known as the Arnulfings. The dynasty is said to have been founded in the 7th century by St Arnulf, bishop of Metz. The line ended in 714 with the death of Pipin of Herstal. He was succeeded by his illegitimate son Charles (Carol) Martel who started a new line of the family that became known as the Carolingian dynasty.

Charles Martel, founder of the Carolingian dynasty.

Once again Van Eyck plays with words in more ways than one: Arnoult translates to the name ArnaudArnold or Arnulf. Fin can be translated from French as meaning end. So at the end of the line of Arnoult is the start of a new line: Charles Martel and the Carolingian dynasty. This is Van Eyck pointing out that Philip the Good’s new-born son, Charles Martin, was named after Charles Martel, and confirms other references made in the painting to the ‘heir apparent’ – not a ‘dauphin’ but an ‘arnoulfin’. The man in the painting represents Philip III, Duke of Burgundy, portrayed as a penitent.

It is evident Philip held his ancestor in great esteem to want to name his child after Charles Martel. He also went to the extent of commissioning a four-volume history of the Frankish statesman and a grandfather of Charlemagne. The Histoire de Charles Martel was copied for the Duke by calligrapher David Aubert and compiled from various texts and sources. He completed the work in 1465. Philip’s son Charles also commissioned work to be carried out on the four volumes and had them illustrated after the death of his father in 1467.

More analysis on the Arnolfini Portrait at this link.