Ligatures and letters

Last year, I posted information on my website explaining how Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait relates to the linen burial cloth known as the Turin Shroud, and two illustrations depicting the deposition and resurrection of Jesus that appear in the Pray Codex, a Hungarian manuscript produced between 1192 and 1195.

In the section Ligatures and Letters, I pointed to two blood flows on the forehead of the figure on the Shroud, one above the right eye, usually described as a reversed number three or the Greek epsilon (e); the other on the left temple shaped as the Greek lamda (l) (λ). Van Eyck, noted for his word play and the visual puns in his paintings, would not have unnoticed the connection between these two letters and its significance to the claim that the Shroud is the burial cloth of Jesus. Brought together as a typographical ligature, the letters become EL the biblical word meaning GOD. I pointed out that this ligature also appeared in the Pray Codex but at the time didn’t pick up on how Van Eyck had embedded the ligature in the Arnolfini Portrait. Now I can reveal this.

The lamda is the pair of pattens pointing to the edge of the left frame; the epsilon is the white edging of the woman’s green gown (but not the white hem part on the floor –that’s another story!). Brought together they form the word LE – Spanish for ‘the’ and a pointer to the woman in the painting, Isabella of Portugal. However, Van Eyck invites the viewer to take one step further and use the mirror placed prominently on the back wall of the room to reflect the scene. Now the letters form the word EL as seen on the Shroud.

And if we are still not sure, then Van Eyck provides a further link to the Shroud. See how the patten shoes or clogs in the bottom corner of the painting conform to the shape of a ‘shrouded’ body, as if wooden dolls or even idols, the straps and buckle representing folded arms and pierced hands. A closer inspection of the clog’s heel nearest the corner of the frame reveals an image representing the face of Jesus. It is a biblical reference pointing to the verse found in the Book of Genesis (3 :15) where Yahweh tells the serpent that the woman’s offspring (Jesus) would crush its head and the serpent would strike (bruise) the offspring’s heel, a prophecy foretelling the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Notice also the dog – an early breed of the Smouje – is also brought to heel. Art historians generally view the dog as a symbol of faithfulness and obedience.

I sense the Shroud’s EL feature had a big impact on Jan can Eyck because he refers to this in some of his other paintings. More on this in a future post.

A book to reflect on

It all seems so obvious now – the mirror, that is – and why Jan van Eyck made it the central focus in his famous Arnolfini Portrait. Since the painting first found its way to the National Gallery in London 167 years ago, countless questions have been asked about the mirror’s significance and what it represents, and a myriad of answers given.

I’m proposing that the mirror is a symbol of a widely popular book in late-medieval England of meditations originally attributed to Bonaventure, and adapted and translated from Latin by Nicholas Love, a Carthusian monk and prior of Mount Grace Priory in East Yorkshire. It was written at the start of the 15th century and titled The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ.

The Arnolfini Portrait makes reference to the Carthusian monastery in Champmol, near Dijon, so it is feasible that Van Eyck may have had access to a copy of the book there or, perhaps, was given a copy when he travelled to England on business for Philip the Good. The Carthusians live a silent and meditative life.

More on the Arnolfini Mirror HERE and HERE.

More hand signs

More on the relationship between the two figures portrayed as the disciples Simon the Zealot and Philip in The Last Supper painting by Dieric Bouts.

I previously mentioned that Philip represents the painter Jan van Eyck, and Simon the Zealot is Petrus Christus, who worked under Jan before taking over his studio after Van Eyck died in 1441.

When the contract to produce the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament was drawn up and signed in March 1464, it stipulated the assignment of two theologians to assist the painter Dieric Bouts. Johannes Varenacker and Egidius Bailuwel were associated with the Old Leuven University and are featured in the top left panel of the altarpiece.

Bouts has also portrayed Varenacker in The Last Supper panel, in the guise of James the Less sat at the table corner opposite Philip. The figure also represents an older version of Jan van Eyck. So there are two representations of Jan at the table – as Philip, and as James the Less. There is a specific reason for Bouts doing this and likely that Varenacker played his part in constructing the links, hence the reason for portraying the theologian a second time in the altarpiece and in this particular section.

But the combined figure of Van Eyck and Varenacker portrayed as James the Less isn’t just speculation on my part. The connection is confirmed by an associate of Bouts, Hugo van der Goes, in his Adoration of the Kings panel of the Monforte Altarpiece.

Johannes Varenacker and Jan van Eyck in multiple guises

The humble figure of St Joseph is a representation of Varenacker shown with a depiction of Christ’s Shroud on his shoulder, a pointer to Van Eyck’s fascination for what is now known as the Turin Shroud. Notice Joseph has cap in hand as also Varenacker and Van Eyck in the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament.

One of the New Testament references connected to the figures of Simon and Philip is from John’s gospel. The passage about the miracle of the loaves describes how five barley loaves and two fish were enough to feed 5,000 people who had sat down to eat on a hillside (6 : 1-15).

Verse 5 reads: “Looking up, Jesus saw the crowds approaching and said to Philip, ‘Where can we buy some bread for these people to eat?’”

Such was the size of the crowd that Philip answered “ Two hundred dinari would only buy enough for a small piece each.”

Another disciple, Andrew, whose brother was Peter, said a small boy had five barley loaves and two fish but it wouldn’t be enough to feed everyone, estimated at 5,000 people.

Sitting next to Philip in The Last Supper panel is the mentioned Andrew (in red) alongside his brother Peter (in green).

Philip and Simon the Zealot are portrayed with their mouths open. They are in a conversation which represents the question asked by Jesus and Philip’s answer. Simon in the role of Christ (as in Petrus Christus) is portrayed “looking up”.

Simon the Zealot and Philip, aka Petrus Christus and Jan van Eyck… multiple hand signs.

When taking the loaves, Jesus gave thanks – a blessing – before giving the bread out to the people. Simon’s (Christus) right hand is raised in blessing. It also represents the tail end of a fish, as does the joined hands of Philip, in regard to the two fish presented with the five loaves. The three-hand, dove-like formation represents the descent and action of the Holy Spirit in blessing the offering.

On the table are six pieces of bread, not five. However, two are half-cuts, the pieces in front of James the Less and Simon the Zealot, or Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus. In the case of the latter pairing this points to the two painters sharing in some way, perhaps Jan passing on his knowledge and experience to the younger artist, or even his studio after his death.

The juxtaposition of the knife and half-cut bread placed in front of Simon refers to the Zealot’s type of death and martyrdom when his body was reputed to have been sawn in half. It also points to the breaking of bread (Christ’s body) during the celebration of the Eucharist. The knife is positioned on a trajectory pointing to the figure of Jesus blessing the communion wafer in his hand with the words: “This is my body which will be given for you.” (Luke 22 : 19)

Elements of the Philip and Simon pairing (Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus) are reflected in two figures on the opposite side of the table, with the large dish echoing the famous mirror feature in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait painting. Already mentioned is the elderly depiction of Van Eyck sat at the corner of the table. Next to him is Matthew, the tax collector.

More on how these two figures connect with each other, and with those opposite, in a future post.

Judging the Canterbury Tales

Jan van Eyck’s paintings are formed by applying layers of colour with resulting levels of transparency and vividness. He employs a similar technique for unfurling his creative narrative. His method of placing objects is precise and deliberate, and the ‘hidden’ meaning sometimes obvious, other times not so apparent or even visible. And it doesn’t stop there. Jan utilises wordplay in a novel way to surprise and wonder what else might be beneath the surface.

This is most noticeable on the quatrain that appears on the outer frames of the Ghent Altarpiece. The fourth line of the Latin inscription conceals the date when the painting was presented.

The quatrain and its wordplay is a foretaste of what is inside when the frame is opened, particularly with the Just Judges panel. Much has been written about the quatrain by art historians, especially its acknowledgement of Hubert van Eyck being the better painter than his brother Jan. This is the first instance in the work where Jan pays homage to Hubert. It continues inside – and in the form of wordplay and quatrains.

Jan van Eyck’s disposition to ‘paint’ or pun with the written word shows up again in a later work, the Arnolfini Portrait. On it shutters was the name Hernoul-le-fin. A later inventory recorded the name Arnoult fin. Historians didn’t pick up on the word play and settled on the name as Arnolfini, an Italian merchant living in Bruge at the time. My understanding of the name is that Van Eyck was referring to the end of a dynastic line known ast the Arnulfings, and paying homage to Charles Martel who started a new line that became known as the Carolingian dynasty. More about this here.

Three-riders_980

The group of ten riders in the Just Judges panel are strategically placed alongside each other and represent multiple identities, but they also read as chapters in a book, one following on from the other. Each figure is linked in some way to the person next to them, whether it is in front or behind, or even alongside.

To make more sense of this it, let’s look at the figure in front of Joan, the bearded man dressed in red. In the first instance, this is WIlliam de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, and a favourite councillor of the English King, Henry IV. Joan of Arc confronted him when he led the English forces at the seige to Orleans. He retreated as far as Jergeaux pursued by the Maid and eventually surrendered.

There is a conversation alluded to between these two figures which I shall explain at another time, but at this stage it is better to move on to make the next connection and reveal a second identity Van Eyck has designated to the rider in red.

The Earl of Suffolk remained a prisoner of the French king Charles VII for three years and was eventually ransomed in 1431, but before his release he married a woman named Alice Chaucer in November 1430. Alice was the granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer poet, philospher and astronomer, and author of The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer is the second identity. His role as a philospher and astronomer connects to the third identity of the man in red – Claudius Ptolomey, a second century astronomer, mathematician, geographer and poet. A further connection between the second and third identities is that Ptolomey is mentioned in The Canterbury Tales (The Wife of Bath’s Tale).

Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales is the connection to the quatrain attached to four of the outer panels of the Ghent Altarpiece, a quatrain being a type of stanza or poem consisting of four lines.

Moving forward to the next figure ahead of Chaucer. Again it has more than one identity, but for the time being I’ll name one: John, Duke of Berry, and second son of the French king, John II. Here’s how Van Eyck puns the word Canterbury to connect the two figures.

Berry was a region (canton) in France administered by John. Canton and Berry = Canterbury. There is also a second pointer to the word Canton. In heraldy a canton is a charge usually placed in the upper dexter (right) corner of a shield, and so corresponding with the top right corner of the group where Van Eyck has positioned the Duke of Berry.

The fact that Van Eyck has applied more than one identity to each figure creates even more connections that are not always obvious at surface level. It’s a journey of discovery, similar in a way to the pilgrimage theme and shared experience of the travellers outlined in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. There is always more to come…

Double-takes

There are multiple identities applied to the ten riders in the Just Judges panel. Soon after it completion Jan van Eyck ‘layered’ his figures in another major work – The Arnolfini Portrait.

While art historians generally assume that the two people depict the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, no one is really sure.

A couple of years ago I demonstrated on my website that the male figure represented both Jan van Eyck and Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and not Arnolfini.

EyesThe figure of Jan van Eyck in the Just Judges panel supports this as it also doubles up as Philip the Good.

Philip later intimated the genius of his valet de chambre when in March 1435 he informed officers of the Chamber of Accounts in Lille that he would be greatly displeased if they delayed registering his letters patent granting Van Eyck a life pension, as he was about to employ Jan on “certain great works and could not find another painter equally to his taste nor of such excellence in his art and science.”

I sense that the Duke of Burgundy may have had the Ghent Altarpiece in mind when he spoke of Jan’s “excellence in his art and science.”

Double-takes

If not Jan, then who?

Jan-van-Eyck_600
image source: closer to van eyck

It’s generally accepted that the face gazing out of the Just Judges panel is Jan van Eyck, Hubert’s brother. The pose is like a modern-day ‘selfie’ and portrayed to make eye contact with the viewer – a common technique adopted by artists to identify themselves and their work.

However, in this case Jan has given a second identity to the man in black, that of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy. Van Eyck has also applied multiple identities to some of the other figures in this section of the Ghent Altarpiece.

There are a couple of reasons why the duke and his court artist are coupled and positioned leaning into the figure wearing the red hat. Firstly its about conversation, or more precisely, gossip. Secondly, Jan is presenting a mirror effect, repeated two years later in his famous Arnolfini Portrait, and for a similar reason. So where or what is the mirror feature in the frame?

More on this in my next post.

The Birth of John the Baptist

Birth-John-Baptist_650

This domestic scene showing the Birth of John the Baptist is from the illuminated manuscript known as the Turin-Milan Hours. While there is some debate about the attribution to Jan Van Eyck for this folio, the consensus is that it is by Jan’s hand and painted between 1422 and 1425 during the period he was employed by John III of Bavaria.

Having previously demonstrated how the iconography in the Arnolfini Portrait points to the Turin Shroud, this domestic scene showing the Birth of John the Baptist sheds further light on Jan van Eyck’s fascination with the relic claimed by some to be the burial cloth of Jesus.

That the miniature has similarities to the Arnolfini Portrait has not gone unnoticed by art historians; the red bed, the woman in the green dress, the dog in the forefront, the pattens pointing to the edge of the frame, the beams supporting the ceiling, together suggest that Van Eyck sourced his earlier work and replicated some of its features in the Arnolfini Portrait. Seemingly, the Birth of John the Baptist served as a ‘precursor’ to the later painting dated by Van Eyck at 1434.

Beneath this representation of the biblical account of the Baptist’s birth (Luke 1 : 5-25, 57-79) is another narrative, one similarly found in the Arnolfini Portrait. In both paintings the setting corresponds to a chapel housing holy relics.

The chapel scene and contents in the Birth of John the Baptist represents the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, built in the 13th century by Louis IX to house the many holy relics (including the Shroud) ceded to him by Baudouin II of Constantinople.

Van Eyck also incorporates his interest in astronomy with references to celestial objects, and points to the heavenly light transmitted through passages from Scripture. Just as John the Baptist (Jan) was commissioned as a witness to speak for the light (John 1 : 8), so also is Jan van Eyck in his role as an artist and illuminator.

The Birth of John the Baptist is my next presentation at arnolfinimystery.com which I plan to post at the end of August. It will focus on the iconography in the scene representing some 20 holy relics from an inventory produced by Baudouin ll for Louis IX in 1247.

Still searching…

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

More at The Brussels Times

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

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

 

in the pipeline

To date, I’ve published seven presentations on my website, arnolfinimystery.com – and there are several more in the pipeline.

Following on from my discovery of the link from Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait back to two illustrations in the Hungarian Pray Codex, and so the Shroud of Turin, I shall continue with the focus on revealing Jan’s fascination for the Shroud in some of his other paintings.

Portrait of of Man (Léal Souvenir), by Jan van Eyck
The Nativity of John the Baptist (Turin-Milan Hours), attributed to Jan van Eyck
Prayer on the Seashore (Turin-Milan Hours), attrubuted to Jan van Eyck
The Battle of Crécy (Froissart’s Chronicles) attributed to Loyset Liédet
The Battle of Poitier (Froissart’s Chronicles) attributed to Loyset Liédet
Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban, by Jan van Eyck
The Last Supper, by Dieric Bouts
The Montforte Altarpiece, by Hugo van der Goes
Parnassus, by Andrea Mantegna
Madonna della Vittoria, by Andrea Mantegna
Lamentation of Christ, by Andrea Mantegna
Samson and Delilah, by Andrea Mantegna

trinity

Published so far:
The Arnolfini Portrait, by Jan van Eyck
The Seven Sacraments, by Rogier van der Weyden
The Magdalen Reading, by Rogier van der Weyden
The Columba Altarpiece, by Rogier van der Weyden
The Water of Bethlehem, possibly by Rogier van der Weyden
A Goldsmith in his Shop, by Petrus Christus
The Albi Strabo, attributed to Giovanni Bellini