The Fox and the Cockerel

by JAN VAN EYCK

Having previously posted on Jan van Eyck’s self portrait, Man in a Red Turban, I recently discovered Van Eyck’s source of inspiration for the painting, a book authored in 1354 by Henri de Grosmont, First Duke of Lancaster; its title: Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines (The Book of Holy Medicines). A translation of the text into modern English by Catherine Batt was published in 2014 by ACMRS (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies).

It’s very likely Van Eyck possessed or had access to a copy of this book that can be described as a literary form of confession and penitence.

Written in the first person, the text also serves as a mirror for self examination by the reader. It focuses on the narrator’s spiritual wounds in a physical sense. Body parts, particularly those associated with the five senses, are described as gateways for the seven cardinal sins: pride, greed, anger, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth. Healing grace ministered by Christ the doctor, accompanied by his mother Mary, is compared allegorically with a variety of medicinal remedies used by the people in Henry’s time.

As a mirror of reflection, the book is echoed in Van Eyck’s self-portrait made with the aid of a mirror. The painter presents himself as both sinner and penitent.

The modified chaperon is contoured in ways that refer to the passion and death of Jesus, particularly his denial by Peter, the disciple who had been entrusted earlier with the mission to build Christ’s church on earth and pasture his flock. After Jesus was arrested and taken into custody, Peter denied he knew him three times when questioned. At the third denial Peter wept bitterly when he remembered the words Jesus had spoken to him earlier: “Before the cock crows, you will have disowned me three times” (John 13:38).

Van Eyck has portrayed himself as a rooster staring out from darkness. The red chaperon represents the bird’s comb, the black coat its body, the sharp nose its beak, while the piercing, hooded eyes keep careful watch on all who come near to its roost. For Christians, the cockerel also symbolises Christ’s resurrection.

By turning the chaperon 90 degrees clockwise it can be seen how Van Eyck has depicted the rooster’s head and beak, as well as it’s comb or ‘crown’. Other forms connected to the Passion can also be made out.

Another image to emerge at this angle is Christ crucified. It depicts his suspension from the cross, hanging by his left arm, and his bowed head capped or crowned. A third image is Mary, the mother of Jesus, resting her head against the rooster. When viewed at the normal angle the turban reveals the presentation of the ‘Lamb of God’. Also, when the images of the Lamb and Mary resting her head are united, the combination is recognised as a ‘Pieta’, a subject in Christian art depicting Mary cradling her crucified Son.

The mother of Jesus resting her head against the Lamb of God.

Henry de Gosmont describes his heart as a whirlpool that swallows up all the sins of the world. Van Eyck has translated this as the passion and death of Christ whose self-sacrifice as the Lamb of God takes away or “swallows up” the sins of the world. Christ’s crucifixion and the Lamb of God are outlined in the “whirlpool” or “turbulent” presentation of the red turban. Jan was not slow to embed word-play in to his paintings. “Whirl and “world” is another example. Some observers may insist that Jan’s head-cover is actually a chaperon, but the artist’s intention was two-fold, both chaperon and turban.

Van Eyck also embedded the reference to chaperon as implied in “chaperone”, a person who accompanies and takes care of another individual or group, and in this instance the most obvious reference is the outline of the mother of Jesus who accompanied her Son on his way to Calvary, stood by him during his crucifixion, and was there to receive his body when it was taken down from the cross. The painting reflects Christ’s call for all to carry their cross and follow him. A similar message is mirrored in The Book of Holy Medicines In which Henry de Grosmont – “weak from his wounds and bodily sickness that he has lost his wits” – expresses his desire to be healed of his delirium, delusions and sinful thoughts in mind, body and spirit by meditating on the passion of Christ.

Grosmont’s remedy for healing his delirium is both practical and metaphorical. It was to place a cockerel on one’s head, “all split and dismembered and fully spread out, with the blood still hot […] the blessed cockerel who sang for us at dawn when we were in darkness and in shadows. […] I am the weak delirious wretch, and our precious Jesus Christ is the cockerel…” (translation by Catherine Batt, The Book of Holy Medicines, p217)

This remedy explains why Van Eyck has depicted the turban as the cockrel on his head. Batt also points to another treatise, Liber de Diversis Medicinis, which “recommends in cases of madness, a black cockerel, to be applied for three days”. This may also be the reason why Van Eyck is painted wearing a black coat.

Another description Grosmont applies to his heart is to liken it to a fox’s den of earth where the sinful creature of mischief retreats and hides during the day only to appear again at night under the cover of darkness to pursue its wicked vices. Grosmont relates how his eyes and ears, nose and mouth are all portals to the fox’s lair, his heart.

Apart from his portrayal as a cockerel, Van Eyck presents himself as an image of a fox. The entrance to his lair is the fox-trimmed collar; the small triangle shape depicts the white markings seen on a fox’s throat; his sharp nose points to the animal’s long snout, and his clamped thin lips to the long line of the fox’s mouth when closed. Van Eyck’s observant eyes depict those of a watchful fox eying its prey – the red cockrel disguised in the artist’s turban.

photo © Paul Cecil

Already mentioned is that the cockerel represents Christ. In this portrait the fox represents the Galilean ruler Herod Antipas. The combination of cockerel and fox refers to the passage from Luke’s gospel (13 : 32). When warned by some Pharisees that Herod meant to kill him, Jesus responded, “You may go and tell that fox this message: Learn that today and tomorrow I cast out devils and on the third day attain my end…” He was speaking about his three days in the tomb and resurrection on the third day.

Grosmont also relates his sins and heart to “when a salmon wants to reproduce and have its young, it swims far from the sea, upstream towards the mountains and changes its nature completely.” In other words, the nature of sin is regarded as deadly, once it has entered and reached the heart via the senses.

In this instance Van Eyck depicts an observant eye as the spawning ground for salmon, the portal where sin enters his heart. His eyelid is shaped as a ‘leaping’ salmon. The eye and its pupil can be understood as the egg and food sac, and the small highlights the gravel that covers the egg. One corner of the eye is seemingly the point of entry for salmon to spawn; the other corner is bloodshot and represents the sinful wound.

One of the seven ‘deadly’ sins Grosmont warns about in detail is “Lady Sloth”, a creature of comfort and laziness who arrives at the gate of his ear pleading to enter and once inside is reluctant to leave the castle that is his body. Sloth encourages the body to rest and tend to the needs of the soul “some other day”. Grosmont confesses to the Lord he has badly conducted the defence of his castle and guarded his heart, the tower stronghold, even less so.

Sloth (Choloepus Hoffmani) hanging upside down on a tree
Christ and the Sloth depicted hanging from a tree

In Van Eyck’s self-portrait the sin of Sloth is expressed as the animal of the same name noted for its slowness and hanging upside down on trees. He depicts it as the shape in the turban showing Christ crucified, hanging on a tree. The feature covers Van Eyck’s ear, the gate where Grosmont allowed sloth to enter his castle. Christ is also considered as a gate to a heavenly kingdom and his Church on earth, his body, as a holy temple which the gates of Hell can never prevail against (Matthew 16 : 18). Unlike Sloth whose work is never completed, Christ hangs upright on the tree and confesses that his redemptive mission on earth is achieved. His final words before lowering his head and giving up his spirit were: “It is accomplished” (John 19 : 30).

Mary the mother of Jesus as the ‘most sweet Lady”.

Mary the mother of Jesus also has a role in Grosmont’s treatise. She is presented as a “most sweet Lady” who dresses and bandages the wounds of the sinner. The bandages of “Mary’s Joys” is portrayed as Van Eyck’s “bandaged” turban, and Mary as a chaperone accompanying Jesus, shown as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1 : 29).

Jan van Eyck’s self-portrait is not the only painting the artist is associated with that has embedded references from The Book of Holy Medicines. The Three Marys at the Tomb is another work that testifies to Grosmont’s confession, so also is the Agony in the Garden folio from Les Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry.

I shall present more on this in a future post.

Previous posts about the Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban are at the following links:

Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban
Stay awake and keep watch
Jan van Eyck’s ‘Pieta’
A man under Mary’s mantle
Hugo’s hat-tip to Jan van Eyck

More Samson connections

This post deals with more connections to the story of Samson found in the Agony in the Garden folio from the Turin-Milan Hours.

Turin-Milan Hours folio 30v, Agony in the Garden, Hand G,
Museo Civico d’Arte Antica of Turin

In my previous post I mentioned that ‘foxes’ had a role in the lives of both Samson and Jesus.

On one occasion Samson took revenge on the Philistines by a most unusual method. “He went off and caught three hundred foxes, then took torches and turning the foxes tail to tail put a torch between each pair of tails. He lit the torches and set the foxes free in the Philistines’ cornfields. In this way he burned both sheaves and standing corn, and the vines and olive trees as well” (Judges 15 : 4-5).

And responding to a scribe who said, “Master I will follow you wherever you go”, Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8 : 19-20).

Here, the artist is pairing the response of Jesus to the instruction he gave to his three disciples seen sleeping in the Garden of Gethsemane to “stay awake and pray not to be put to the test” (Matthew 26 : 41).

In Luke’s gospel (13 : 31-33) Jesus refers to the Galilean ruler Herod Antipas as a fox. Warned by some Pharisees that Herod meant to kill him, Jesus responded, “You may go and tell that fox this message: Learn that today and tomorrow I cast out devils and on the third day attain my end…” He was speaking about his three days in the tomb and resurrection on the third day, an event that happened soon after his capture by the cohort sent by the chief priests and Pharisees.

The artist has also made two visual references to foxes which connect to the two passages from the New Testament and to the story of Samson from the Book of Judges.

The hands of Jesus are shaped as the head of a fox, so too is the head of Jesus. Not only are his long ringlets intended to depict him as a Nazarite but they also represent the foxes tails set on fire by Samson. The ringlets also connect to the time Delilah asked Samsom what would be needed to bind him. Samson replied: “If you wove the seven locks of my hair into the warp of the web and fixed the peg firmly, I should lose my strength and become like any other man” (Judges 16 : 13).

This corresponds to when the cohort “seized Jesus and bound him” (John 18 : 12). Jesus offered no resistance, the illustration shows him with his hands coming together in prayer and in a manner of surrender to his Father, knowing the self sacrifice he is soon to make.

On three occasions Delilah called out to the sleeping Samson, “The Philistines are on you Samson!” Similarly, before Jesus was arrested by the cohort he found his disciples sleeping on three occasions.

Many of the elements from the Agony in the Garden are reworked into The Three Marys at the Tomb painting attributed to Hubert or Jan van Eyck, or even both.

The figure of Jesus praying to his Father in Heaven was also translated into the figure of William VI, Count of Holland, in another folio from the Turin-Milan Hours known as the Prayer on the Shore. Like Jesus, William is portrayed with his hands joined in prayer and his head looking up to God and his angels in Heaven. The pleats in William’s fur coat echo the ringlets rolling down from the head of Jesus.

Prayer on the Shore by Hand G, Turin-Milan Hours, Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino

Samson, a Nazarite to his dying day

The Agony in the Garden folio, which forms part of the Turin-MIlan Hours, portrays the time after the Last Supper when Jesus led three of his disciples to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. While Jesus went away to pray alone, the disciples Peter and the brothers James and John, fell asleep. Jesus prayed and asked for the cup (of suffering) to be taken away if it was his Father’s will. Twice he returned to waken the disciples. Returning a third time he told them to get up as the time had come for him to be betrayed. The cohort sent to arrest Jesus is portrayed behind the fence.

Turin-Milan Hours folio 30v, Agony in the Garden, Hand G, Museo Civico d’Arte Antica of Turin

There is an underlying narrative in the painting which connects to the rather indistinguishable figure in the blue hat. In a previous post I explained the figure is intended to represent a heifer and relates to the story of Samson, one of the last judges of ancient Israel featured in the Old Testament (Judges 13-16), parts of which are alluded to in the Agony in the Garden folio.

In some ways the story of Samson points to Jesus. An angel announced news of Samson’s birth to his infertile mother, as the angel Gabriel announced the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary.

Samson was a Nazarite; Jesus was a Nazarene from Nazareth.

‘Foxes’ had a role in the lives of both Samson and Jesus.

Samson confessed he would lose his strength if his hair was cut and his head shaved; the power of Jesus came from being the natural ‘heir’ to God’s throne as “the only begotten Son”.

Both Samson and Jesus sacrificed their lives with arms wide open; the blinded Samson was led to stand and push between two pillars; Jesus was nailed to a cross.

Whereas Samson’s sacrifice destroyed a nation of Philistines, the saving sacrifice of Jesus conquered death and saved the world.

Samson’s brothers and family took his lifeless body away and buried him in the tomb of his father Manoah. Followers and relatives of Jesus removed his body from the cross and buried him in the tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea.

The painting makes several other references to Scripture, most notably to verses from Proverbs 30. The artist has also taken verse 12 from Psalm 118 to describe the group sent to arrest Jesus: “They surrounded me like bees; they were extinguished as a fire of thorns. In the name of the Lord I will surely cut them off.”

This section and the verse from Psalm 118 is the starting point for translating the iconography that connects to Sansom.

The “extinguished fire of thorns” are the blackened spears, and the sharp pointed ends of the fence section where the group is “cut off” provides the clue for discovering the bees. Within the indents are four heads of men sent to arrest Jesus. The indented areas accommodate the “collars” of the men. “Collar” is a play on the word “colour” and the colours have a significance. Each “points” to the tail-end of a different type of colour of bee – hence a swarm of bees. In a similar way, the artist has coloured the gowns of Jesus and his three disciples to reference and name the Red Sea, the Sea of Galilee, the Mediterranean Sea, and the “waters under and above the vault (called heaven)” – see this link for details.

So what features portrayed in the cohort group relate to parts of the story of Sansom?

The roped head of Judas represents the new ropes Samson was bound with by Delilah. The long hair of the centre figure (Caiphas) represents the long hair of Samson grown in the tradition of a Nazarite, from which he claimed his strength. It also represents the mane of the young lion that Samson killed and tore to pieces with his bare hands. When Sansom later returned to the carcass he found it contained a swarm of bees and honey. And so we have the link back to the verse from Psalm 118 about the bees and the reference to honey (and the lion’s blood) to the colour on Caiphas’ chest or carcass area. Notice also the suggestion of part of the lion’s head on the man’s shoulder.

Another lion reference is disguised is the strands of hair of the centre figure. It represents the face of Jesus as the Lion of Judah. He is portrayed face to face with his betrayer, Judas, the figure with the roped hat, whose hair is shorn and beard cut short, just as Sansom was after he betrayed the secret of his strength to Delilah. The weakness in Judas became apparent when he betrayed Jesus to the Pharisees and led the cohort to him in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Embedded behind these two profiles are two other images that relate to extracting information and betrayal. The purple hat of the faceless figure directly behind Judas represents an olive. The blue hat of the figure next to it is the jar to receive the olive oil. It’s face is that of a heifer and a reference to Samson’s wife who betrayed her husband by revealing the answer to a riddle he had set the Philistines: “Out of the eater came what is eaten, and out of the strong came what is sweet.” The answer the Philistines gave was: “What is sweeter than honey, and what stringer than a lion?” Samson retorted: “ If you had not ploughed with my heifer, you would not have guessed the riddle.”

As oil is pressed from an olive, so the answer to the riddle was pressed or ploughed by the Philistine’s from Samson’s wife.

Notice also the figure with the blue hat is shown with only one eye, blind at that. It is ‘yoked’ or paired with the blind eye of Judas. The reference to blindness is also linked to when Samson was blinded by the Philistines shortly before his death and again to the earlier time he was blind-sided by Delilah in revealing the secret of his strength.

Another episode in the life of Samson was when he struck down a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey. The reference to the donkey’s jawbone is shown under the chin of the soldier in armour. The donkey’s long ears are indicated either side of the man’s jaw, but the shape of the jawbone weapon is emphasised on the right side of the face and under the chin.

The Samson references are extended to the kneeling figure of Jesus and also link to the three sleeping disiciples, but more about this in a future post.

Royal positions

Shown below are features from five different paintings which relate to each other in a specific way, and not just because each painting has a connection to a member of the Van Eyck family.

(1) November folio, Très Riche Heures, by Jean Colombe; (2 & 3) January folio, Très Riche Heures, by Bathélemy d’Eyck; (4) St Francis Receives the Stigmata, by Jan van Eyck; (5) Agony in the Garden, Turin-Milan Hours, attributed to Hand G, and likely Hubert or Jan van Eyck; (6 & 7) The Three Marys at the Tomb, by Hubert or Jan van Eyck.

The clue is the crouching stance taken by one or more figure in each example. The posture is a pointer to Edmund Crouchback (1245-1296), a son of the English Plantagenet king, Henry III, and also to Edmund’s own son, Henry of Lancaster (1281-1345).

The inspiration for this repeating theme was the Agony in the Garden miniature from which elements have been taken and translated, or reinterpreted, in the later paintings.

More on this in a future post.

A Trinitarian theme

There is somewhat of a Trinitarian theme detectable in the Agony in the Garden miniature (folio 30v in the Turin-Milan Hours) attributed to Jan or Hubert van Eyck.

Turin-Milan Hours folio 30v, Agony in the Garden, Museo Civico d’Arte Antica of Turin, digital copy: Closer to Van Eyck

There are three apostles, Peter and the brothers John and James, each wearing one of the primary colours related to physics that when mixed or overlapped produce a white light; there are three trees to the right of Jesus representing three crucifixions on Calvary; three principal figures are grouped behind the fence and represent the cohort arriving to arrest Jesus; there are three main grouping of stones among the apostles; and in the bible account relating to the Agony in the Garden Jesus returned to his sleeping followers three times.

Another painting attributed to either of the two Van Eyck brothers and which takes its inspiration and translates some of the iconography from the Gethsemane miniature is the Three Marys at the Tomb: three being the number of women and also the men guarding the tomb who, like the three apostles, are sound asleep. The three guards are also positioned in a similar fashion as the disciples: one is lying down as John; the guard suited in plated armour sleeps with his back against the tomb as Peter; and the third guard as James has his back resting against a rock at the far corner of the tomb.

The Three Mary’s at the TombMuseum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

There are also three other features that connect the guards to the three apostles. James’ hands are crossed, the guard, his legs; Peter’s hands rest on his lap while the armoured guard’s hands are arranged in a similar position; John’s hands act as a pillow under his head, so do those of the guard lying down.

Detail from the Agony in the Garden, folio 30v, Turin-Milan Hours

The three guards at the tomb also connect to the three men behind the fence in the Gethsemane miniature. The armoured guard’s ear is mutilated, and has the appearance of having been sliced. This refers to the armoured figure behind the fence who represents Malchus. The servant of the high priest Caiaphas had his ear cut off by Peter’s sword. 

Caiaphas is the central figure in the group of three men behind the fence. His red pointed hat, its wreath or torse, and the long hair covering his neck, are translated as the hat worn by the sleeping guard lying down. The hat is pointed, its green peak represents the wreath, and the neck protector the long hair. The third figure in the group behind the fence is Judas and is matched to the guard in green with his hand gripping the side of his jaw.

This feature is meant to mirror the heavy stubble or shadow on the jaw of Judas. The shape of the guard’s hat matches the bottle shape of the blue hat of the figure behind Judas. But its circular pattern is also designed to reflect the roped hat worn by Judas – and both the pseudo text and the extended peak is perhaps symbolic of the false heart of Judas and his lying tongue. 

Another meaning the artist – Hubert or Jan – has applied to the guards at the tomb is they represent the three churches that share custody of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic.

The trinitarian theme also extends to the guards representing the Magi, the Three Kings or Wise Men who brought gifts to the Infant Jesus at Bethlehem. I shall explain the connection in my next post.

By wisdom a house is built…

This post sets out to illustrate another example of how Jan van Eyck translated iconography from the Agony in the Garden miniature to the smaller version of St Francis Receiving the Stigmata.

St Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Jan van Eyck, Philadelphia Museum of Art

One of the original followers of St Francis was Brother Juniper. He was received into the Order of Friars Minor by Francis himself who once said about his follower: “Would to God, my brothers, that I had a whole forest of such Junipers.”

The expression was not lost on Jan van Eyck, as he was also partial to planting puns and other forms of word play in his paintings.

Placed behind St Francis is a line of spiky shrubbery – Juniper – not only a reference to Brother Juniper but also as a symbol of protection. It’s meant to echo the pointed fence that surrounds Jesus and three of his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane miniature. It also relates to a story about Brother Juniper’s great power against demons recorded in the Little Flowers of St Francis.

“The devils could not endure the purity of Brother Juniper’s innocence and his profound humility, as appears in the following example: A certain demoniac one day fled in an unaccustomed manner, and through devious paths, seven miles from his home. When his parents, who had followed him in great distress of mind, at last overtook him, they asked him why he had fled in this strange way. The demoniac answered: ‘Because that fool Juniper was coming this way. I could not endure his presence, and therefore, rather than wait his coming, I fled away through these woods.’ And on inquiring into the truth of these words, they found that Brother Juniper had indeed arrived at the time the devil had said. Therefore when demoniacs were brought to St Francis to be healed, if the evil spirit did not immediately depart at his command, he was wont to say: ‘Unless thou dost instantly leave this creature, I will bring Brother Juniper to thee.’ Then the devil, fearing the presence of Brother Juniper, and being unable to endure the virtue and humility of St Francis, would forthwith depart.”

Van Eyck uses simple pointers to direct the viewer to specifics. In this instance the tip of Francis’ cowl points to the head of the ‘demoniac’ covered by the spiky juniper leaves.

This in turn relates to the impaled head of Judas, one of the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus, positioned left in the group behind the pointed fence in the Gethsemane scene. Luke’s gospel (22-3) states: “Satan entered into Judas, surnamed Iscariot, who was numbered among the Twelve.” From that moment he set out to betray Jesus and hand him over to the chief priests and the officers of the guard.

Judas had earlier complained about the woman at Bethany wasting expensive spikenard to anoint the feet of Jesus, saying it could have been sold and the money given to the poor (John 12 : 1-8). Judas was in charge of the common purse, but also a liar and a thief who used the purse for his own needs—unlike Brother Juniper who had a tendency to give any items to the poor that he found lying around, which occasionally belonged to other brothers of the Order..

However, there was one particular Franciscan brother who some considered to have been a ‘Judas’ in betraying the Order and the way of life followed by its founder, even to the extent of furnishing himself a worldly lifestyle from funds he raised to build a basilica in honour of St Francis. His name was Elias, a form of Elijah the biblical prophet. This connection refers back to Van Eyck’s depiction of the juniper shrub and its mention in the First Book of Kings when Elijah fled in fear from Jezebel and sat under a juniper tree in the desert, wishing himself dead (1 Kings 19 : 4). So the demoniac embedded beneath the juniper shrub is a reference to Brother Elias, also referred to as Helias (Latin) and which Van Eyck would pun as “He lies”, comparing his words and deeds to the transgressions of Judas. The Gethsemane fence is considered the ‘pale’ — a perimeter, a kind of city wall built for protection from attack by enemies; hence the juniper shrub as a protective measure around Francis.

The line of juniper shrub also extends to the right of Francis and in this section can be seen another vague visage. It’s a cross between a cow and a lion. Again, the feature originates in the Gethsemane miniature among the group of men on the Mount of Olives coming to arrest Jesus. At the rear of the group is a faceless figure whose hat is shaped and coloured as an olive. In front of him is a figure wearing a blue hat. The hat is bottled shaped and represents a container for the olive oil retrieved from Gethsemane (meaning oil-press) – holy oil, hence the hat’s blue colour. 

Detail from the Agony in the Garden, folio 30v, Turin-Milan Hours

The hat is also shaped to represent a horn and refers to the horn God commanded Samuel to fill to anoint David as king, and take with him a heifer to sacrifice (Samuel 16 : 1-13). The somewhat mysterious face beneath the hat represents a heifer.  The heifer also links to  comparisons of Samson with Jesus as a saviour of his people. Sansom referred one time to his wife as a heifer (Judges 14 : 18).

The connection to the cow in the Stigmata painting derives from a play on the word cowl, as worn by Brother Leo, its tip indicating the feature just as Francis’ cowl points to the other face disguised in the juniper shrub. The founder had a love for all creatures and called them brothers, often blessing and curing sick animals, even cattle.

The lion motif is also associated with the name of Brother Leo. Another Leo, Pope Leo IV, who ordered a protective wall to be built around part of the city of Rome following the sacking of Old St Peter’s Basilica in 846 by Muslim raiders. It is now known as the Leonine Wall. Here we can see the connection Van Eyck has made to Brother Elias and his ambitious project to build a basilica in honour of St Francis.

The building projects also link to the voice Francis heard in the spring of 1206 while contemplating an icon depicting the Crucified Christ. The voice commanded Francis to “Go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling down.” Francis thought the instruction meant to repair the church of San Damiano in which he heard the voice, and proceeded to do so and also repair other churches elsewhere. He never asked for money from anyone to do so, only for stones, of which plenty feature in Van Eyck’s painting, stacked high in all shapes and sizes!

So now we have three references to building projects, that of St Francis, Pope Leo IV, and Brother Elias. But Jan van Eyck introduces another, and by doing so gives a clue to who commissioned the painting — the Adornes brothers from Bruges, Pieter and Jacob. It is likely Pieter who actually ordered the work, portrayed here as St Francis and adopting the position of patron or donor, while Jacob is seen meditating, or even asleep!

When the Adornes brothers returned to Bruges from making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the 1420s, they started to rebuild a family chapel which was erected earlier by their forefathers in memory of the Passion of Christ and his Holy Sepulchre. The private chapel, known as the Jerusalem Chapel, was consecrated on Palm Sunday 1429 and is still in the ownership of the Adornes family. 

It’s possible that both the large and small versions of Van Eyck’s paintings were commissioned as a reminder of the brothers’ pilgrimage to the Holy Land, perhaps one for each brother, or maybe one for use as private devotion and the larger painting for display in the newly built chapel.

Further analysis of the iconography in St Francis Receiving the Stigmata will be presented in a future post.

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

Ringing the changes, part two

Following on from my previous post – Ringing the changes – I’ve come across another version of the Three Mary’s which connects to both the Turin-Milan Hours folio 30v depicting Christ’s Agony in the Garden and the painting titled The Three Mary’s at the Tomb.

The Three Maries at the Tomb and the Resurrection, attributed to Niccolò Antonio Colantonio

Unfortunately, I have only been able to locate a black and white copy of this new find titled The Three Maries and attributed to the 15th century Italian painter Niccolio Antonio Colantonio, but the copy shows enough detail to see that the artist has made a composite of the two mentioned works in the previous post.

The three Marys are clearly modelled on the Tomb version (Hugo or Jan van Eyck?). While it shows only a single guard lying awake at the tomb, the figure is a blend of the three disciples depicted in the Gethsemane folio while it also references the three guards in the Resurrection painting.

Here’s how: The guard is bearded, as is the disciple St Peter; his legs are crossed as is the guard in the Tomb painting, which in turn referenced the crossed hands of St James in folio 30v. He is turned on his side as is St John and also the guard sleeping in front of the stone tomb.

The rock in the bottom left corner is meant to match the rock that appears in the same position in the Gethsemane painting. It has a biblical reference:  “It was the stone rejected by the builders that became the cornerstone” (Matthew 21:42). There are several other scripture passages embedded in the rocks in all three paintings.

The three lozenge shapes on the front of the tomb are references to stones of another kind – diamonds. They represent the colours worn by the three disciples and which are repeated in the three women visiting the tomb: red and blue represent sapphire, and green, emerald. The disciples and the women are considered as precious stones embedded in the rocks – the bedrock and foundation of the Christian Church.

More on this in a future post.

Ringing the changes

The Three Mary’s at the Tomb, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

The painting above – The Three Marys at the Tomb – is generally attributed to Hubert van Eyck, but there is an opinion that the work may be by his brother Jan, or even a shared production as the Ghent Altarpiece was.

Another painting, Folio 30v from the Turin-Milan Hours depicting Christ’s Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, also has an uncertain attribute. Generally classed as by Hand G, but considered to be the work of either Hubert or Jan van Eyck, the miniature shares many similarities with the Three Marys

Turin-Milan Hours folio 30v, Agony in the Garden, attributed to Hand G, Museo Civico d’Arte Antica of Turin, digital copy: Closer to Van Eyck

So are the two paintings the work of the same artist and if so, by Hubert or Jan? It’s not hard to see how the artist has rung some of the changes in the Three Marys picture, using the Gethsemane folio as the original source of inspiration.

For starters, the composition is very similar; three men asleep against a stone tomb. The central figure of Jesus has been replaced by an angel facing Mary the mother of Jesus and announcing his resurrection, similar in style to paintings of the angel Gabriel announcing to the `Virgin Mary that she was to conceive and bear a son. 

The three Marys are substitutes for the three main figures behind the fence in the Gethsemane painting, the red, blue and green colours matched to the colours given to the three disciples asleep by the rocks.

The cohort led by the high priest Caiaphas arrive at the Gethsemane to arrest Jesus.

The cohort coming to arrest Jesus are depicted against a background representing the Mount of Olives. One man’s hat is shaped and coloured as an olive. This corresponds to the three Mary’s bringing oil to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus.

A sleeping guard at the tomb of Jesus.

The figure asleep at the right of the tomb has his legs crossed. This echoes the sleeping disciple James (the brother of John) whose hands are crossed. Both men are dressed in green and placed at the edge of the frame. The shape of the guard’s hat is matched to the blue hat of the mysterious figure behind the fence in the Gethsemane painting, and his bandaged legs and knee protector links to the helmeted soldier and the torse supporting the red-peaked hat of the man alongside.

Another link to this group is the guard’s left hand pointing to his right ear. It’s a pointer to the armoured guard behind the fence seen with a pronounced ear protector attached to his helmet. The figure represents Malchus, the servant of the high priest Caiaphas. It was Malchus who had his right ear sliced off by Peter when the Jewish guards came to arrest Jesus, and that’s why it is hidden behind the ‘bandaged’ torse on the head of Malchus and explains why the crossed legs of the guard in the Three Marys painting are bandaged.

Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Jesus

On the right shoulder of Caiaphas is Judas Iscariot wearing a hat depicted as a coiled rope. It has two representations: The betrayal and binding of Jesus in Gethsemane and the rope Judas used later to hang himself. In the Three Marys painting the rope feature is echoed in the lining of the red gown worn by the kneeling Mary Magdalene. It was this Mary who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and wiped them with her hair before anointing them with ointment. The other connection to Judas is when he complained about Mary using the expensive pure nard when it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. But Judas was also a thief and robbed the common purse of which he was in charge of.

There are several other connections between the two paintings, enough to confirm that the artist who painted The Three Mary’s at the Tomb had detailed knowledge of the disguised and hidden iconography in the Gethsemane folio, enough to postulate that both works were produced by the same artist. My assumption is that the artist was Hubert van Eyck, as his brother later translated some of the features in both paintings to the Ghent Altarpiece as a tribute to Hubert who was the artist commissioned originally to produce the polyptych. Hubert died in1426 before he was able to finish the project and It was then given to Jan van Eyck for completion.

More on this in a future post.

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.

Christ’s burial cloths

Turin’s Cathedral will be making the image of its Holy Shroud available through televison and social media channels on Holy Saturday (April 9).

The announcement by Vatican News reminded me of Jan van Eyck’s special interest in the Shroud and also the face cloth, known as the Sudarium, left in the cave after Jesus rose from the dead.

A sudarium is a sweat cloth but was also used as a cloth to seal an annointing with oil, especially when administering the last rites.

The Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden showed this in his famous Seven Sacraments painting. The dying man depicted is Jan van Eyck, and van der Weyden has compared Jan’s suffering in death to the that of the crucified Christ – as being on the cross.

But there is another reason why Van der Weyden has shown Van Eyck’s head covered in a sweat cloth. It’s a pointer to a painting produced by Jan early in his career for the illuminated manuscript now known as the Turin-Milan Hours. Several of the miniatures are dated to around 1420 and attributed to an artist referred to as “Hand G”, believed by art historians to be Jan van Eyck.

The particular minature that relates not only to the Sudarium but also to Christ’s cross, therefore matching the connection made by Van der Weyden, is titled the Finding of the True Cross. It depicts the story of Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, discovering the wood of Christ’s cross during a pilgrimage she made to the Holy Land in the 4th century.

Three workmen are shown uncovering the buried relic, one of whom is Jan van Eyck who is wearing a sweat cloth.

As to the man on his right, could it be Jan’s brother Hubert van Eyck?

Ahead of his time

The masthead used for his blog shows detail (in reverse) from Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man, thought to be of the artist himself, and dated October 21, 1433. It is on display at the National Gallery, London. More information about the painting can be accessed at this link.

Whether the date on the painting is the completion or start date, I cannot say, but it places the work in the year following the installation of Van Eyck’s famous Ghent Altarpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral on May 6, 1432. As well as the proximity in completition dates, Van Eyck has inked the two works in other ways.

Jan van Eyck began his artistic career as an illuminator of books and manuscripts. Some samples of his early work appear in the Turin-Milan Hours manuscript, and he also referenced the work of other illuminators, notably the Limbourg brothers, in the Ghent Altarpiece.

An illuminator’s role was to illustrate the text in and decorate the pages of a book, creating a visual interpretation of a storyline or theme. In some cases the illustration would have more impact with the reader than the words. Invairably, some illuminators would shine the light beyond the subject matter and embed other narratives that were not part of the text. Jan van Eyck did this and continued with the technique when he started to paint on panels with oils, sometimes cross-referencing his embeded narratives with other works, his own included.

Perhaps a simple example of this is the Portrait of a Man (in a Red Turban) shown here. Jan van Eyck’s signature motto is inscribed on the frame, as is the date, so the painting is generally viewed as a portrait of its time, and probably of the artist himself, Jan van Eyck.

However, that the work is signed by Van Eyck suggests there is more to appreciate and discover in the painting than a striking portrait of a 15th century man.

There are hidden narratives which art historians have not uncovered.

More on this in a future post

The Fisherman’s Tale

Two-heads_980

This is a clip from the Prayer on the Shore illumination mentioned in yesterday’s post. Unfortunately the detail is not the best. Nevertheless it is sufficient to make a comparison with a similar feature in the Just Judges panel.

My assessment is that the two men represent Jan van Eyck and John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy. The minature from the Turin-Milan Hours is attributed to Hand G, generally thought to be Jan van Eyck or his brother Hugh.

The Prayer on the Shore makes references to the Hook and Cod wars, “a series of wars and battles in the County of Holland between 1350 and 1490.”

Jan’s hood is shaped as a trawl dragged behind a boat to catch fish – the bulging end is known as the “cod-end”. The tail of the duke’s chaperon is shaped to represent a hook.

Holland-mapThe two men face in opposite directions to represent the polarised positions taken up by the Hook and Cod factions over the title to the Count of Holland.

The shape of the space between the two heads also corresponds to the area of Holland in dispute; the red region representing the hook countered by the hood or cod-end shape on the opposite side of the bay.

Here’s how Jan van Eyck replicated the iconography when he came to paint the Just Judges panel.

hook-cod_450The clip alongside shows the bearded man wearing a hooded chaperon with a “cod-end”. The man below represents Philip the Bold, and his grandson Philip the Good who doubles up as Jan van Eyck (a common motif repeated by the painter and also used in the Prayer on the Shore). Jan’s chaperon is tied and shaped to form a hook. The hook is also meant to refer to the hook nose common to the three Burgundian dukes, Philip the Bold, John the Fearless and Philip the Good.

The cod-end also picks up on the painting’s connection to The Canterbury Tales. In this instance it represents a pelican’s elastic pouch designed for catching fish! This in turn is used by Van Eyck to link to the fish as a Christian symbol and the biblical reference to “fishers of men” (Matthew 4 :19), not forgetting that the pelican is also a symbol of Christ’s Passion and the Eucharist.

images sources: closer to van eyck and rkd

Like Father, like Son

Succession is a prominent theme in the Just Judges painting, most obvious in Jan van Eyck succeeding his brother in completing the Ghent Altarpiece after Hubert’s death in 1426.

The two rows of riders can also be viewed as being placed in succession, one following another, akin to each pilgrim’s story in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Hereditary examples of succession also feature – kings and princes – as do talents and trades passed down through families.

Charles-VIJan van Eyck makes these connections through ‘groupings’. For example, I pointed out in the previous post that the principal identity he assigned to the central rider in the Just Judges panel is the French king Charles VI (d. 1422). Other identities are Philip’s court painter Jan Maelwael (d. 1416), the sculptor Claus Sluter (d. 1405/06), and his nephew Claus de Werve (d. 1439)

A key ‘connector’ in this grouping is the relationship of uncle:
• Jan Maelwael was the uncle of the three Limbourg brothers whose work is referenced elsewhere in the panel.
• Claus Sluter was the uncle of Claus de Werve. Their work is also alluded to in the painting.

The ‘uncle’ key also helps unlock the grouping and one of the identities of the rider in black next to Charles VI as being Philip the Bold, an uncle of the French king.  When Charles inherited the French throne at the age of 11, the government was entrusted to a regency council comprising his four uncles until he reached the age of 21.

Another point Van Eyck is making about succession is that what follows each rider is the certainty of death and a final judgment.

He illustrated this point (or was it his brother Hugh?) in the Prayer on the Shore illumination, an earlier work that forms part of the Turin-Milan Hours. As in the Just Judges the composition is based on a procession of riders. The main group is followed by three men with visors closed on their skull-shaped helmets. They are a personification of death.

With the coming of evening that same day, Jesus said to them, “Let us cross over to the other side.” Mark 4 : 35

Prayer-on-the-shore_630
Prayer on he Shore by Hand G, Turin-Milan Hours,
Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino

Hand G… Jan or Hubert van Eyck?

A couple of days ago I made mention of Jan van Eyck paying homage to another artist when he painted the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece. In fact, it may have been one or even three artists known as the Limbourg brothers, famous for the illuminations they produced for the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry manuscript.

The Van Eyck brothers, Jan and Hubert, are also said to have worked on illuminating manuscripts, in particular some of the pages that formed what is is now referred to as the Turin-Milan Hours, although there is no certainty as to which folios belong to which artist. The various artists are categorised as “Hands” A to K. Hand ‘G’ is considered by most art historians to be Jan van Eyck; others say his brother Hubert, while there is also an opinion that Hand G is neither of the brothers.

One of the folios from the TMH is known as The Prayer on the Shore by Hand G. It was destroyed by fire in 1904, but a photographic copy exists and is reproduced below. It is one of the leaves attributed to Hand G. What is interesting is that many of its features are replicated in the Just Judges painting, which suggests that it was produced before the completion of the Ghent Altarpiece in 1432

In a previous post, I posited that the Just Judges was painted by Jan and not his brother, on the basis that one of the riders is Joan of Arc, who did not arrive on the scene until 1429, three years after Hubert had died.

It’s very probable that the Prayer on the Shore was produced by one of the Van Eyck brothers, but which one? I propose the page was painted by Hubert and that Jan has repeated elements to acknowledge and pay homage to his brother in the same way he has adapted features from a leaf attributed to the Limbourg brothers: Christ Led to the Praetorium shown below. In a sense, this tribute, is Jan’s way of identifying his brother’s contribution to this section of the Ghent Altarpiece

There is another illumination attributed to the Limbourg brothers that Jan has referenced in the Just Judges. It also helps identify Hubert van Eyck as the rider depicted in the forefront.

More on this in another post.

Folios

• The Prayer on the Shore, by Hand G, Turin-Milan Hours
• Christ Led to the Praetorium, Limbourg Brothers, Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

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.