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.