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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.