Opinion differs among researchers as to whose head this painting represents – Jesus Christ or his forerunner John the Baptist.
Most of the speculation has centred on the hypothesis that the head depicts Jesus Christ and is associated with the image which appears on the burial cloth known as the Turin Shroud, believed by many to be the shroud that wrapped Christ in his tomb.
The panel painting, rediscovered in 1945 under the roof of a Somerset outhouse in Templecombe, is also considered by many to have a connection to the Knights Templar.
My own research leads me to believe the face on the panel is a depiction of John the Baptist, not Jesus, and its connection is to the Order of St John (Knights Hospitaller), that took over the assets of the Knights Templar when it was supressed and then disolved in 1312 by Pope Clement V.
The evidence to support my claim can be found in three early 15th century paintings:
January folio of the Calendar section in the Très Riche Heures du duc de Berry.
So what else is there that can help identify Sir Hugh, the earl of Stafford, as the Pearl Poet? His title for starters.
In Old English the thorn letterþ was used for the digram th. The thorn resembles a letter p. Placed ahead of the word earl we arrive at a new ‘title’ for Sir Hugh Stafford – Pearl (Poet)
Van Eyck made use of this visual pun in the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece when he pointed to the lead figure in the group as Sir Hugh. He placed a thorn bush above the man’s head – a representation of Christ’s crown of thorns – “on his head a helmet of salvation” (Isaiah 59:17), and also a pointer to the holly or holy twig carried by the Green Knight who was described as having “a beard as big as a bush”.
The knight was also described as having his arms covered “in the manner of a king’s hood” (capados). Here an oversized red cape cover’s the man’s arms – arms in the sense of a shield of protection and another pointer to the apocalypse passage by Isaiah: “He put vengeance on lke a tunic and wrapped himself in ardour like a cloak” – red being the colour of ardour or passion – passion in the sense of love and purity being put to the test, as in Lady Bertilak’s amorous approaches to Gawain represented by the pearl white berries which can be interpreted as mistletoe, collected and hung over doorways and in houses at Christmas time. Here Van Eyck is pointing to the Christmas tradition of kissing under the mistletoe and the three kisses Lady Bertilek gave to Gawain. Mistletoe can also be recognised as a forbidden fruit, its toxcity is posionous and known to cause death. Alternatively, the white berries can be viewed as those from a myrtle tree replacing the ‘crown of thorns’ as prophesied by Isaiah (55:13) in the conclusion of the Book of Consolation: “Cypress will grow instead of thorns, myrtle instead of briars, and this will make Yaweh famous, a sign forever, ineffaceable.”
Speaking of death, the head ‘attached’ to the right shoulder of the figure in red is John the Baptist, decapitated on the orders of Herod Antipas. John once sent disciples to ask Jesus if he was the true Messiah (Christ). In the detail above John is shown “staring hard” at the right hand of the cloaked figure. The composition is a reference to the sweat cloth (sudarium) that shows a true image (vera icon) of Christ’s face and which “was made without hand” – Acheiropoieta – and ineffaceable. Notice the sweat band on the man’s head. Notice also the forefinger of the figure’s left hand pointing to his covered hand. The index and long fingers are crossed – a variation of the first letter of the Greek alphabet Alpha. The index finger and thumb form the last letter of the Greek alphabet Omega. The combination of three digits also points to the Book of Revelation when Jesus proclaimed three times that he is the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. The number three forms part of the numerology theme in the Pearl Poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And it was on the third day of his entombment that Jesus was resurrected. The Resurrection theme is one of the links to the next panel and the Patience poem which highlights the story of Jonah being in the belly of a whale for three days.
Another ‘transition’ feature in the Pilgrims panel that marks out Hugh Stafford is the weathered stone placed at the edge of the frame by his right foot. I explained in a previous post, The Great and the Small, that this was a boundary marker associated with Roman times and dedicated to the deity Terminus. The earl of Stafford died on the island of Rhodes, some say while on his way to Jerusalem, other sources say he died on his return journey. Whatever direction he was facing, the Terminus stone is there to indicate his end of life as he was about to make his crossing from the island of Rhodes, either to his home in England or on his onward journey to Jerusalem. Either way, his continued journey would take him to a ‘New Jerusalem’. During his illness at Rhodes Sir Hugh was taken care of by the Knights Hospitaller (Order of Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem). Was Hugh himself a knight of the Order? Possibly. Van Eyck has clothed him in the colour of the Order’s flag, which was predominately red, bearing a white cross.
Although Hugh’s life ended in Rhodes, his squire brought the body (or at least the bones) back to England to be entombed alongside his wife Philippa Beauchamp who had died a few months earlier. Both Hugh and his wife were entombed at STONE Priory in Staffordshire less than ten miles from Hugh’s castle outside the town of Stafford. Hence another reason why Van Eyck placed a Terminus, a headstone, at the feet of Sir Hugh. After dying at Rhodes his body was translated to a tomb ‘carved out of Stone’. See how the giant figure of Hugh is about to step out of the frame (his box) to the next panel which features the hermits stepping out from their desert cave and the figurative ‘belly of the whale’ as explained by the Pearl Poet in his poem titled Patience.
Yet another visual pointer and pun by Van Eyck to Sir Hugh’s presence makes a direct reference to his name: Hugh(Huge)Staff(or stave)Ford(as in crossing to the other side), and woven into another identity Van Eyck has given the figure – St Christopher.
• More on this panel and how it directly links with a specific passage of text in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight in my next post.