Translating hidden relics

In my previous post I explained how the iconography relating to the pages of the mysterious script in the Panel of the Relic translated into a passage from Isaiah (40 : 3-5), and is echoed in John’s gospel (1 : 23) by John the Baptist. But the artist also used another source to translate from: a section of the Knights of Christ panel that forms part of the Ghent Altarpiece.

The translation is focused on the central knight leading two other knights and a group of kings and princes. In this particular narrative the knight is a depiction of two people of a young age, Jan van Eyck and Henry Beaufort. Both men are also placed in the Panel of the Relic. Beaufort, as a Cardinal in later life, is on his knees holding the relic.

In the Knights of Christ panel the group is making a “straight way” to the Holy Land or the “New Jerusalem”.

So how is the passage from the Book of Isaiah, referenced by John the Baptist in John’s Gospel, identified in the iconography surrounding the knight? At this stage it is worth repeating Isaiah’s words:

A voice cries, “Prepare in the wilderness a way for Yaweh. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill laid low, let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley; then the glory of Yaweh will be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of Yaweh has spoken.”

The “straight way” is the red cross on the knight’s shield, similar to the vertical and horizontal spaces between the written words on the pages displayed by Jean Jouffroy in the Panel of the Relic. The valleys, mountains, hills and cliffs are the various shapes formed from the shields. The ridges are the highlight’s on the knight’s breastplate but “made plain” on the front of the knight to his right.

Another “straight way” is the straight strap across the knight’s breastplate. It’s stems from a descending, scrolling pattern of light, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, and ends in shadow at the point of the cross on the shield, and also at the elbow of the knight alongside the central knight. “Elbow” translates as EL-BOW, God’s bow (a rainbow) symbolising his Covenant promise (Genesis 9 : 12-13).

Amidst the shadow area is a red triangular shape intended to represent the head of Christ as he hangs on his Cross. The upward sweep of the strap represents one of his arms, while his back is connected to another arm, that of the red cross on the shield. This represents God’s New Testament or New Covenant fulfilled by Christ’s death and resurrection.

Below this motif is a galaxy of “stars’ on a blue background. However, one star has risen to appear in the groove of the shield. Not only is symbolic of the Resurrection but it also represents the rising star the wise men saw and followed and which led them to Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant king. So the three knights can also be viewed as “wise men” making a straight way to Bethlehem. A similar motif is seen in the composition of the Panel of the Relic (and other panels) – the three front men are arranged as three wise men bearing gifts and paying homage.

The straight strap is also present in the Panel of the Relic. It falls across the chest of Van Eyck the pilgrim and ends at the elbow of Jean Jouffroy. While the prelate’s hand turns the pages in the book, the star is settled above another passage from Isaiah that prophesied “the coming of the virtuous king” (Isaiah 11 : 1-2).

In the previous post I mentioned what appears to be a head under the camel coat of Van Eyck, portrayed also as John the Baptist in the Panel of the Relic. The shape represents the head of the Baptist who while imprisoned was beheaded on the orders of Herod because the king had promised Salome anything she wanted after dancing for him. She requested the head of John on a dish.

The bloody head of John appears on the right arm of the knight from the Ghent Altarpiece, mounted on a green cushion. The curved piece of armour supporting his head is the dish.

This piece of iconography relates to the latter part of Isaiah’s prophecy: “… then the glory of Yaweh will be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of Yaweh has spoken” – the mouth of Yaweh being both Isaiah and John the Baptist.

Unfortunately, since the recent restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece the face depicted on the arm is now hardly noticeable. The version shown here is before the altarpiece was “restored”.

The fact that the knight is a double image – Jan van Eyck and Henry Beaufort – is interesting. A connection is being made between the two men and the head of John the Baptist. Nuno Gonçlaves also connects the two men and the head in the Panel of the Relic, the relic beign a part of John’s skull. Both paintings also point to a location in England – Templecombe in Somerset – where a painting of John the Baptist was discovered in the roof of an outhouse that had a connection with a Templar priory and later the Knights Hospitaller (Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem), John being John the Baptist.

Fathers and Sons

Panel of the Prince, St Vincent Panels, Nuno Gonçalves, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon.

I made mention in an earlier post that it was likely Hugo van der Goes had access to another altarpiece now known as the St Vincent Panels, attributed to Nuno Gonçalves. Elements of the Portuguese painter’s panels are echoed in Hugo’s Monforte Altarpiece. Did the two painters know each other? Could they even have worked together at some time? It has been suggested by some researchers that Gonçalves could have spent time learning his craft in Flanders.

The Monforte Altarpiece (Adoration of the Magi) by Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

Francisco Filipe Cruz wrote in his Facebook summary on the St Vincent Panels: “…the style of the painting shows some very clear influences from the Flemish “primitives” school. Among the suggested influences are Jan van Eyck, Dieric Bouts, Rogier van der Weyden and Hugo van der Goes, and contemporary Flemish-influenced Iberian painters like Bartolomé Bermejo and Jaume Huguet. Indeed, it is sometimes conjectured that a foreign painter (perhaps even van der Weyden or van der Goes), rather than a native Portuguese, was the original artist, and some have even gone so far as to speculate that the painting is not Portuguese at all, but was made in Flanders for the Burgundian court, and represents a Burgundian scene. As we have practically no details of the life of Nuno Gonçalves, there has been much conjecture of when and where he learned or developed his style and technique. It seems almost certain he must have gone abroad at some point. Some have speculated that the youthful Nuno Gonçalves met Jan van Eyck when the latter visited Portugal in 1428, and travelled back to Flanders with him in 1429, as part of the retinue of Isabella of Portugal, Duchess of Burgundy. He probably spent a few years there in the circle of the Flemish primitives, absorbing their style and techniques. It has been suggested that Gonçalves spent some time in Tournai, apprenticed in the atelier of Robert Campin.

There is also a curious reference on Gonçalves’ Wikipedia page suggesting the father of Hugo van der Goes may have “collaborated in the painting” adding “but there is no concrete proof.” Unfortunately the compiler doesn’t provide a source for the claim.

However, Clemente Baeta, who has spent the last eight years researching and studying the St Vincent Panels, suggests the claim may have arisen from an article in Diário de Lisboa, published in January 1963, which speculated on a possible connection between a Hospitaller Prior named Nuno Gonçalves de Gois (or Goes) and the family of Hugo van der Goes.

Nothing is known of Hugo’s family except that he had a half-brother, Nicolaes

In both the Monforte Altarpiece and the St Vincent Panels there is a shared theme – the transition of power and hereditary rights, and relationships between fathers and sons.

In what is referred to as the Panel of the Prince, St Vincent reveals a passage from Scripture – John 14 : 28-31– in which Jesus attests that his Father is greater than himself, and “the world must be brought to know that he loves the Father and that I am doing exactly what the Father told me.” Jesus also warned that the prince of the world is on his way but has no power of Him.

It is this example of the Son’s obedience to his Father that is the basis for identifying the scenario painted by Nuno Gonçalves, which also pinpoints the reason why Hugo was inspired by this painting when he later included a similar Father and Son theme in the Monforte Altarpiece.

Another feature in the Panel of the Prince that may throw some light on the speculation about Hugo’s father having “collaborated” in the St Vincent Panels is the group of men in the background – a line-up of fathers alongside their sons – among which are Hugo van der Goes, his half-brother Nicolae, and his unnamed father!

• My next post will deal with the identification of Hugo van der Goes and his father in the Panel of the Prince.

His name is John

The panel painting known as the Templecombe Head

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:

  1. January folio of the Calendar section in the Très Riche Heures du duc de Berry.
  2. Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck
  3. Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban by Jan van Eyck

More on this in a future post.

More on the Pearl Poet’s identity

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 letter þ 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” – Acheiropoietaand 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.

The Terminus boundary marker and the buried head in the sand, possibly of John the Baptist.

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.