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

Brothers by half

Here’s another profile of Henry Beaufort that can be found in the Ghent Altarpiece. Again it’s based on the original drawing of the cardinal by Jan van Eyck, although this version presents him as a younger man with a full head of hair – and there is a reason for it being so.

This image is part of the right-hand-side group of men on the central panel. Beaufort appears distracted. His head is turned towards the edge of the frame, perhaps wistfully looking back on his past, or could his gaze be directed at the man on his left – possibly Hubert van Eyck or even another brother, Barthélemy?

If the figure in the fur hat is one of the Van Eyck family it’s likely to be Barthélemy. Here’s why.

The red hat worn by Beaufort and loose strands of hair beneath is a reference to the figure in the red coat placed on the extreme left of the group of riders in the Just Judges panel. In this instance the faceless figure is of Henry IV (Henry Bolingbroke), half-brother to Henry Beaufort through their father John of Gaunt. In his later life the English king was said to have suffered severe disfigurement, hence his hidden face as one of the judges. This would explain why Van Eyck has shown what appears to be a younger version of Beaufort in the group above. He is saying “this isn’t the cardinal but the King of England (before his disfigurement), Beaufort’s half-brother Henry Bolingbroke… see the family resemblance on his father’s side!”

This also explains why Jan Van Eyck has turned the Bolingbroke head to face the edge of the frame. He is referring to a section of the Just Judges group at the edge of the frame and the man in the fur hat inbetween the figure of Jan himself and the rider at the point of the group, John, Duke of Berry, who commissioned the Limbourg brothers to illuminate the Très Riche Heures. They were never able to complete the work, having all died with the plague in 1406. Nevertheless, work on the book continued and art historians attribute some of the pages to Barthélemy van Eyck. His relationship to Jan and Hubert van Eyck has never been established, but in this central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece Jan has possibly clarified this uncertainty in his usual cryptic style by creating this half-brother analogy.

As for the half-brother connection between Beaufort and Hubert van Eyck, the men are two of the four identities given to the figure on the white horse in the forefront of the Just Judges panel.

Could the central figure in this group from the Just Judges panel be Barthélemy van Eyck,
half-brother to Jan and Hubert van Eyck? The figure in the top right corner is a familiar  and shared profile of the Limbourg brothers in the Très Riche Heures.  Another manuscript produced for the Duke of Berry is the Turin-Milan Hours, for which some leaves are attributed to Jan and Hubert van Eyck. So is Barthélemy the ‘bridge’ between between the two manuscripts. Is Jan also saying that just as Bartélemy worked on completing the TRH following the death of the Limbourg brothers, so also he was commissioned to complete the Ghent Altarpiece following the death of his brother Hubert?

More at this link: Not Niccolò Albergati but Henry Beaufort

Images: closer to van eyck

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 he Shore by Hand G, Turin-Milan Hours,
Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino

There is a season…

In a recent post I pointed out the connection between the poet Geoffrey Chaucer and the painter Hubert van Eyck having both died before they completed projects in hand – The Canterbury Tales and the Ghent Altarpiece; and in another post the Limbourg brothers who all succumbed to an early death in 1416 and whose illuminations in the Trés Riche Heures were a source of inspiration for the Just Judges panel.

The TRH was also work unfinished when the Limbourg brothers died. One of the artists said to have assisted with the manuscript’s completion was Barthélemy d’Eyck, a blood relative of the brothers Jan and Hugh van Eyck.

In his book The Art of Illumination, Timothy B Husband reveals: “He [Barthélemy d’Eck] most likely knew the Limbourg brothers’ work, for in mid-century he in all probability completed the Très Riche Heures Calendar pages for March, June, July, September, October, and December, which the Limbourg brothers had underdrawn and partially painted before their deaths,”


There are at least four folios from the Très Riche Hours that Jan van Eyck has utilised in the Just Judges. The most significant is the Calendar illumination for March showing a ploughman at work in the foreground and the Châteux Lusignan in the background (right).

If Barthélemy did finalise this folio, then its completion date would be before 1432 when the Ghent Altarpiece was presented.

There is a fourth reference in the Just Judges alluding to incompletion. It relates to Chaucer’s Plowman’s Tale. Although Chaucer described a Plowman in the general prologue of The Canterbury Tales, he never assigned him his own tale. Later, however, two versions of the Plowman’s Tale were added from other sources, not by Chaucer’s hand.

The rationale for Barthélemy’s inclusion in the Just Judges, apart from him being a blood relative, is this: Just as Barthélemy was called upon to complete some of the folios of the TRH after the death of the Limbourgs, so Jan was asked to complete the Ghent Altarpiece following the death of Hubert.

For the incomplete Chaucer work, the two tales added later are also visualised in the Just Judges panel and connect to Barthélemy d’Eyck.

Jan van Eyck has taken and grouped the four ‘incomplete’ references to point to the four-line rhyming scheme found in the incomplete Canterbury Tales, and to mirror the quatrain on the frame of the Ghent Altarpiece. Some of Chaucer’s tales are disguised in the pairings or visual glyphs Jan creates of the riders, a pointer to the pairing of birds in another Chaucer work, the dream poem Parlement of Foules.

The Just Judges can also be considered a “dream poem” of Jan van Eyck, hand-written in a hieroglyphic style, echoing not only the sacredness of the altarpiece but also the hierarchical theme expressed in the panel.

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.


• 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