How subtle is some of the detail identifying Pol Limbourg with the Conversion of St Paul, one of the listed feast days on the January calender from the Très Riche Heures.
Pol is wearing a ‘voyager’ cap. It’s flap represent a tongue. The legs of two riders behind him represent the ears of a hare. For hare, read hair. Notice how clean-shaven Pol is. His temple and the side of his face are lighter in tone than the rest of his face complexion. The hare’s ears are also meant to represent scissor blades. Pol has had a haircut and his beard shaved. A warm, wool hat covers his head.
These are all pointers to a verse in the Acts of the Apostles (18:18) mentioning St Paul having his head shorn: “Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sisters and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchreae because of a vow he had taken.”
As for the tongue reference we move on to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and the verse 13 : 1 which reads: “If I have all the eloquence of men or of angels, but speak without love, then I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing.” The rather large tongue represents “all the eloquence of men”.
For cymbal, read symbol, those on Pol’s blue collar which doubles up as a hat to help identify the man below. The bell shape of Pol’s collar, is also symbolic of the bell shape feature which distinguishes the capital that tops a Corinthian style column. Two Corinthian columns support the fireplace mantle further along the “Straight Street”.
Christianity celebrates the Epiphany on January 6, a feast day commemorating the visit of the Magi to pay homage to Jesus the new-born king. The Magi are sometimes referred to as the Three Kings or Three Wise Men and it is this context they are represented in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures.
The three men are grouped, one behind each other, with their arms and hands extended. Commentators have suggested the men are looking to warm their hands at the fire as they are called to approach by the marshall and pay homage – not to John duke of Berry, but the newly crowned king of England, Richard II, (shown elsewhere in the painting and whose birthday is January 6). However, the artist Pol Limbourg suggests that the homage and gifts these three wise men desire to offer is akin to the false homage Herod the Great wanted to pay the infant KIng, Jesus.
But the marshall is wise to the false intentions of the three men. His call to approach is a signal for combat associated with knights competing against each other at a tournament. In reality the three men are backing away from the marshall. They are wise men to do so, but their surrender stance will not save them. Hell fire, French style, awaits behind the screen.
The marshall is Robert de Vere, a close friend of Richard ll, standing his ground ready to defend his king. The three men, right to left, are Edward of Woodstock (the Black Prince), Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, and Henry Bolingbroke, the future King Henry IV, all opposed to Richard II and his rule as KIng of England.
The fourth man in the lineup (behind Henry Bolingbroke) is the artist Pol LImbourg. He does have a connection with the group but the reason is better explained with his association to another calendar date which occurs later in the month.
In my previous post I made mention of Geoffrey Chaucer and his appearance in the January Calendar of the Très Riche Heures. The English poet is pictured above making an early start on the hospitality provided by the Duke of Berry. It’s a clue among many to the writer’s identity.
The vessel he is drinking from is a saucer. For saucer, read Chaucer. Supping the wine before the Duke of Berry is served by his butler is not good manners, but it seems Chaucer has the thirst of an elephant, indicated by the trunk-feature formed by the armoured leg of the rider at his right hand.
The elephant theme is used again on Chaucer’s blue cowl. The left side forms the elephant’s head, while Chaucer’s right shoulder bears the weight and bulk of the animal’s body and legs. This points to Chaucer’s responsibility of managing the Tower of London after he was appointed Clerk of the King’s Works in 1389. The Tower’s battlements are suggested by the elephant’s legs, even more so if the the feature is turned upside down and the elephant is visualised on its back with legs turned upwards – which makes another association with the poet and the Tower of London.
Part of Chaucer’s work at the Tower entailed overseeing construction and repair of the Tower’s wharf. More than a century beforehand King Louis IX of France gifted an elephant to Henry III. It was kept in the Tower’s menagerie. The elephant is said to have died in 1257 as a result of drinking too much red wine! Linked to this fact and Chaucer is that another king, Edward III of England, rewarded the writer at some time a gallon of wine daily for the rest of his life. A final elephant connection to Chaucer is the “Sir Olifaunt” character who appears in the Canterbury tale about the knight “St Thopas”.
Having seemingly imbibed so much wine in his life, it’s no surprise the artist has depicted Chaucer supping from a saucer. But there is another reason for this. Pol LImbourg is suggesting the figure is somewhat garrulous and perhaps incomprehensible, that he may even be talking through his hat and not his mouth, and here’s why.
It was considered at the time that Chaucer may have had Lollard sympathies. Lollards was a derogatory term given to those who followed John Wycliffe the Christian reformer and disagreed with elements of Catholic teaching, especially the authority of the Pope. The nickname derived from the Dutch word lollaerd, meaning ‘mumbler’. So with drink taken and not making much sense, and his garrulous hat doing all the talking, we arrive at the scene associated with one of the pseudo-texts attributed to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, that which relates to a conversation overheard between a Pelican “without pride” and a Griffin of “grim stature”.
Chaucer’s grey hat is shaped as the Pelican, its pouch is the blue cowl (big enough to absorb an elephant). The Griffin attempting to engage in an almost one-sided debate is formed from the red chaperon on the head of the figure in green. The position of the Pelican is one of domination, looking down on the Griffin, and echoing the general tone of the debate. The conversation is concluded when the Pelican flies off, only to return with an avenging Phoenix portrayed by the figure of Thomas Blount.
The January folio is said to have been produced by the Limbourg brothers who all died in 1416, and therefore it is probably the earliest visual reference to the so-called pseudo-texts of the Plowman’s Tale which found their way into later printed copies of The Canterbury Tales.
This detail from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures has an end-of-the-year significance. It features Jean, duke of Berry hosting a New Year’s Eve banquet. Already mentioned in a previous post, it highlights the duke and his association with bears – his hands are portrayed as bear claws and his robe is impressed with a bear-paw pattern.
But the artist has alluded to another representation of the duke – as Janus, the Roman god of transitions and time. Janus (from which the word January derives) is usually depicted with back-to-back heads, looking to the past and to the future. But in this instance we see only one, the duke’s head looking left.
The Janus clue comes from one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – the Franklin’s Tale – line 1252 which reads: “Janus sits by the fire with a double beard”. The artist is using a play on the word ‘beard’. He has shortened ‘beard’ to mean ‘bear’. The second bear is the one seen on the gold ‘nef’ on the duke’s left and looking in the opposite direction to the ‘franklin’ sat in front of a firescreen.
Why the line from Chaucer? Because it connects to the poet and other writers featured elsewhere in the picture.
In this detail from the January foilo of the calendar section in the Très Riche Heures, I identified the two seated men in an earlier post as bishop William Wykeham and John duke of Berry.
The two men serving at the table are Sir Hugh Stafford, 2nd earl of Stafford (left) and John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster. The figure positioned immediaately above John of Gaunt is Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford. The approaching man with his face turned is Edward of Woodstock, known as the Black Prince.
The artist (Pol Limbourg) has linked the four figures in a unique way, referencing their association with boar-hunting.
Robert de Vere, an advisor and companion to Richard II, died of injuries suffered during a boar hunt. Edward, the Black Prince, was described by the French soldier and writer Philippe de Mézières as the greatest of the “black boars” because of his reputation for brutality. Sir Hugh Stafford, alias the ‘Pearl Poet’ and author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight provides a vivid description of a Christmastide hunt in which the Green Knight presents Sir Gawain (Stafford) with a boar, hence the animal skin draped on Stafford’s shoulder. The name of the Green Knight, Bertilak de Hautdesert, can be possibly understood as a play on words and a reference to John of Gaunt whose green tabard points to Bertilak’s appellation.
The duke of Lancaster is also shown carving meat, a duty he was honoured with at Richard ll’s coronation. The role of meat-carver is also meant to depict the slur made against John as being the son of a Ghent butcher.
A subtle transition is made by the artist to link to John duke of Berry – from boar to bear, the bear being a favourite animal of the duke. Notice his bear-claw hands and the bear-paw pattern in his gown.
The boar connection is only one of several instances of cross-referencing figures made by Pol Limbourg in the January folio.
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.
It’s almost three months since I last posted on the January folio of the Très Riche Heures calendar section. Here’s a little more information which ties in with yesterday’s post on the update to the restoration work carried out on the Ghent Altarpiece.
Some of the features in the Altarpiece relate to the January folio produced by Pol Limbourg. It was not unknown for Jan to incorporate elements from other paintings and reconstruct a fresh presentation.
In my previous post I made mention of the Holy Face feature in the sleeve of Henry Beaufort, one of the riders in the Ghent Altarpiece Knights of Christ panel, and how it had been almost obliterated in the recent restoration.
Beaufort’s predecessor as bishop of Winchester is the prelate seated at the end of the table, shown above in the detail from the January folio. Standing alongside William of Wykeham is Sir Thomas Blount who served as napperer (having charge of the table linen and which he would be allowed to keep) at Richard II’s coronation. He is seen carefully folding a napkin or face cloth. The square cloth is folded down twice to form a triangle pointing to Wykeham. The table is laid out in a way to represent an altar cloth, but more precisely the burial cloth of Jesus, now referred to as the Shroud of Turin. The meat dish of lamb cuts is composed to represent the face of Christ that appears on the Shroud; the napkin represents the sudarium used to cover his face.
What Pol Limbourg is implying is the napkin and possibly even the table cloth (or Shroud) found its way into the possesion of bishop Wykeham, considered one the richest men in England.
Thomas Blount was a loyal servant to Richard II. He took part in what is known as the “Epiphany Rising” in January 1400, a failed attempt to restore Richard to the throne after the king was usurped by Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV). For this he was hung, drawn and quartered. The quartering is represented by the folded napkin, the hanging by the cloth draped around his wrist. Some of his internal organs were cut out and he was made to watch them burn in a fire before him. He was also beheaded when quartered.
The red dagging pattern represents both the cutting and the flames. Notice also the facial image in the black part of his left sleeve, a feature Van Eyck mirrored in Beaufort’s red sleeve seen in the Knights of Christ. The black sections also suggest that the quartering – cutting the body into four parts – was done by removing Blount’s two arms and his head.
Blount’s execution took place at the Green Ditch outside Oxford. This is indicated by the man standing behind Blount, wearing a green gown. There’s a familiar look about him. He resembles Jan van Eyck, or d’Eyck – dyke being the dutch translation of ditch. But it’s not. However, some seventeen years after Pol Limbourg had died in 1416, Jan van Eyck painted a self-portrait of the Man in a Red Turban, taking his inspiration from the detail and narrative revealed in this section of the January folio.
There is a key that Pol Limbourg has devised to lock and unlock the composition and its features in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures calendar section, also referred to as “labours of the month”.
Here’s a visual clue. It shows the facing page to the feasting illustration, a list of holy days, or saints’ days, for the month of January, some of which were considered more important than others. At least five of the feast days are referred to in the banquet illustration. There may be others:
Jan 1 New Years Day and the Circumcision of the Lord Jan 6 The Epiphany of the Lord Jan 18 St Peter’s Chair, Rome Jan 21 St Agnes, virgin and martyr Jan 25 Conversion of St Paul
The calendar is not the only list Pol has used to construct his illustration. There are two others, plus references to ‘list’ as a word in itself. The more important of these lists helps identify some of the figures and their placement in the painting. It is a legal document held at the National Archives and provides a list of magnates and their roles in the proceedings at Richard II’s coronation on June 23, 1377. A second list, or inventory, compiled for John duke of Berry, was also utilised by Pol Limbourg. There are three extant inventories covering 1400 to 1416 which list the duke’s possessions during that period. Richard II also produced a ‘treasure roll’ describing the jewels and plate in his possession. It is made up of 40 sheets of parchment and when laid out measures around 28 metres. From this we can see the significance of the tablecloth laden with plate in the Limbourg miniature.
Pol Limbourg fuses the lists of Richard and John to create another meaning to ‘lists’ – that of the boundary or partition associated with the sport of jousting, the Middle English word ‘liste’ meaning stripe or strip (of land) on which the knights would compete. He takes the meaning of stripe of strip and applies it another way, almost like a book or page marker. The spine edge of the illustration is a vertical strip or list placed beside the calendar list.
At the top of the strip is a set of lances and two distinct flags which I am unable to identify, but they probably represent the coming together of two families, possibly in marriage. There is also a steep hill in the background and, combined with the lances, may represent an emerald coloured stone to mount thorns taken from Christ’s crown of thorns, bought by the French king Louis lX in 1238, similar to the thorn mounted on a blue sapphire given to John duke of Berry, mentioned in a previous post.
Next item down is the man wearing a black chaperon, seemingly warming his hands at the fireplace. This is Michael de la Pole, 1st earl of Suffolk. He served as a trusted adviser to Richard II and was once tasked to arrange a marriage for the king. His waving hands are a pointer to his own marriage and wife Katherine Wingfield. A feature of the Wingfield coat of arms are three winged birds, inverted or ‘conjoined in lure’, meaning the tip of the wings point downwards. In this instance the hands or finger tips point upwards, and for two specific reasons.
The wings are symbolic of the Holy Spirit and the Light of God descending or hovering over Pol Limbourg. It represents a moment of conversion, from darkness to light. Whether Limbourg is implying a conversion experience in his own life, I can’t be sure, but what he is referring to is the Conversion of St Paul on his way to Damascus. St Paul’s feast day is celebrated on January 29 and is listed on the calendar.
Notice also the relaxed pose of Pol Limbourg as he leans forward on the back of the seat in front of him. Observe also that the fabric on the back of the seat is striped. Pol is a spectator or observer in the unfurling events happening before him. He is listless – not a participant. The striped fabric that extends past the end of the table represents the barrier or list between the jousting guests, not for any favours from the absent ladies but from the boy king Richard II and John duke of Berry. Richard’s coronation list provides evidence of competitiveness between high-ranking individuals seeking to be honoured and affirmed.
The distinct red scarf around Pol’s neck is a reference to the Welsh dragon and relates to another theme in the minature which I will explain in a future post. But it also connects to the next item on the list, the gold, boat-shaped ‘nef’ used as a container for tableware. The boat could be said to be listing, weighed down by its cargo of riches. However, it is kept buoyant and afloat by the saltcellar underneath. The bear and the swan are devices of John duke of Berry. Here the resting Pol Limbourg is referring to the passage from Matthew’s gospel where Jesus invites all who labour and are overburdened to come to him and find rest for the soul as his yoke is easy and his burden light (11:28-30). The ploughing analogy is echoed in the March folio of the Très Riche Heures.
The three plates are a reference to the tablecloth (a treasure roll) that is another theme Pol has woven into the painting and which I will explain at another time. Likewise the two small cats that represent a play on two words, catalyst and catastrophe.
So now we arrive at the last item on the list, the young man who has moved from the place of honour to a servant’s role of feeding the white greyhound. As explained in the previous post the placement represents the deposition of Richard ll who was ten years old when crowned king of England, hence the small figure compared to others in the illustration. The white greyhound belongs to the ‘usurper” Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, who coerced Richard into giving up his throne in 1399. The dog at this stage is portrayed in a submissive, begging role, eagerly waiting to be fed by the hand of Richard. The roles later became reversed. Richard’s emblem was a white hart wearing a crown collar. Now it is Bolingbroke’s dog – a hunter – who wears the jewelled collar. It is said that Richard ll starved himself to death after he was captured and later imprisoned in Pontefract Castle. But notice also the black scarf around Richard’s neck. Is this Limbourg suggesting that the king may have been strangled and not starved, or is he referring to the earlier death of one of his enemies, Thomas of Woodstock, who is said to have been murdered while held prisoner at Calais on Richard’s orders? A manuscript of the time depicts Thomas being stangled by his own scarf.
Richard can also be linked to the calendar list. He was born on January 6, Feast of the Epiphany. A failed rebellion against Henry lV to to reinstate Richard ll as king was planned to take place on this feast day in 1400 and resulted in Richard’s capture and eventual death in February that year. It’s at this stage that the black chevron seen on the yellow flag at the top of the list, coupled with the inverted wings above Limbourg’s, head can be recognised as symbolic of hierarchical change. Limbourg has switched the visual references to the order of feasts. Pol, or St Paul, has been raised after falling frorm his horse, while Richard has fallen from grace and occupies the last place. St Paul’s ‘epiphany’ has taken presidence over Richard’s association with the Ephiphany. Richard was a firm believer in the divine right of kings to rule, but here Limbourg demonstrates that divine will is not always “done on earth as it is in heaven”. This links to another aspect of the ‘inverted’ symbols which I shall post on at another time.
Here’s more on Pol Limbourg’s January illustration from the Très Riche Heures produced for John duke of Berry. .
Apart from the battle scene depiction in the background, said to be a reference to the Trojan Wars, the main action of the painting centres on and around the banquet table.
The ‘pole’ position at the table is taken up by the host, John duke of Berry, wearing a blue gown. He is turned to isten to what the “man of the cloth” at the end of the table has to say. But notice the gap on the seat between the two men, seemingly guarded by the chamberlain stood behind the space. It’s a place reseved for a very special guest to sit at the right hand of the host. But who is he? Could he be one the group of men in a line approaching the chamberlain? No, they are there for other reasons. and not just to warm their hands at the fire.
Artist Pol Limbourg has purposely displaced the duke of Berry’s honoured guest and positioned him elsewhere in the frame, almost out of the picture! In fact, he is not even seen in the cropped image above. To discover him and the reason for Pol Limbourg’s inventive design the folio needs to be viewed in its entirety.
The ‘servant’ feeding the greyhound in the bottom right corner of the frame is the man who has given up his seat at the table, not that he has been asked to by the host. He is placed as a corner stone on which the main theme of the January folio is built upon.
The above image is detail from the January folio of the Calendar section that forms part of the Très Riche Heures manuscript. It shows John duke of Berry hosting a New Year banquet where gifts are exchanged between the host and his guests.
This particular panel of the folio was probably painted by Pol Limbourg, one of three brothers the duke commissioned in 1410 to produce the manuscript. The artist has cleverly embedded features that serve several narratives and themes. The duke of Berry figure is an example.
He is portrayed seated at a banquet table, wrapped in a fur-lined blue gown, wearing a large fur hat and a chain around his neck. Fifteenth century castles and mansions could be cold places in winter time, even when sat in front of a blazing fire.
The colour of the duke’s gown is said to emphasise his connection to the French court. In his time John was a son of a French king, a brother to another, and an uncle to a third. But close inspection of his gown shows that the gold pattern is not the fleur-de-lys, but represents something more personal in his life – a bear. The motif is a pawprint.
The duke of Berry kept several bears in his menagerie but was attracted to one in particular; a small bear became his companion in his later years and is even depicted chained and resting at the feet of the duke on his tomb effigy.
Along with the swan, the bear was also adopted by John as one of his heraldic devices or emblems.
Pol Limbourg has also portrayed the duke of Berry with claws as hands, resting on the banquet table, and to his left there’s a bear placed on the bridge of the gold, boat-shaped, serving dish. There’s an interesting contrast on the duke’s tomb sculpted by Jean de Cambrai where one of the bear’s paws is depicted as a human hand (see image below).
Back to the minature and between the duke’s hands (claws) is a glove. It also has a bear connection but not to the one associated with the duke, which I will explain in a future post.
Another bear reference is the pole behind the duke’s back which, in this instance, can be considered as a “scratch-pole”. It also has other connotations, notably as a reference to Pol Limbourg, the figure portrayed behind the duke of Berry. The scratch-pole, or “back-scratcher”, is symbolic of mutual benefit, but conditional, even extending to the custom of exchanging gifts at the New Year banquet. It also points to the biblical passage in Luke’s gospel and the advice given when inviting guests to dinner (14 : 12-14).
The pole may also be a pointer to the banquet’s venue – the Hôtel de Pol in Paris, one of many residences belonging to the duke, and one where he died in 1416.
Earlier, I mentioned the exchange of gifts. In the past the Duke of Berry had been given a special gift by his brother, the French king Charles V. It was a thorn from the crown of thorns associated with the passion of Jesus and which Charles had obtained and kept in the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. A reliquary was made to house and display the Holy Thorn mounted upright on a sapphire stone. The reliquary and thorn is now in the British Museum. The duke’s blue gown represents the sapphire, and his hat is portrayed not as fur, but as a crown of thorns.
Finally, the artist Pol Limbourg may also have had in mind one of Aesop’s Fables when he linked references to the thorn and the bear – The Hermit and the Bear.
The Hermit had extracted a thorn from the bear’s foot. The animal was more than grateful and offered to serve the Hermit from thereon. The Hermit accept the Bear’s offer and they passed the time in friendship. Then one day as the Hermit slept the Bear noticed a fly had settled on the man’s nose. In his effort to swat the fly the bear came down heavy with his paw and crushed the Hermit’s nose in the process. The Hermit concluded he would rather have a dozen flies settle on his nose that to suffer the pain and discomfort of the Bear attempting to protect him in this way.
How this applies to John duke of Berry may refer to his role as Regent, first when Charles VI was a minor, and again at the time when the king began to suffer attacks of insanity. Could it be said the duke may have been over-protective at times during his role as Regent?
A more visual connection is that John did not share the sharp or long nose featues of his father John, or three brothers, Charles, Louis and Philip. His nose was rather fleshy and stubby in comparison, as shown on his tomb effigy. No flies on Pol Limbourg!
Jan van Eyck was not the first artist to point out the name of the Pearl Poet when he painted the Ghent Altarpiece completed in 1432. An earlier work exists where the poet is referenced and identified. Sir Hugh Stafford, earl of Stafford, is illuminated front of stage in a manuscript attributed to the Limbourg brothers.
The folio forms part of the Calendar section in the Très Riche Heures, a ‘book of hours’ commissioned by John, duke of Berry, and produced in part by the Limbourg brothers between 1412 and 1416. The three brothers and the duke, possible victims of the plague, all died in in the same year of 1416. The Très Riche Heures was added to and completed by other artists at later stages during the 15th century.
The above illustration shows detail from the folio depicting the month of January, where a gathering of nobles are said to be celebrating New Year and exchanging gifts. The duke of Berry is the man seated at the table wearing a fur hat. However the scene is not as simple as its seems. In fact, it’s detail was the basis for Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, particularly the Just Judges panel. There is no doubt that Jan was inspired by this minature and adopted many of its references, particularly to the Pearl Poet, and perhaps as a tribute to the Limbourg brothers.
Sir Hugh Stafford, aka the Pearl Poet, is the figure standing in the forefront alongside the man in green who is carving the meat.
I shall publish more details on this at another 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.
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.
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.
Jan 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
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.
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