Revealing the Relic

It has never been established which saint or martyr the skull fragment depicted in the so-called Panel of the Relic belongs to. Is it St VIncent of Zaragossa or, as some historians have suggested, Ferdinand, known as the Holy Prince or the Saint Prince (but never canonised), who died as a captive in a Moroccan prison?

Hugo van der Goes, the Flemish artist who painted the St Vincent panels, has provided visible clues that point to another saint, possibly even two, which as far as I know have never been considered before by historians.

While the focus of the Altarpiece is on St Vincent, he is not the only saint or martyr represented in the panels. There are many. In fact, Van der Goes has made “uncovering saints” one of the main themes in the painting. This stems from a connection with the first figure of many representing a saint – in this instance St Ambrose of Milan, depicted in the top left corner of the Friars Panel. More on this connection at another time.

So it should not be assumed that the so-called ‘twin’ figures said to be of St Vincent simply represent that particular saint alone. We are invited to “uncover the saints and martyrs” represented in all of the six panels, as well as other idenities associated with the St Vincent figures.

Van der Goes links each clue to another, as a method of confirming identities and connections. He was influenced in this type of construction by Jan van Eyck who employed the same technique in the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly in the Just Judges panel where the ten riders interlock as jigsaw pieces.

Let’s explore how Van der Goes leads the viewer to discovering the saint associated with the skull fragment. The artist was well versed in producing heraldic decorations for the Burgundian court and the city of Ghent. In 1468 he was commissioned to do so for the marriage of Charles the Bold to Margareta of York and later other works for important occasions.

Aspects of Hugo’s knowledge and experience of heraldic disciplines and terminology feature in the St Vincent Panels. One particular term Hugo has utilised from the language of heraldry is ‘erasure’ which, according to The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, is the tearing off a part of a charge, to leave a jagged edge, and mostly applied to heads depicted with a ragged edge as if forcibly torn from the body.

In another post I pointed out that one of the works of art which Hugo borrowed features from to include in the St Vincent Panels was the Monsaraz fresco known as the Good and Bad Judge, most notably the damaged or ‘erased’ section that formed part of the Good Judge’s right arm and hand. This ‘erased’ or ‘hidden’ motif is utilised in all of the St Vincent Panels in a variety of ways – for instance: men with arms, men without arms, in a literal and military sense. Very few of the figures standing in the back row of the panels are depicted with arms or hands, and if they are, then there is usually a significant meaning to why this is so.

The Panel of the Relic is a typical example. Only the figure of Jan van Eyck doubling up as John the Baptist shows both arms and hands, and even his arms are partly cut off or covered. His two brothers on the back row, Hubert and Lambert, both named after saints, are also armless. The figure of the French prelate and diplomat Jean Jouffroy, twinned with Pierre Cauchon, another French bishop and also a prosecutor in the trial of Joan of Arc, are depicted with their right arm on show and hand on a holy book. Jouffroy later attacked Joan’s ‘saintly’ reputation in a eulogy given in 1459 to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, which may explain the symbolism of the hidden arm and underhand motif.

As to any visual reference to St Joan of Arc – yet another French connection – it is found in the patterned surplice worn by Hubert. Notice the stake-shaped arch in the centre and what appears to be rising flames, a reminder of how Joan suffered martyrdom by being burnt at the stake. The flames can also be understood as symbolic of the Holy Spirit.

The kneeling figure in the bright red gown depicts the French king Charles VI, referred to as ‘Charles the Mad’, who was plagued throughout his life with bouts of mental illness. The figure is also representative of Cardinal Henry Beaufort, said to have had a a hidden hand in the prosecution of Joan of Arc, although the absent left hand seemingly supporting the skull fragment also has a connection to the relic itself. Both Beaufort and Charles VI are also presented in Jan van Eyck’s Just Judges panel in the Ghent altarpiece.

As to the skull fragment itself, close inspection shows a ragged edge on its top side. This makes the connection to the heraldic term ‘erasure’ and a reason why Charles VI is holding the relic.

With its spiked back, the ‘torn’ fragment is meant to depict a porcupine and links to the French king’s younger brother, Louis I Duke of Orleans, who was assassinated on November 23, 1407, on the orders of John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy. He was lured to his death on a Paris street in broad daylight after being told his brother wished to meet with him. When he mounted his horse to start on his way a gang of fifteen masked men attacked and fatally stabbed him, cutting off one of his hands in the process, hence the image of his brother Charles depicted with one hand only.

As to the porpupine motif, this represents the chivalric Order of the Porcupine founded by Louis in 1394 to mark the occasion of the baptism of his son Charles of Orleans who was later held captive by the English as a prisoner of war for 25 years.

The Order’s insignia was represented by a gold porcupine standing on a green enamelled oval-shaped base, hence the green cloth base behind the skull fragment. The Order was sometimes referred to in France as the Ordre du Camail and here Hugo van der Goes makes another link to confirm his intended reference to the insignia. Depicted just above the king’s right shoulder is the coat of camel hair worn by John the Baptist. The word-play, camel and camail, is confirmed by the folds in the Baptist’s coat shaped to represent the legs of a camel.

But there is more to link to the Order of the Porcupine. Louis, duke of Orleans, did not enjoy the best of reputations with the people. He had many enemies and is said to have taken his brother’s wife as a mistress. It was also claimed that he dabbled in magic and the black arts, even necromancy. So when we look at the fuller figure in red, there are other clues that point to Louis, duke of Orleans. Saint he wasn’t, it seems.

To the right and slightly above the green cloth is the shape of demonic face with a sharp-pointed nose. It also has an open, laughing mouth with two teeth. The demonic face represents John the Fearless, noted for his long sharp nose, piercing the cameo, and the stabbing of Louis. This motif is also adapted by Hugo from the Monsaraz fresco, shown below.

But take a look at the green cloth to its full extent and we see portrayed another demonic feature, screaming on its way into the fires of hell. The folds in the red garment are angled and accentuated in a descending formation.

Some twelve years later John the Fearless was assassinated in similar fashion on the bridge at Montereau when an attempt to parley with the French dauphin and future Charles VII of France went amiss. One of the dauphin’s escorts panicked and attacked the duke of Burgundy with an axe to his face. The shape of the axe head can be made out in the demonic face of John the Fearless, cleaving his skull through to the socket of his eye.

So where is the saint feature in all of this? Van der Goes is pointing the way back to another Louis and another king, the only French king canonised by the Cathoic Church, Louis IX.

It was Louis who built a dedicated chapel, the Sainte-Chapelle, as a shrine to house the many relics associated with the life of Christ presented to him by Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople. These included the Crown of Thorns and a fragment fo the True Cross, so the skull fragment held by king Charles VI can also be understood as a relic of St Louis and the porcupine’s thorns as the Crown of Thorns placed on the head of Christ during his Passion.

In all of this there is another connection to Jan van Eyck and a folio attributed to him in the Turin-Milan Hours depicting the Birth of John the Baptist. The minature refers to many of the items Louis IX received from Baldwin II and were kept in the Sainte-Chapelle. More recently, the Crown of Thorns was rescued from its sanctuary when the Paris cathedral of Notre Dame caught fire in April 2019.

The Order of the Porcupine is not the only chivalric company represented in the St Vincent panels. There are several, and at least three others in the Panel of the Relic.

More on this and other connections to be discovered in the Panel of the Relic in my next post.

More on the Panel of the Friars

In my previous post I stated that a section of Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi was the inspiraton behind the composition Hugo van der Goes applied to the Panel of the Friars in the St Vincent polyptych.

For example, the figure in the top left corner and the figure of the friar beneath it are based on two-heads in the Botticelli painting that depict Bernardo Bandini Baronelli, one of the assassins in the Pazzi Conspiracy who cleaved the head of Giulianio de’ Medici, and the Italian poet and scholar Angelo Ambrogini, better known as Poliziano, who later wrote a commentary about the dramatic event. He is seen with his head turned looking directly at the viewer in a similar fashion to the friar in the Panel of the Friars.

Detail from Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi, and the Panel of the Friars (St Vincent Panels).

The friar with the full head of wavy hair has multiple identities, one being João Álvares, a Portuguese chronicler held captive for several years alongside the royal prince Ferdinand who died in captivity at Fez. Five years after Ferdinand’s death, Álvares was succesfully ransomed, returned to Portugal and then commissioned by Ferdinand’s brother Henry (the Navigator) to chronicle his younger sibling’s life and deeds. This account was a source Hugo likely utilised for producing one of the themes in the St Vincent Panels, just as Botticelli used Poliziano’s account as a basis for his painting.

Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch of Bernardo Bandini Baroncelli, hanged for the asassination of Giuliano de Medici.

There are two references in Botticelli’s painting to Bernardo Bandini – eventually captured in Constantinople after his flight from Florence and brought back in chains by Antonio de Medici. He was hanged on December 29, 1479. Present at the time of Bandini’s execution was Leonardo da VInci who made a drawing of the hanged man. Part of this drawing is represented by the head of Bandini tucked behind Poliziano. This is to make clear that the account of Baldini’s execution was not part of Poiliziano’s report written soon after the attack on the Medici brothers. But Leonardo was still in town and recorded the event in one of his notebooks. Observe the reference to the rope, a vertical line which has been emphasised as part of the column in the background.

So how does this hanging man image connect to Pontius Pilate. There is a visual likeness – the red skull cap – and so a pointer to Golgotha, the place of the skull where Jesus was crucified or hung from a tree. The bark on the lower part of the tree behind the head of Bandini has been stripped, as Christ was stripped of his clothes, and above this area are the dangling legs of a man depicting the Crucifixion. Hugo van der Goes has matched this by depicting Pilate’s right ear as the lower half of Christ crucified.

There is another component that links to Baldini, the line that joins the two halves of Pilate’s tunic and falls in behind the head of Àlveres. This echoes the line that represents the rope seen behind the head of the assassin in the Botticeli painting. It’s a device applied by Hugo van der Goes to introduce another identity given to the friar and which, in turn, will eventualy lead back again to Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi. The new identity appears in one of the cycle of frescoes known as the Legend of the True Cross, attributed to Piero della Francesca, and located in the San Francesco church in Arezzo, Italy.

The Torture of Judas the Jew, part of the the fresco cycle known as the Legend of the True Cross, attributed to Piero della Francesco and Giovanni da Piamonte. Church of San Francesco, Arezzo.

The particular fresco, attributed to Piero’s assistant Giovanni da Piamonte, is the sixth in a series of thirteen and referred to as The Torture of Judas the Jew. Judas is seen being lowered into a well with a rope tied around his waist, although at first glance it appears the rope is attached to his neck. This is done in an effort make Judas reveal the location of the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. After seven days of torture Judas relents and reveals the location in Jerusalem where the True Cross is buried.

Judas’ curled hair is similar in style to the curls applied to Álvarez. To make any further connections between the two men, we now have to focus on one of the identities given to the second figure in the back row, Thomas Aquinas, and his portrait painted by Sandro Botticelli which I pointed out in a previous post.

St Thomas Aquinas, Botticelli, c1481-82, Riggisberg.

After Aquinas had died on March 7, 1274, an Enquiry into Canonisation was held at Naples between July and September 1319. One of the witnesses, an elderly priest known as Peter of Montesangiovanni, was asked if he knew of any miracles worked by Thomas in life or death or after death.

He replied that during his stay at Maenza, Thomas’s health declined and his socius (comrade), seeing his weaakness, begged him to take some food: whereupon Thomas said, ‘Do you think you could get some fresh herrings?’ The socius repied, ‘Oh, yes, across the Alps, in France or in England!’ But just then a fishmonger called Bordonario arrived at the castle from Terracina with his usual delivery of sardines; and the socius (Reginald of Priverno) asked him what fish he had and was told (sardines). But on opening the baskets, the man found one full of fresh herrings. Everyone was delighted, but astonished too, because fresh herrings were unknown in Italy. And while the fishmonger was swearing that he had brought sardines, not herrings, brother Reginald ran off to tell Thomas, crying, ‘God has given you what you wanted – herrings!’ And Thomas said, ‘Where have they come from and who brought them?’ And Reginald said, ‘God has brought them!’

This incident later became known as the “Miracle of the Sardines”. Close inspection of Botticelli’s painting of Thomas Aquinas reveals the cuffs of the saint’s tunic and his collar depicted as herrings. The hood of the Cistercian friar below is also meant to match the herring form.

Detail fro the Panel of Friars, St Vincent Panels, National Museum of Antique Art, Lisbon.

As for any reference to sardines, look no further than the shape and cut of the friar’s hair seemingly presented seemingly on a head-plate, the latter also a reference to John the Baptist whose head was presented on a plate to Salome. This alludes to the mirror Panel of the Relic where the kneeling cardinal is shown presenting part of a skull shaped as a dish.

Detail from the Panel of the Relic (St Vincent Panels), National Museum of Antique Art, Lisbon.

Another connection Hugo van der Goes makes is to Botticeli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. Botticelli is depicted standing on the extreme right edge of the panel with his hands covered. To his right stands the bearded Hugo van der Goes. This combination of the two artists is matched in the Panel of the Friars to the bearded friar and the friar crowned with sardines, the latter being another identity given to the figure – Botticelli – a nickname meaning “Little Barrel”. Hugo has playfully returned the jibe directed at him in Sandro’s painting, which inferred he worked at a snail’s pace. Hugo has presented Botticeli as a “little barrel” of sardines.

More about the Panel of the Friars and its connections in my next post.

Hugo’s hat-tip to Jan van Eyck

In my previous post I pointed out that Rogier van der Weyden’s ‘Joseph’ portrait was adapted from Jan van Eyck’s self-portrait – Man in a Red Turban.

Another Netherlandish artist went a step further and amalgamated features from both portraits to create his own version of Jan van Eyck and feature him as a pilgrim in the St Vincent Panels. Although the panels are currently attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves, they also reveal iconographic evidence that Hugo van der Goes had a major role in the work.

In his portrait of Van Eyck as a pilgrim seen in the Panel of the Relic, Hugo has mirrored Van der Weyden’s ‘Joseph’. The hats are similar, so are the facial features. The muzzle of the ‘Lamb of God’ feature is outlined in the pilgrim’s hat.

A subtle ‘God the Father’ feature is applied to Jan’s temple, to mirror the Christ image which is seen on the temple of the man wearing the red turban. Just below the ‘Father’ feature is the suggestion of ‘Christ Crucified’, another detail which appears on the red turban in Jan’s self-portrait.

Hugo has also echoed the vacant aedicula in Rogier’s painting by placing an empty coffin behind Jan the pilgrim.

A case of déjà vu

This section of the St Vincent Panels is known as the Panel of the Relic, so called because of the kneeling prelate holding the fragment of a skull. Some say the relic belongs to St Vincent of Zaragoza, the saint who is the focus of the two panels in the centre of the altarpiece, while others suggest it belongs to Ferdinand the Holy Prince, the youngest son of John l of Portugal who was taken as a hostage following the Siege of Tangier and eventually died in captivity.

The panels are attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves and one of the main narratives is the translation to Lisbon of the relics belonging to St Vincent and Ferdinand. But what makes the Panel of the Relic notably different from the rest is that there are no Portuguese representatives. The kneeling prelate is English whose father was Flemish, and the four other men represent the House of Valois-Burgundy. So why should any of them be associated with a relic of St Vincent or Ferdinand the Holy Prince?

If the relic belonged to neither of these two saintly men then what relic could link the Portuguese House of Aviz with Cardinal Henry Beaufort, son of John of Gaunt, and the rest of the group of Flemings? The clue lies is in ‘translating’ the open pages of the book held by the prelate dressed in black. He is Jean Jouffroy, one time almoner of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. The two men standing in the back row are assistants to Jouffroy, but unnamed. The figure portrayed as a humble pilgrim is Jan van Eyck.

Gonçlaves has sourced two of Van Eyck’s paintings and the work of another Flemish painter, Rogier van der Weyden, to build on the ‘translate’ narrative found in the altarpiece. Van der Weyden is portrayed as one of four artists featured in the Panel of the Knights.

The two works of Van Eyck are the Knights of Christ panel in the Ghent Altarpiece, and the portrait of Henry Beaufort, currently mistitled, Portrait of Cardinal Niccolò Albergati. The Van der Weyden paintings are: The Seven Sacraments, the Altarpiece of the Virgin and Child with Saints (now fragmented with some parts lost) and the Exhumation of St Hubert.

By using some of the iconography created by other artists in their paintings and translating it to a new location, Gonçlaves is, in a sense, paying homage to the particular artist and their work. This echoes the foremost theme of the St Vincent panels – paying homage and celebrating the translation of St Vincent’s lost relics to Lisbon, and so establishing a new creation and a spiritual rebirth for the city, commemorated annually.

The translation of Jan van Eyck

There is a reference by the art historian James Weale in his book on the life and works of Hubert and John van Eyck, that in March 1442, at the request of Lambert van Eyck, the Chapter of St Donatian, Bruges, “grants permission for the body of his brother John, buried in the precincts, to be, with the bishop’s licence, translated into the church and buried near the font, on condition of the foundation of an anniversary and of compliance with the rights of fabric.”
 
In his Seven Sacraments painting, Van der Weyden depicts this translation of Van Eyck’s remains as the raised stone covering the grave and supporting the baptismal font. Hence the ‘raised’ coffin also signifying the upright baptismal font. The child in the baptism scene is Van Eyck’s own, and the Sacrament signifies being raised to new life in Christ. And so in death Van Eyck is resurrected to new life through the Sacrament. Close inspection of the priest performing the baptism reveals the same priest that stands next to the coffin Van Eyck is placed in front of in the Panel of the Relic.

But there is another reason why Jan is portrayed standing in front of the coffin, and it connects to another painting by Rogier van der Weyden. It’s part of the cut-down altarpiece referred to as the Virgin and Child with Saints. The figure of Joseph is represented by Jan van Eyck, frail and seemingly approaching the end of life. The head and upper part of his body is now a portrait presentation housed at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon.

The building in the background shows an empty tabernacle or aedicula. The pedestal and canopy are there but the statue is missing. This may be seen as Van der Weyden preparing to elevate his humble friend Jan to kingly or even saintly status. “King of Painters” was an epithet awarded to Jan.

So the empty coffin is also symbolic of the empty tabernacle. However the surplice worn by the priest alongside the coffin also depicts a tabernacle, but not vacant. It contains the presence of the Holy spirit, symbolised by the flames shown within the veil.

The Holy Flame is reflected in the Panel of the Friars, under the figure with the long beard. The figure also has his right hand placed on what is said to be the lid of the coffin behind Van Eyck. But the plank has other meanings as well.

The figure of Jean Jouffroy, who later became an influential ‘Prince of the Church’ – a Cardinal – is shown holding open a book of Scripture. The text is unreadable (although it has been claimed that some Hebrew words can be identified) but its message can be understood when read as a piece of iconography. It relates to the passage from Isaiah (40:3-5), echoed in John’s gospel (1-23) by John the Baptist:

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.”

Close inspection of the book’s pages reveals the straight highways between columns and verses, and the ridges and valleys on the turning pages. The wise men who came from the East to pay homage to the new-born King had to travel across the desert, and were led straight to Bethlehem by following a star. That’s the red star seen on the front of Jouffroy. It also represents a military order of that time known as the Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem.

A second connection to John the Baptist is the Jan van Eyck figure dressed in a camelskin coat. The hind legs of the camel are shaped in the folds below his belt. His coat is opened at the front and beneath the belt is a suggestion of a head in profile. The profile is facing the head of Henry Beaufort, and in his hands he holds part of the skull of John the Baptist. How the relic came into the possession of Van Eyck and eventually Beaufort is another story, but for the artist to link this feature to a painting that is primarily about St Vincent and the Portuguese House of Aviz is a pointer to where the skull relic was translated from to arrive in England.

The connection also links to what is known as the Templecombe Head, a painting on wooden boards of a head discovered in 1945 in the roof of an outhouse in Templecombe. The painting is of the beheaded John the Baptist.

More on the Panel of the Relic in a future post.