Patching up with the past

The Monsaraz fresco known as The Good and Bad Judge, was discovered in 1958 during renovations to the town’s old court building. There is a consensus that the artwork was likely created in the latter part of the 15th century, although later additions (primarily depicting two coats of arms) and perhaps some restoration work were carried out later.

My understanding is that the fresco was painted at a much earlier date, before 1425 and the year the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck was part of the Burgundian diplomatic miission sent to Portugal to pave the way for the marriage of Philip ll, Duke of Burgundy, to Isabella, the only daughter of King John l.

There are elements of the fresco which afterwards Van Eyck incorporated in the Ghent Altarpiece completed in 1432, notably in the Just Judges panel.

In later years Hugo van der Goes seemingly had sight of and studied the fresco as he too was inspired to include some of its features in the St Vincent Panels in his attempt to emulate the Ghent Altarpiece and pay homage to the Van Eyck brothers.

As a citizen of Ghent, Van der Goes would have been more than familiar with the town’s famous altarpiece, and probably the hidden iconography embedded in its panels. For what other reason would Hugo choose to mirror many references to the iconic work of Jan and Hubert van Eyck in the St Vincent Panels?

Returning to the Monsaraz fresco as a source of inspiration for both Jan van Eyck and Hugo van Der Goes, it’s not difficult to match to sections in the St Vincent Panels. For starters, the three figures on the left side of the fresco’s lower register can be compared to the group of three men wearing white religious habits featured in the Panel of the Friars. Two are wearing black hats and one has a beard.

Detail from the Monsaraz fresco and the St Vincent Panel of the Friar

Van der Goes made some adjustment in his painting with the positioning of two of the friars, moving the notary to the front of the frame and the fairhead friar into the centre of the trio.

Now as to the question which artwork was produced first, the fresco or the St Vincent Panels, there are TWO notable clues in the fresco that provide the answer and which Hugo has referenced in his unique way in the Panel of the Friars.

The fresco is damaged in some areas. Paint and its plaster base is missing. In the lower section part of the right arm and hand of the seated judge is lost. Van der Goes has referenced the shape of this missing piece as the black hat worn by the kneeling friar and which covers the hands of the friar behind him.

Detail from the Monsaraz fresco and the St Vincent Panel of the Friar

The shape of the damaged arm in the fresco can also be matched to a ‘mirror’ image in the Panel of the Relic – the relic itself – confirming that Van der Goes had prior sight of the damaged fresco before he completed painting the St Vincent panels. Further confirmation is part of the hand protruding from beneath the damaged area. Hugo picks up on this as well and reproduces the fingers feature as extending from the sleeve of the bearded friar.

Another obvious missing section in the fresco is the top right segment of the upper register. The angel blowing the trumpet is almost obliterated, as is the head of the Suffering Christ in Glory as if decapitated from the body. A piece of the Saviour’s hair is all that remains visible. The word ‘hair’ is not only a key to discovering the Suffering Christ connection in the Panel of the Friars, but also to a series of embedded homophones revealing other identities and connections in the frame.

Christ on his throne… Monsaraz fresco…

Van der Goes also references this missing feature in the Panel of the Friars. Look closely at the head of the figure first in line on the back row. In this instance his identity is the Roman governor Pontius Pilate who was the judge at the trial of Jesus, the judge who responded to Christ’s claim to have been born to witness to the truth: “Truth, what is that?” before handing Jesus over to be crucified.

Pontius Pilate… his ear… and Lambert van Eyck… St Vincent Panels

Hugo has illustrated Christ’s crucifixion within the shape of Pilate’s ear, (a reminder that Pilate had listened to Jesus witness he was the Son of God. But notice that the head of Christ and part of the upper body is missing, hidden under Pilate’s hairline. This is not only a reference to the missing head of Christ in the fresco but also to the phrase found in the Nicene Creed: “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” Various references to the Nicene Creed can be found in other sections of the St Vincent Panels. Truth is also reflected in the head of Lambert van Eyck seen in the Panel of the Relic (and a pointer to Van Eyck’s famous mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait). Truth can be understood as the Holy Spirit shaped into Lambert’s hair, and to the first part of his name as Lamb (of God).

So while some may argue that the fresco was painted after and inspired by the St Vincent Panels, it is highly unlikely that whoever painted the fresco deliberately damaged the work to coincide with Hugo’s references to the missing limbs and head. Hugo has restored the missing parts of the fresco in new light, as if rediscovering or resurrecting lost relics.

“Then the One sitting on the throne spoke: “Now I am making the whole of creation new,” he said. “Write this, that what I am saying is sure and will come true.” And then he said. “It is already done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End…” (Revelation 21 : 5-6)

Notice the Alpha and Omega symbols below “the One sitting on the throne” in the upper register of the fresco!

• My next post will deal with a section of the fresco that inspired Jan van Eyck to utilise in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

Bringing matters to a head

This post is the first of a sequence demonstratrating how Hugo van der Goes ‘translated’ iconography from Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished painting of Jerome in the Desert (see previous post) to the Panel of the Relic, the sixth section of the St Vincent Panels.

Hugo utilised Leonardo’s crucifixion sketch to depict the profled head of Christ crucified which is placed facing the pilgrim’s left hand, whose knuckles also echo the head shape Leonardo formed on Jerome’s right shoulder. This similitude links to a passage from Mark’s gospel (15:34) when Jesus was dying on his cross and cried out: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?” (Mark 15 :34). Some in attendance mistakenly thought he was calling out to Elijah. The head shape on the knuckle represents Elijah forsaking Jesus and turning away frorm him.

The Father figure is found in the hair section covering the pilgrim’s temple. This is similar to the crucifixion motif formed by Pilate’s ear and hairline in the Panel of he Friars. The connection is one of several made between the two panels and also links to a major theme that runs through all six sections of the painting – the words of the Nicene Creed.

The galero or cardinal’s hat and tassels are not difficult to pick out. The cardinal’s hat is shaped hanging down at the side of Hugo’s figure of Jerome, while the tassels, depicted as thorn tassels in this instance, are attached to the corners of the green cloth.

More on this in my next post.

Through this sign you will conquer

Detail from the Adoration of the Lamb section of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

This detail is from the Ghent Altarpiece – produced by Jan and Hubert van Eyck – and forms part of the centre panel known as the Adoration of the Lamb. The young man looking up represents the Roman Emperor Constantine experiencing a vision he had prior to a battle with another Roman Emperor, Maxentius. His vision entailed seeing a Christian cross appearing out of the sun along with the words: “Through this sign you will conquer”. Constantine adopted the symbol and ordered it to be marked on the shields of his soldiers. The next day Constantine proved victorious against Maxentius at what is known as the Battle of the MIivian Bridge.

A younger version of Constantine is also included in the Pilgrims panel of the altarpiece.

Hugo van der Goes paid tribute to Jan van Eyck by incoporating many features from the Ghent Altarpiece into the St Vincent Panels. Although this work is attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves, there is evidence to argue that Van der Goes instead was the artist.

Constantine’s appearance in the two panels of the Ghent Altarpiece is referenced by Van der Goes in the Friars section of the St Vincent Panels, though not apparent at surface level because the clues are intentionally cryptic, as is most of the iconography used to assist identificaton of the six figures.

Like Van Eyck’s Just Judges panel, four identities are given to each figure in the Friars panel. To add to the mix and assist with identification of figures and themes, Hugo also made references to other painters and their work.

Detail from the Friars section of the St Vincent Panels.

After visiting Ghent in 1495 the humanist Hieronymous Münzer wrote of a famous Flemish painter who had “been driven mad and melancholy” in his attempt to “equal the Ghent Altarpiece in his own work”. It’s likely that painter was Hugo van der Goes. Münzer’s claim is supported by a report recorded in the Chronicle of the Red Cloister stating Hugo had suffered a breakdown and made an attempt to take his own life.

Historians date Gaspar Ofhuys’ entry in the monastery’s chronicle between 1509-1513. However, Van der Goes, who is said to have died in 1482, was still alive when Ofhuys likely recorded Hugo’s setback because the artist refers to the chronicler and the event in several of his later paintings after his recovery.

In fact, Gasper Ofhuys is one of the identities given to the kneeling man in the forefront of the Friars panel (pictured above).

His black cap identifies with a missing section from a painting at Monsaraz in Portugal titled The Good and Bad Judge (see below). The fresco was sourced by both Van der Goes and Van Eyck for their respective altarpieces. The cap applies to two of the other identities the figure represents. But what is its significance when applied to Ofhuys? Could it point to the blackcap bird known to perch and repeatedly twitter. A gossip, and perhaps even a complainer?

Detail from the Good and Bad Judge fresco at Monsaraz, Portugal

There are other ‘buried’ clues to confirm the identity of Gaspar Ofhuys, one of them relates to the numeral 3, as in Trinitarian or, as mentioned in a previous post, to the Three Crowns – the group of three figures standing at the back – Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio. The three friars are also positioned to represent three ‘wise men’ travelling from the East to pay homage and bring gifts.

For Caspar, read Gaspar. The friar to his left can be understood as Melchior and the bearded friar as Balthazar. The subtle reference to the Magi is part of a ‘confession’ theme in the panel and links to the time of Hugo’s attempt at self-harm on his return with a group of other friars to the Red Cloister monastery after making a pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral.

Gaspar Ofhuys was not part of the group. He claims the account of Hugo’s breakdown was related to him by another friar, named Nicholas, Hugo’s half-brother.

It can now be understood that the Three Crowns reference was a pointer to the Three Kings or Magi. Constantine’s vision, the Sign of the Cross, represents the self-blessing action made by Christians to confess their belief in the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

More on this in my next post: Four Knights and a Marriage

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.

Panel of the Friars – a link to Botticelli, Leonardo and Florence

In my previous post I presented two paintings which connected to the Panel of the Friars. One was the portrait of St Thomas Aquinas painted by Sandro Botticelli which Hugo van der Goes utilised for his figure of Aquinas (back row, centre). However, Hugo had given Aquinas the eyes of Botticelli. It was his way of directing the viewer to another painting by the Florentine artist – the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi and, in particular, to the group of figures on the left side of the frame as shown below.

Hugo was also inspired by two other artworks in creating his compostion – two frescoes – The Good and the Bad Judge, still to be seen in the old town hall of Monsaraz, Portugal; and a section of the cycle depicting the Legend of the True Cross in the church of San Francesco, Arezzo, Italy.

More about the connecting details in the Panel of the Friars in my next post

Detail from the Good and Bad Judge fresco at Monsaraz, Portugal.
Details frrom the fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross, Arezzo, Italy.

Dissecting the Panel of the Friars

One of the challenges for anyone attempting to identify the 60 persons contained in the six sections representing the St Vincent Panels, is realising the artist has applied more than one identity to many of them. Very rarely is any figure a stand-alone representation of who they appear to be at surface level.

The artist – and my preference is Hugo van der Goes, not Nuno Gonçalves – took his lead from Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, particularly the Just Judges panel in which four identities are applied to each rider.

Perhaps in this way Hugo not only intended to pay homage to Van Eyck but also echo the emergence of Portugal’s “Age of Discoveries” which began at the start of the 15th century, and so invite the viewer to explore and navigate their way around the altarpiece, panel by panel, increasing their knowledge and understanding of the artist’s mapping and connectivity techniques as they do so.

I have commented about the Panel of the Friars in previous posts and mentioned that one of the identities given to the figure standing extreme left in the back row is Pontius PIlate, the Roman governor who gave up Jesus to the Jews to be crucified.

The figure also represents Pope Boniface VIII. Alongside him is Saint Thomas Aquinas. Not only can these two figures be identified from other paintings but also by the iconography Van der Goes has embedded and connected to the group.

I can’t date the painting of Pope Boniface VIII shown below; neither do I know the name of the artist. But excluding the papal tiara there is a distinct resemblance to the first man on the back row.

Another person who can be added to the mix is St Ambrose of Milan. He is the third identity applied to the first figure in the back row. Like Pilate, Ambrose was also a Roman Governor. To complete the set of Roman governors – all men of authority – is Pope Boniface VIII, consecrated bishop of Rome in 1295.

The second figure in the back row can be matched to the Thomas Aquinas portrait by Sandro Botticelli dated 1481-1482. Of course, date attributions are not always accurate, but if this is close to the mark then it also helps to date the Panel of the Friars to a period after Botticelli’s painting and probably before a time Hugo is thought to have died around 1482. There is no record of Hugo’s death except a vague mention without a date in a chronicler’s journal said to have been written between 1509 and 1523.

There is a noticeable difference in the eyes of the two portraits. Hugo’s version has embedded the eyes of Botticelli from another painting – the Monforte Altarpiece. He did this not only to make a connection to Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi because it portrays Van der Goes, but for two other reasons which link the work to the Panel of the Friars.

The identity of the Aquinas figure can be confirmed by iconography that forms part of the white-haired Cistercian friar who, in this instance, is another saintly figure, Bernard of Clairvaux. The same applies to the portrayal of Boniface VIII. He too is connected to the Cistercian figure, not only portrayed as Bernard of Clairvaux but also as Bartolomeo Platina , the Vatican librarian who compiled and wrote a book on the Lives of the Popes (1479).

I shall explain more about these group of figures and how they connect to each other in my next post.

The art of homage

Earlier this year I posted an item revealing that a section of a Rembrandt etching – Death of the Virgin, 1639 – was based on one of the panels from the St Vincent Panels. The etching is, in fact, a tribute to Hugo van der Goes and does not represent the death of the Virgin Mary.

Seemingly Rembrandt considered Hugo the painter of the St Vincent Panels and not the Portuguese artist Nuno Gonçalves to whom the work is currently attributed.

Rembrandt also “translated” another section from the St Vincent Panels into his etching, the Panel of the Friars. The two sections are shown below for comparision. The section from the etching later served as the basis for the famous work Rembrandt painted late in life, The Return of the Prodigal Son. The third panel (right) shows detail from Dieric Bouts’ Last Supper painting which Van der Goes used as the basis for the Panel of the Friars.

Left: Detail from Rembrandt’s Death of the Virgin… Centre: Panel of the Friars from the St Vincent Panels… Right: Detail from Dieric Bouts’ Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament.