Confession of a ‘conversus’

According to the chronicle of Gaspar Ofhuys, he joined the Red Cloister monastery at the same time as Hugo Van der Goes, sometime in 1475. In later years he became prior of the monastery and wrote in The Chronicle of the Red Cloister about an event in Hugo’s life when the artist suffered a breakdown and made an attempt to take his own life.

Although Ofhuys states that this occurred “perhaps five or six years after his [Hugo’s] profession” (1480-81), historians date the actual recording in the chronicle between 1509-1513, possibly as much as three decades after Hugo’s traumatic experience. Ofhuys also wrote in the chronicle: “In the year of the Lord 1482, Brother Hugo the conversus, who made his profession in this house, died.”

Ofhuys didn’t elaborate on how Hugo attempted to self harm, but the artist has shown the method and weapon he used in at least four of his extant paintings. The St Vincent Panels also gives witness to the steps taken by Hugo to injure himself. This is located in the section known as the Panel of the Prince where Hugo van der Goes is placed in a very prominent position of honour, immediately behind King João 1 of Portugal.

Hugo uses a ‘jigsaw’ technique to build relationships with surrounding figures, so parts of the Hugo ‘piece’ will have a connection to parts of the figures around him. The cheek-to-cheek arrangement with the man on his right works in two ways: as a connection to his spiritual ‘father’ or director, Thomas Vessem, and also pointing to the source for the arrangement and narrative, the double-head relationship from the Monsaraz fresco of The Good and Bad Judge, where the devil and temptation lurk in the background.

For whatever reason, Hugo’s half-brother Nicholas may have been a thorn in Hugo’s side. He was also a brother at the Red Cloister, a donatus, and a step up from Hugo who was classed as a conversus. He was with Hugo and other fellow monks returning from a visit to Cologne when Hugo is said to have attempted to kill himself. Ironically, it was Nicholas who was the source for Gaspar Ofhuys’ report in the chronicle. Offhuys confirmed the this when he wrote: “As I learned from the account of brother Nicholas […] he [Hugo] even tried to do himself bodily harm and to kill himself had he not been forcibly restrained with the help of bystanders.”

So here’s how Hugo reveals his version of the incident– a kind of confession – and placing his account on record long before the Ofhuys chronicle report of what had happened.

Firstly, Hugo has confirmed he suffered with depression. The circled depression in his hat is an analogy of Hugo’s state of mind.

Hugo is also portrayed as a male falcon, a tercel (from the Latin tertius) a pointer to his “third order” status as a lay member of a religious order. There are also two other reasons why he is depicted as a falcon, one which links to the Dieric Bouts’ Altarpiece of the Blessed Sacrament, and the other to the genus term for birds of prey (including the falcon), Falco, derived from the Latin falcis, a sickle, and referring to the claws of the bird.

The claws reference is a pointer to the devil’s hand on the shoulder of the Good Judge in the mentioned fresco, while the sickle is the weapon Hugo used to self-harm.

The falcon portrayal is enhanced by the habit’s hood or cowl, just as a hood is used to cover the head of the bird to keep it in a calm state.

I’ve also colourised part of Hugo’s cowl to emphasis its curved shape as a sickle, the tool Hugo used to cut his neck. Although the necks of the other heads show wrinkles, the white line on the left side of Hugo’s neck is a sign of a healed scar.

The part of the hood resting on Hugo’s left shoulder, colourised orange, replaces the devil’s claw and represents a pelican at rest. “In medieval Euope, the pelican was thought to be particularly attentive to her young, to the point of providing her own blood by wounding her own breast when no other food was available. As a result, the pelican became a symbol of the Passion [and atoning sacrfice] of Jesus since about the 12th century” (Wikipedia).

Did Hugo plan his own passion? If so, where did he keep the sickle hidden? Could it have been in the hood, symbolic of the pelican’s pouch?

Hugo’s pelican is positioned as resting, crouched facing the collar and chest of the man on his left. Close inspection of the white collar suggests it represents a shrouded figure in its tomb, and so the pelican now symbolises a sphinx-like tomb guard.

Could this piece of iconography refer to the man on Hugo’s left as being dead and buried, someone very close to Hugo? Another painter, perhaps?

Probably the most telling painting of Hugo’s attempt at self harm and recovery is the Adoration of the Shepherds dated at 1480. I shall post a presentation on the iconography in this painting at another time, but for now I show one significant feature in the painting that points to Hugo cutting his neck. The gangling shepherd arriving on the scene on one leg is Hugo. In his right hand he draws back the sickle-shaped cowl to reveal blood marks around his neck. The blood has also dripped onto the shepherd kneeling below him.

Unfortunately, during the process of the painting’s recent restoration, the blood marks have been completely removed from Hugo’s neck and the kneeling shepherd. Thankfully there is a digital copy of the painting published online before its recent restoration, and so preserving Hugo’s own ‘confession’ and account of his breakdown.

Hugo told it as it was

The man looking directly at the viewer in this detail from the Panel of the Prince, one of six sections that make up the St Vincent Panels, is the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes. He wear a habit because around 1477 he became a lay brother (third order) at the monastic community based at the Red Cloister (Rood Klooster) near Auderghem, and which was part of the Windesheim Congregation. As an established painter he was allowed to continue his work, accept commissions, and even receive eminent visitors.

A fellow monk and chronicler, Gaspar Ofhuys, recorded some decades later that Hugo suffered from a bout of depresion and made a suicide attempt in 1482 while returning from Cologne with some fellow monks, stating at the time that he was damned. The Ofhuys chronicle, supposedly produced between 1509 and 1513, is said to be the only written source for the claim that Hugo suffered with depression and had attempted suicide, although art historians point to a change of style in some of his paintings that indicate all was not well with the artist.

Ofhuys’ chronicle states that Hugo died soon after his breakdown and thefore the date is generally put at 1482 or 1483. But there is no official record of the painter’s death and the question that needs answering is just how many paintings did Hugo start and complete in the short period between his breakdown and time of his death, likely to be less than a year if the Ofhuy’s record is to be taken as gospel.

What historians haven’t taken into account is Hugo’s own version of his depression and attempt at self-harm, expressed in at least four of his extant paintings as well as the St Vincent Panels attributed to Nuno Gonçalves.

If the date of Hugo’s breakdown in 1482 is accepted as accurate then it follows that any work he produced after his recovery should not precede 1482, even the St Vincent Panels. In this painting and four others I know of, Hugo demonstrates the method he used to self-harm. Whether this could be considered a serious attempt at suicide or just a cry for help during a bout of depression, I cannot judge. What is known is that Hugo made a recovery, confirmed in the Ofhuys account and by Hugo himself. How long he lived after that is open to speculation.

More on this and the method Hugo used to self-harm in my next post.

UPDATE: June 21, 2020

In a previous post I described how the three men to the left were probably related, Hugo’s father cheek-to-cheek with his son Hugo, and behind them Hugo’s half brother, Nicholas. I also suggested that Hugo’s father may have been in a spiritual sense, perhaps the prior of the Rood Klooster, Thomas Vessem, who took care of Hugo after his breakdown.

What I hadn’t picked up on at the time was the the connection between the St Vincent Panels and The Good and Bad Judge freso at Monsaraz which portrays one of the judges with two heads. The left head was the basis for the St Vincent figure while the the head in profile was applied to the so-called kneeling prince in the Panel of the Prince.

However, the motif is repeated for another group in the same panel, the one shown alongside. The two front men are joined at the cheekbone, the father figure being the good and compassionate judge, the profiled head being the judge tempted by the devil at his shoulder, except that instead of the head being shown in profile it is depicted face on – the face of Hugo. As for the tempting devil behind him, there’s a choice of two. My preference is for Nicholas (an apt name), Hugo’s half-brother! Notice also how the devil’s head in the fresco is cropped at the top, just as Nicholas is. It is also worth noting that Fr Thomas Vessem is placed immediately behind St Vincent, sharing in his light, and suggesting that Hugo considered the priest a saintly man, perhaps for the reason he was instrumental in the painter’s recovery.

Fathers and Sons… part 2

Continued from the previous post…

A father and sons… detail from the Panel of the Prince section of the St Vincent Panels.

This trio of men featured in the St Vincent Panels are related. The older man is the father of Hugo van der Goes, and also of the half-hidden figure behind him, Hugo’s half-brother Nicholas. Hugo is placed at his father’s left shoulder, almost cheek-to-cheek, and looking straight at the viewer – a sign of recognition. Did Hugo, or even the father contribute in some way to this section of the painting, or was the artist Nuno Gonçalves perhaps paying tribute to the men for some personal reason?

The other men in the line-up also represent family groups, fathers and sons. The three men to the right of Hugo are two sons with their father. Left of Hugo’s father are two men hat can be considered a son and his father, while to their left the three men represent another family group, possibly the Gonçlaves family with Nuno looking out from the edge of the frame next to his brother and both positioned behind their father.

So what other evidence is there that points to Hugo and his father among the group of men in the Panel of the Prince? There are two extant paintings attributed to Hugo van der Goes and housed in New York’s Met Museum that provide the answer: Portrait of an Old Man can be matched to Hugo’s father, while Portrait of a Man, possibly a self-portrait of Hugo, and probably cut down to size from a larger scene, has a particular feature – the praying hands – that Gonçalves has repeated for the hands of the father. Is this a statement by Gonçalves to say that both Hugo and his father had a hand in the painting of this panel?

Potrait of an Old Man, and Portrait of a Man, attributed to Hugo van der Goes, Met Museum.

What is a more likely scenario is that the old man isn’t actually the paternal father of Hugo and Nicholas, but can be considered instead as a pastoral or spiritual father, guiding the two men during their formation and time as lay brothers in the monastic community of the Roode Klooster which Hugo joined around 1477. Could he be Father Thomas Vessem, Prior of the Roode Klooster during Hugo’s time there as a lay brother?

The relationship between the two men shown in the Panel of the Prince is undoubtedly a close one, and the portrait of him painted by Hugo is not the only time he was portrayed by the artist. The same man features in Hugo’s Death of the Virgin, as shown below left. He also appears in the Justice Panels attributed to Dieric Bouts: Justice of Emperor Otto lll – Beheading of the Innocent Count and Ordeal by Fire. One was completed, and the second started by Bouts before he died in 1475. Van der Goes is said to have completed some of Bouts’ unfinished paintings. Was this one of them, and which artist included the ‘father’ figure associated with Hugo, shown below right alongside the Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden as part of the beheading panel?

The praying ‘father’ figure from Death of the Virgin, and the ‘father’ alongside Rogier van der Weyden.

And not by coincidence, a portrait of Van der Weyden (left) is also included in the St Vincent Panels, alongside Dieric Bouts (below).

Rogier van der Weyden and Dieric Bouts, Panel of the Knights of the St Vincent Panels.

And this brings the circle back to Hugo van der Goes who also placed the portrait of Dieric Bouts at the edge of the frame in the Monforte Altarpiece, but not alongside Van der Weyden, preferring to subsitute him with the Italian artist Sando Botticelli. And why should he do this? Because Botticelli included the figure of Hugo alongside himself in his own version of the Adoration of the Magi now housed in the Uffizi, Florence.

Hugo van der Goes stands in front of Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, Uffizi Galleries.

More on this and Hugo’s Death of the Virgin in my next post.

Fathers and Sons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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