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.

Riders in the sky

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In my previous post I proposed that the key to understanding the role and identities of the ten riders was to relate to them as “figures of speech”. I also mentioned Jan van Eyck’s fondness for word games.

Take the word ‘rider’. Jan implies four different meanings. The number four has a significant role in the painting and also the altarpiece as a whole – the quatrain on the outside panels is an example, as are the references to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Each rider in the Just Judges is given four identies. In The Canterbury Tales each pilgrim is requested to present four narratives.

Gold-rider-300Firstly, ‘rider’ is viewed and applied in a literal sense – someone on horseback. This links to its second meaning, the colloquial term Rider or Rijder given to the Cavalier d’or, a Flemish gold monetary unification coin issued by Philip the Good around the time the painting was produced. This extends to ‘rider’ applied in a legislative sense, as in law-making; and the fourth use sees a slight change of spelling to create the word ‘rudder’, as a steering component.

The legislative sense also references the Ten Commandments brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses. Ten commandments to steer the people on their pilgrimage through life to the Promised Land. Ten legislative riders or ten “figures of speech’. Moses is also represented in the paintng by the French king Charles VI, the man wearing the white collar and red hat in the centre of the group. Mount Sinai is also a ‘sign’ to reference other uses of the word ‘mount’ in the painting.

The rudder or steering reference also applies to the end riders on the two wings. Not only do they flank the column but they also represent two elements of the constellation Pisces (see montage above). They are the tail (rudder) part of the two symbolic fish that form the Pisces symbol, repeating the knot symbol mentioned in the previous post. The knot is represented by the rider wearing the green hat at the point of the cavalcade. He is John, Duke of Berry, seen as a peacemaker setting out to steer and unite two cadet branches of the French royal family engaged in the conflict known as the Armagnac-Burgundian Civil War.

Pisces-graphic_980

From this we can begin to see a unification theme developing, finally manifesting in the central panel of the altarpiece; friend and foe making a “triumphant entry” towards a new Jerusalem.

This is but a brief analysis of just one narrative from Jan’s montage of many woven into the painting. There are 40 identities in total and nearly all of them inter-relate or are cross referenced.

Petrus Christus has picked up on the four meanings for the word ‘rider’ in his painting, A Goldsmith in his Shop. The tower of coins pictured below is one example. It shows a Rider or Cavalier d’or propped against the stack.

Coins-PC

Images: Closer to Van Eyck, The Met New York, London Coins, Urania’s Mirror, All the Sky

Like Father, like Son

Succession is a prominent theme in the Just Judges painting, most obvious in Jan van Eyck succeeding his brother in completing the Ghent Altarpiece after Hubert’s death in 1426.

The two rows of riders can also be viewed as being placed in succession, one following another, akin to each pilgrim’s story in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Hereditary examples of succession also feature – kings and princes – as do talents and trades passed down through families.

Charles-VIJan van Eyck makes these connections through ‘groupings’. For example, I pointed out in the previous post that the principal identity he assigned to the central rider in the Just Judges panel is the French king Charles VI (d. 1422). Other identities are Philip’s court painter Jan Maelwael (d. 1416), the sculptor Claus Sluter (d. 1405/06), and his nephew Claus de Werve (d. 1439)

A key ‘connector’ in this grouping is the relationship of uncle:
• Jan Maelwael was the uncle of the three Limbourg brothers whose work is referenced elsewhere in the panel.
• Claus Sluter was the uncle of Claus de Werve. Their work is also alluded to in the painting.

The ‘uncle’ key also helps unlock the grouping and one of the identities of the rider in black next to Charles VI as being Philip the Bold, an uncle of the French king.  When Charles inherited the French throne at the age of 11, the government was entrusted to a regency council comprising his four uncles until he reached the age of 21.

Another point Van Eyck is making about succession is that what follows each rider is the certainty of death and a final judgment.

He illustrated this point (or was it his brother Hugh?) in the Prayer on the Shore illumination, an earlier work that forms part of the Turin-Milan Hours. As in the Just Judges the composition is based on a procession of riders. The main group is followed by three men with visors closed on their skull-shaped helmets. They are a personification of death.

With the coming of evening that same day, Jesus said to them, “Let us cross over to the other side.” Mark 4 : 35

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

Brim of extinction

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Compare these two copies of a section from the Just Judges panel of the the Ghent Altarpiece. The left image is a photographic copy taken by art historian Max Friedländer sometime before the original panel was stolen in April 1934. The right image is a copy painting completed by the Belgian art restorer Jef Van der Veken in 1945 and used as a replacement part for the altarpiece.

There is a noticeable difference in the two copies. In the photographic copy the brim of the hat worn by the bearded man is extended to cover the mouth of the man behind him. In the Veken copy the wide brim is reduced so as to show the mouth.

It is claimed that Veken replaced one of the riders with the face of the Belgian king Leopold III to distinguish the copy painting from the original, which may explain the brim reduction, presuming, of course, the uncovered face is that of Leopold.

However, in doing so Veken also destroyed clues that could help identify three of the riders. Apart from the Frieländer photograph and the Veken version there is another copy painting which was produced by Michiel Coxcie sometime in the mid-16th century. It remains close to the original and retains the wide-brimmed hat.

As mentioned in previous posts, several identities are attributed to each rider, but in this instance the rider with the covered mouth represents the French king Charles VI or Charles the Mad as he was sometimes referred to because of his frequent bouts of psychosis, a symptom of which can be incoherent speech.

There is further connection to Charles’ covered mouth which relates to the rider above in the guise of Joan of Arc, but this is a seperate narrative to be revealed at another time.

The extended brim is also to identify the man wearing the ‘galero’ style hat as Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester, who was elevated to the rank of Cardinal in 1426, the same year Jan van Eyck’s brother Hubert died. Beaufort is also linked to other riders in the painting.

A second identity given to the figure is St Bavo, a nobleman who gave up his riches to lead the life of a hermit. He later received the ‘tonsure’ at a monastery in Ghent, hence the emphasised rim of of hair. St Bavo is the patron saint of the Ghent diocese.

A third identity is St Judoc whose body, according to tradition, was said to be incorrupt, and whose hair continued to grow after death and had to be continually cut. The inclusion of St Judoc is also a hat-tip to the patron of the altarpiece Joos (Judoc) Vijd.

images sources: closer to van eyck and rkd