In a post made last month, I pointed out the Dante death mask feature on the peak of a cavalryman’s helmet. A similar feature appears on another rider’s helmet and is meant to represent the head of a faun, the sculpture that Michelangelo is said to have made as his first piece of work in the garden of Lorenzo de’ Medici.
Head of a Faun is a lost sculpture by Italian Renaissance master Michelangelo, dating from c. 1489. His first known work of sculpture in marble, it was sculpted when he was 15 or 16 as a copy of an antique work with some minor alterations. According to Giorgio Vasari’s biography of the artist, it was the creation of this work that secured the young Michelangelo the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici.
“[Michelangelo] set himself to counterfeit from a piece of marble an antique head of a Faun that was there, old and wrinkled, which had the nose injured and the mouth laughing. Michelagnolo, who had never yet touched marble or chisels, succeeded so well in counterfeiting it, that the Magnificent Lorenzo was astonished; and then, perceiving that, departing from the form of the antique head, he had opened out the mouth after his own fancy and had made a tongue, with all the teeth showing, that lord, jesting pleasantly, as was his wont, said to him, “Surely you should have known that old folks never have all their teeth, and that some are always wanting.” It appeared to Michelagnolo, in his simplicity, both fearing and loving that lord, that he had spoken the truth; and no sooner had Lorenzo departed than he straightway broke one of the teeth and hollowed out the gum, in such a manner, that it seemed as if the tooth had dropped out. And then he awaited with eagerness the return of the Magnificent Lorenzo, who, when he had come and had seen the simplicity and excellence of Michelagnolo, laughed at it more than once, relating it as a miracle to his friends.”
Can it be a coincidence that both cavalrymen are almost identical in facial features? Other riders in Vasari’s painting of the Battle of Marciano are also closely matched with these men as if they are made from the same mould? What could be the reason for this? Was Vasari insinuating that Dante’s death mask and the faun mask, were replicated at times? Certainly the Dante mask displayed in the Palazzo Vecchio and pictured above is a plaster copy. The Head of the Faun was the property of the Bargello Museum in Florence, but looted in August 1944 by Nazi troops.
“Counterfeiting” or emulating, or copying, is a theme that appears throughout the Marciano battle scene. Take, for instance, the repetition of files of soldiers in the painting, and Vasari’s mention of Bandinelli copying Michelanglo’s cartoon, and Daniele Volterra adapting some of Michelangelo’s drawings for his own use. Vasari, himself, also relied on portraits painted by other artists as references in his work.
Pairings and couplings are a significant feature of Vasari’s Battle of Marciano fresco. In a previous posts I pointed out the pairing of Dante Alighieri and Virgil, his guide through the Divine Comedy’s first two parts, Inferno and Purgatorio.
Another pairing is the artist himself, Giorgio Vasari, the knight featured in the bottom right corner of the frame with his head turned to the viewer. He applied a second identity to the figure, the sculptor and painter Baccio Bandinelli; the connection being that Vasari was once a pupil in Bandinelli’s workshop.
“It was at this time that the cartoon of Michael Angelo in the Council Hall was uncovered [depicting the Battle of Cascina], and all the artists ran to copy it, and Baccio among others. He went more frequently than any one, having counterfeited the key of the chamber. In the year 1512, Piero Soderini was deposed and the house of Medici reinstated. In the tumult, therefore, Baccio, being by himself, secretly cut the cartoon into several pieces.
“Some said he did it that he might have a piece of the cartoon always near him, and others that he wanted to prevent other youths from making use of it; others again say that he did it out of affection for Lionardo da Vinci, or from the hatred he bore to Michael Angelo. The loss anyhow to the city was no small one, and Baccio’s fault very great.”
Seemingly Michelangelo never forgot this act of vandalism and Bandinelli’s continued malice against him and others. Years later, when Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, he made sure that Bandinelli’s “crime” was recorded in the fresco, and in a similar way Vasari later represented his tutor as a second identity applied to a single figure.
In a previous post I explained how Michelangelo referenced his feud with Leonardo da Vinci. I wrote:
“…Michelangelo never actually put paint on the wall, although he did complete cartoons in preparation, as he was summoned by Pope Julius II to come to Rome and paint the Last Judgement. Leonardo did start to paint but encountered technical difficulties with the materials he used. It is said that because the paint or wall coating was mixed with a wax substance parts of the fresco eventually started to slide down the wall. Leonardo abandoned the project and returned to Milan.
Michelangelo was more than aware of Leonardo’s misfortune and continued the feud by referencing in a most unusual and abiding way in the Last Judgment fresco what had happened to his adversary.
Seated on a cloud at the feet of Christ is the bulky figure of St Bartholomew. He is one of many muscular men in the scene. Leonardo didn’t have a good word to say about Michelangelo’s figures. He once described them as looking like sacks of walnuts. Hence Bartholomew holding his flayed carcass, devoid of body parts and looking like an empty sack of walnuts. Michelangelo even went to the extent of painting his own face on the carcass, distorted and seemingly slipping downwards. An obvious reference to Leonardo’s failed fresco sliding down the wall and a retort to the cutting remark made two decades before about muscles and walnuts!”
Michelangelo also likened the carcass to the cartoon he prepared and laid over the wall on which he was commissioned to paint the Battle of Cascina, later mutilated and cut into pieces by Bandinelli. So how does this connect to the figure of St Bartholomew? Bandinelli’s birth name was Bartolomeo (Bartholomew) Brandini.
A further connection made by Michelangelo was the second identity given to the figure of Bartholomew, that of Pietro Aretino, an influential writer and critic, and a “lover of men” who declared himself a sodomite since birth. Considered by some to be a blackmailer, he criticised the Last Judgement fresco in an open letter dated November 1545, and reminded Michelangelo he had promised to send him some of his drawings. This request may have been made in an earlier letter sent in January 1538. Michelangelo completed the Last Judgement in 1441.
Aretino wanting drawings by Michelangelo paralleled the desire of Bandinelli copying and eventually cutting up the cartoon drawings prepared for frescoing the Battle of Cascina. It is theme that Vasari links to two other identities portrayed in his Marciano battle scene – Daniele Volterra and Tommaso dei Cavalieri – shown below.
Volterra (left), a close friend of Michelangelo, was the painter assigned to overpaint and cover some of the nude features in the Last Judgement fresco. He also utilised many of Michelangelo’s drawings to produce some of his own paintings, most notably The Descent from the Cross frescoed in the church of Trinità dei Monti, Rome. (More about this and how it connects to Vasari’s Battle of Marciano fresco in a future post).
Tommaso Cavalieri, the figure with his right hand raised, was the platonic lover of Michelangelo. They first met in 1523. Michelangelo was 57 years old at the time; Tommaso, about 20. Vasari wrote about four drawings which Michelangelo produced and gifted to Cavalieri, two of which were a pair: “…a Ganymede rapt to Heaven by Jove’s Eagle, a Tityus with the Vulture devouring his heart…”
The name Cavalieri connects with the cavalier on the horse mounted by the dual identities of Vasari and Bandinelli. Features of the vulture and eagle are paired on the representation of Cavalieri. Face on is the moustache and beak features (the peaked hat). Tommaso’s left shoulder is shaped as the yellow beak of an eagle and points to the devoured heart in the shape of a red shield. However, in Michelangelo’s drawing it is the vulture who devours the heart.
So how are Tityus and Ganymede depicted? They are paired as the bloodied kneeling figure, face down on the ground. The figure also represents another pairing: Aeneas from Virgil’s The Aeneid, and Michelangelo.
In my previous post I revealed the identity of Dante Alighieri in Giorgio Vasari’s fresco depicting the Battle of Marciano. His guide through the first two parts of the Divine Comedy, Inferno and Purgatario, was the Roman poet Virgil.
Vasari portrayed Virgil as the faceless head alongside the helmet representation of the exiled Dante, and partly overshadowed by the helmet of the rider at his left shoulder, emphasising his role as a ‘shade’ or spirit of both darkness and light.
Notice also the helmet’s egg-shape, a reference to the sea-front Castel dell’Ovo (Egg Castle) in Naples and its egg legend associated with Virgil.
Vasari also played on the word Virgil as meaning verge or fringe, hence why he placed Dante’s guide at the edge of the frame.
The helmet’s sickle-shape weld, or fringe, suggests a merger of two parts. Here Vasari connects Virgil and the Egg Castle’s location to the sickle-shape coast-line of the Gulf of Naples; and then plays on the word gulf with Guelphs, a name associated with the political faction that supported the Papacy, as opposed to the Ghibellines who favoured the Holy Roman Emperor. Dante Alighieri took the side of the Guelphs.
Within sight of Naples and a short distance of about 20 kilometres is the volcano Mt Vesuvius, which is another pointer to the ashen colour of Virgil’s helmet and armour. Dante’s red plume – suggesting the features of “a man of sorrow” can also be visualised as a fiery eruption and a pointer to the descent and journey of both poets into Hell, or Inferno, the first part of the Divine Comedy.
As well as embedding references in the Marciano fresco to Dante’s journey through Hell and Purgatory to finally reach Paradise, Vasari also included pointers to Virgil’s famous poem, The Aeneid, the story of Aeneas who fled the fall of Troy and made his way to Italy where he became the ancestor of the Romans.
Vasari merged elements of these two narratives with content from other artistic works to form a framework of connections and links to produce a new creation. The work was commissioned by the Florentine duke Cosimo I, to cover over the fresco depicting the Battle of Anghiari that was started and abandoned by Leonardo da Vinci some 60 years earlier.
I shall explain in a future post how Vasari called upon and utilised a particular image from a very rare Late Antique illuminated manuscript, now referred to as Vergilius Vaticanus, as part of the process off merging narratives of myth and truth in his Battle of Marciano fresco.
In Dan Brown’s Inferno novel the fictional character Robert Langdon, a Harvard University professor of history of art and “symbology”, is tasked with deciphering clues embedded in the works of Sandro Botticelli, Giorgio Vasari and the first part of Dante Alighieri’s poem Divine Comedy(Inferno).
The Vasari work is the Battle of Marciano, frescoed on the south wall of the Palazzo Vecchio’s Hall of Five Hundred. The wall is believed to cover over the surface on which Leonardo da Vinci began to paint the Battle of Anghiari.
What caught Langdon’s attention in the fresco was a green flag blazoned with the words Cerca Trova (Seek and Find). But other than that the Harvard professor “failed to see how Vasari’s Battaglia di Marciano could possibly relate to Dante’s Inferno…”.
Langdon and his colleague Sienna then moved on to seek out Dante Alighieri’s death mask, located elsewhere in the building. But when they reached the room where it was kept they discovered the mask had been stolen.
Had Langdon made a closer inspection of Vasari’s Battaglia di Marciano he might have spotted not only a reference to the Dante mask but probably also recognised characters and scenes associated with the poet’s journey through Hell as described in Inferno.
The “Harvard professor” would likely have understood as well how Vasari adapted elements from Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari fresco to include in his “cover-up”.
The section of the battle scene shown below is where Dante and the Inferno references can be found. So let’s “seek and find” the man known as il Sommo Poeta – the Supreme Poet.
Many associate the words “Seek and Find” with those recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke when Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, and said: “Search and you will find…”. But there is an earlier biblical reference to this instruction in the Book of Jeremiah. It is this particular mention that Vasari has flagged as a pointer to Dante Alighieri, linking the poet’s exile from Florence with the Jewish people’s exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
The prophet Jeremiah was inspired by God to write a letter of encouragement and hope to the people carried off into exile by Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 29 : 4-23) in which was said: “When you seek me you shall find me, when you seek me with all your heart, I shall let you find me – it is the Lord who speaks” (29 : 13-14).
And when Jeremiah was first called to his vocation as a prophet he complained to God that he was still a child and did not know how to speak. But God told Jeremiah not to fear and to say whatever he was commanded to say to the people he was sent to. Jeremiah wrote: “Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me: ‘There! I am putting my words into your mouth…’” (1 : 6, 9)
Along with the quotation from Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, Vasari also linked to the hand of God putting words into the prophet’s mouth to identify his portrayal of Dante.
Vasari made a third connection with Jeremiah and Dante’s identity in the Battle of Marciano. This time it referred to a verse by Dante in Canticle 20 when Dante wept with pity for the disfigured, weeping souls in the fourth trench of Hell.
Truly I wept, leaning upon a peak Of the hard crag, so that my Escort said To me: “Art thou, too, of the other fools?”
Jeremiah wept much throughout his ministry for the people of Judah who refused to listen to his call for repentance, so much so that he became known as “the weeping prophet”.
The reason Vasari made three connections between Jeremiah and Dante was to correspond with the Divine Comedy’s structure based on the number 3 which threads throughout the poem as an acknowledgement to the Trinitarian nature of God.
Pictured above is detail from Vasari’s fresco and shows two cavalry men, similar in appearance, placed side by side. The head on the right side represents Dante Alighieri; the head on the left, Cante dei Gabrielli di Gubbio, the man who exiled Dante from Florence.
The face of each man does not reveal their identity, but their helmet does. The head shape on the peak of Dante’s helmet refers to the poet’s death mask. Its mouth is covered or ‘masked’ by a scroll. The scroll refers to both Dante as a writer and the prophet Jeremiah’s letter to the Jewish people in exile. The scroll also invokes the time when God touched Jeremiah’s mouth with his hand and said: ‘There! I am putting my words into your mouth…”
The scene also represents when Dante entered the fourth trench of hell and wept, while ‘leaning upon a peak’ when he saw the people there with their heads reversed on their bodies, unable to look forward and walking backwards.
And people saw I through the circular valley, Silent and weeping, coming at the pace Which in this world the Litanies assume. As lower down my sight descended on them, Wondrously each one seemed to be distorted From chin to the beginning of the chest; For tow’rds the reins the countenance was turned, And backward it behoved them to advance, As to look forward had been taken from them. Perchance indeed by violence of palsy Some one has been thus wholly turned awry; But I ne’er saw it. nor believe it can be. As God may let thee, Reader, gather fruit From this thy reading, think now for thyself How I could ever keep my face unmoistened, When our own image near me I beheld Distorted so, the weeping of the eyes Along the fissure bathed the hinder parts. Truly I wept, leaning upon a peak Of the hard crag, so that my Escort said To me: Art thou, too, of the other fools?
Notice the Dante mask feature placed on the helmet’s peak, and then observe the shape and placement of the red plume on Cante dei Gabrielli’s helmet. The lion-head shape and colour represents Rubicante, one of the twelve Malebranche demons who guard Borgia Five of the Eighth Circle in Inferno. Rubicante represents Cante dei Gabrielli who cast Dante out of Florence, and so, in turn, the poet casts his accuser into Hell.
The lion also represents the symbol of Judah and its people who refused to listen to Jeremiah and the words God put into his mouth. The helmet’s peak is also an identifier as its crescent shape forms part of the Gabrielli coat of arms.
While Dante’s ‘Escort’ at this stage in his poem is the Roman poet Virgil, Vasari infers Cante is also an ‘Escort’ accusing Dante of being “of the other fools”, those other Florentines who found themselves on the wrong side of Cante’s position of power and judgement as mayor of Florence.
Dante’s tears – another connection to Jeremiah who was known as the “weeping prophet” – can be understood as the three long streams which descend from the top of the sculpted head on the helmet’s peak. This is a pointer to the plume on the silver helmet and its embedded facial feature depicting a “man of sorrow”.
• More on this section of Vasari’s Battle of Marciano in a future post.
I pointed out here in one of my earliest posts about the St Vincent Panels that this trio of faces represented the painter Hugo van der Goes (right), his half-brother Nicholas (back) and Thomas Vaseem, prior of the Red Cloister monastery, an Augustinian community that both brothers belonged to.
A pointer to the face at the back being Hugo’s half-brother is that only half of his head is visible. This also suggests a separation of some kind between the siblings – a subject present elsewhere in the Panels. In a recent post I explained why the coats of arms belonging to René II, duke of Lorraine had been “halved”.
The group of panels are also arranged in a half-and-half or mirrored formation, better understood when brought together, especially the two central panels.
Hugo has also applied more than one identity to some of the figures, but in these situations better understood when separated. For instance the figure of Thomas Vaseem has four identities which link to different narratives. In a way, it is similar to an index or a cross referencing system located at the end of a book. The figure relates to a number, so in this instance the “father” figure relates to both Hugo and his half-brother Nicholas. The figure of Hugo then relates or connects to other scenarios or narratives.
A second identity given to Vaseem is the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger. There is a stone bust of Seneca similar in features to Vaseem which Hugo has sourced to introduce the narrative on the philosopher famed for his stoic approach to life, as likely Vaseem was also. The sculpture is part of what is known as the double Herm of Seneca and Socrates. The two philosophers are joined at the back of the head (another example of half and half). In a similar way Hugo has attached himself to the representation of Seneca, except that the heads are cheek-to-cheek. Here Hugo is proclaiming he has something in common with Seneca.
In another post I pointed out that Hugo along with the two men on his right, Dante and Virgil, had all been exiled in at sometime during their life. Seneca, too, was exiled to Corsica for a period by the Roman emperor Claudius. Later in life he committed suicide on the orders of Nero. This is another connection with Van der Goes who attempted to take his own life by cutting his throat with a sickle when in a state of manic depression. It was Vaseem who cared for Hugo after other brothers from the Red Cloister community who were with him at the time, including his half-brother Nicholas, prevented him from self-inflicting any fatal wound. It may have been the case that Hugo’s attempt at self-harm was somewhat half-hearted and a cry for help, rather than a serious intention to commit suicide.
Socrates, the other head on the Herm, also committed suicide. The herm, with its back-to-back heads is also suggestive of Janus, the double-headed Roman god of transitions, duality, doorways, new beginnings and endings (particularly of conflicts).
In the same post I explained that the line of men to the left of Vaseem all had a connection to stones, and that the men on the right were grouped as exiles. The figure of Vaseem, now also identified as Seneca, is a link between these two groups, a transition figure, both a stone sculpture and an exile. He cross references both groups.
A helm was also used as a boundary marker. Jan van Eyck made use of this varied motif as a marking point of transition in two of his paintings: The Arnolfini Portrait, and in the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.
Helm also refers to a helmet, and here Hugo transitions the meaning to the red hat of the saintly figure in front, indicating what generally is assumed to be a depiction of St Vincent of Zaragosa is actually a representation of more than one saint. This “duality” or morphing process explains the ”twin” or mirrored appearance of seemingly the same saint shown in both central panels. Each “Vincent” has more than one saintly identity that form a “Communion of Saints”, a narrative which cross references with another major theme in the Panels, the Nicene Creed.
Van Eyck’s central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece is titled Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. In another sense it depicts the “Communion of Saints”
“The idea that Valentine’s Day is a day for lovers is thought to originate with Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, a poem written in the late 14th century. It describes a group of birds which gather together in the early spring – on ‘seynt valentynes day’ – to choose their mates for the year.”(British Library).
The poet Geoffrey Chaucer is featured in the St Vincent Panels, so is a reference to the Parliament of Fowls.
The poem begins with the narrator reading Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis in the hope of learning some “certeyn thing”. When he falls asleep, Scipio Africanus the Elder appears and guides him up through the celestial spheres to a gate promising both a “welle of grace” and a stream that “ledeth to the sorweful were/ Ther as a fissh in prison is al drye” (reminiscent of the famous grimly inscribed gates in Dante’s Inferno). After some deliberation at the gate, the narrator enters and passes through Venus’s dark temple with its friezes of doomed lovers and out into the bright sunlight. Here Nature is convening a parliament at which the birds will all choose their mates. The three tercel (male) eagles make their case for the hand of a formel (female) eagle until the birds of the lower estates begin to protest and launch into a comic parliamentary debate, which Nature herself finally ends. None of the tercels wins the formel, for at her request Nature allows her to put off her decision for another year (indeed, female birds of prey often become sexually mature at one year of age, males only at two years). Nature, as the ruling figure, in allowing the formel the right to choose not to choose, is acknowledging the importance of free will, which is ultimately the foundation of a key theme in the poem, that of common profit. Nature allows the other birds, however, to pair off. The dream ends with a song welcoming the new spring. The dreamer awakes, still unsatisfied, and returns to his books, hoping still to learn the thing for which he seeks. (Wikipedia)
In the Panel of the Prince, the back row of men all represent birds of one kind or another – the Parliament of Birds. Chaucer (representing an owl) is the figure standing third from the left. The three tercels are the three men grouped on the right of the frame: Hugo van der Goes, who painted the panel, and the poets Dante Alighieri alongside Virgil, his guide in in the Divine Comedy. No doubt, they have the look of eagles forsaken in love.
Van der Goes’ request to marry a woman he loved was rejected by her father which may have prompted the artist to become a “conversus”, a lay brother at the Red Cloister monastery; Dante’s lifelong love for Beatrice Portinari never came to fruition as she was already married; and Virgil, the Roman poet never married.
The reference to Scipio Africanus in Chaucer’s poem is also echoed by the kneeling figure in the panel, King Afonso V of Portugal, known by the sobriquet “The African”.
In my previous post I identified the three figures shown here as Dante Alighieri, Virgil and the half-hidden head as Plutarch (doubling up as Pluto, king of the dead and the underworld). They are part of the section known as the Panel of the Prince in the St Vincent Panels.
Virgil accompanied Dante as a guide through the depths of Hell and Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy poem, but was never able to enter Paradise because he wasn’t baptised. Although the stain of “original sin” remained with him, he was what was referred to as a “virtuous pagan”.
Notice the face shaped in the folds of his throat and looking down at the stain of original sin presented as a black spot on his white undergarment. Baptism is said to remove the mark of original sin humanity is born with.
The face in the folds of Virgil’s neck is a reminder of a gorget worn to cover and protect the throat (as seen in the figure of Philippa). Gorget lends itself to the word “gorge” meaning “chasm” and this refers to the gap or distance that Virgil was never able to cross to reach Paradise.
Hugo van der Goes borrowed this detail from a section of the Ghent Altarpiece that refers to the biblical parable of The Rich man and Lazarus and the words spoken by Abraham to the rich man, “Between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours” (Luke 16:26).
In the top image Virgil is placed in front of the twinned figure of Plutarch and Pluto (representing Hades), and on the verge or edge of the frame. His location is Limbo, meaning “edge” or “border”, and a special place the Church conceived for unbaptised “virtuous pagans” after death.
And if to suggest that Limbo is closer to Hell than Heaven, Hugo formed a second, more sinister face in Virgil’s neck. The darkened area below the cheekbone forms part of the creature’s forehead, while the rim of the rather long ear forms the shape of a horn.
The horn feature also serves as a reference to Plutarch’s book of biographies known as Parallel Lives and the chapter on the Life of Theseus. When Theseus arrived at Delos he joined a group of youths dancing around an altar called Keraton and made entirely of horns taken from the left side of animals. The dance was known as The Crane.
Was Van der Goes also suggesting with the altar reference that the Plutrach image had been altered in some to also represent Pluto, or his Roman equivalent Hades?
Here’s another example of how Hugo van der Goes was inspired by the Ghent Altarpiece when he set out to paint the St Vincent Panels.
In this instance he has taken elements and themes from the Singing Angels section of the Ghent Altarpiece and translated them to the Panel of the Prince in the St Vincent polyptych.
The Singing Angels represent a celestial scene, seven of which refer to the cluster of stars called the Pleiades, also known as “The Seven Sisters”. The eighth angel at the top of the group represents Joan of Arc, depicted in the guise of a ram and therefore the constellation Aries. This constellation is located next to the constellation Taurus which houses the Pleiades.
Notice also the angels’ arc-shaped headbands studded with diamonds, the arch-shaped picture frame, and the arched shelf representing the Ark of the Covenant containing the Pentateuch or Torah.
The Holy Book, stones and arcs are features translated by Van der Goes to the Panel of the Prince. So too is the lead angel in her red vestment and the placing of her hands on the lectern as if she is at the helm, steering the ark. This is echoed in the figure of the deacon guiding and steering the kneeling man as to the right path to take in life.
Instead of angels, Van der Goes has arched a group of eleven men, and as an alternative to the headbands the arc on the forehead is formed by the brim of the men’s hats. The line of men is split into two groups. The first five men on the left represent an ascent culminating with a sixth figure at the peak, half-hidden behind the man with bald head.
Francisco Petrarca or Petrarch (Italian poet) is the half-hidden figure at the peak and in descending order are: John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster), Henry Bolingbroke (King Henry IV), Geoffrey Chaucer (poet and diplomat), Edward Grimstone (diplomat), and Petrus Christus (painter). All represent variations of and are linked by the word stone, beginning with Petrus and ending with Petrarch (petra meaning stone or rock).
The group is also connected to another figure, the woman wearing the white headdress who is Philippa of Lancaster, Queen consort of Portugal through her marriage to King John I. She was the daughter of John of Gaunt and therefore a sister to Henry Bolingbroke. Chaucer mentored Philippa in her youth. He was also the brother-in-law of Philippa’s governess, Katherine Swynford having married her sister, also named Philippa.
Serving as an English diplomat at the Burgundian court of Philip the Good, Edward Grimstone was married three times. His third wife was named Philippa. His extant portrait (in the National Gallery, London) was painted by Petrus Christus.
The Philippa connection to Petrus comes through one of his paintings titled “Isabella of Portugal with St Elizabeth” (right) and which Hugo van der Goes translated to represent Philippa and her kneeling daughter Isabella in the Panel of the Prince.
The similarity between the faces of Philippa and St Elizabeth suggest that Petrus Christus may have modelled the Saint’s features on Isabella’s mother with whom she is said to have had a very close relationship.
Philippa’s mother was Blanche of Lancaster. Both women died of the plague, as did Philippa’s husband King John I and their son Edward. The moustached figure paired with Philippa is a double or two-layered image representing both kings matched by the double image of Philippa and her mother and the fact that all four individuals succumbed to the plague.
The Blanche/Philippa figure is placed in front of Geoffrey Chaucer to make a connection to the poet’s “Book of the Duchess” in which Blanche is featured as the character “White”. Blanche was John of Gaunt’s first wife and was only 26 when she died. Gaunt married three times but chose to be buried alongside Blanche when he died. Notice the head of the Duke of Lancaster is turned to look at the white headdress and dual image of Blanche and Philippa.
Grouped with Petrarch on his left are the artist Hugo van der Goes, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, the ancient Roman poet Virgil, and behind him the half-hidden Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch. What connects three of the men – Van der Goes, Dante and Virgil – is they were all sent into exile at sometime during their life. Plutarch represents an eternal exile when his name is played with Pluto, the Roman god of the dead and the underworld, equivalent to the Greek version Hades. He wears no hat. Like Petrarch, his head is cropped. Petrarch represents a capstone for the line of stone figures on his right, while the Pluto or Hades figure is also assigned a cap which is hidden, a cap of invisibility referred to as the “Cap of Hades” or the “Helm of Hades”. When the cap is donned the wearer becomes an invisible force at the helm of the ship steering and conducting the paths and souls of others on a descent to disaster.
This corresponds with Van Eyck’s angel steering the ark and the choir, but now the wingless angels represent a new choir, that of the mythological Sirens calling out with their sweet melodious voices to entice ships to shore and flounder on the rocks.
So the “exiles” represent a descent into death, but not just by exile alone. Hugo’s exile is somewhat of a mystery but there is a written record that he was, as a young man, pardoned by Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, in March 1451.
However, in later years Hugo’s descent into Hades manifested once more when he suffered a mental breakdown and attempted suicide, claiming he was bound for damnation. His attempt at self harm was thwarted by those around him and he was placed into the care of Thomas van Vessem, prior of the the Red Cloister Augustinian community which Hugo had joined as a lay brother in 1478. Vessem is the figure standing cheek to cheek with Van der Goes. There are two references in the panel which point to his identity.
The first derives from the half-hidden figure of Petrarch. Widely travelled, the poet once ascended Mount Ventoux in the Provence region of France, a considerable feat in 1336. When he reached the summit (hence the earlier mention of capstone) he contemplated on his ascent and view of the Alps and then took from his pocket a copy of St Augustine’s “Confessions”. When Petrarch opened the book his eyes fell on a passage that suggested the climbing experience was but an allegory and a prompt to lead a better life.
Mount Ventoux (meaning “windy” in French) is nicknamed “Bald Mountain” and this is another connection to the word “arc” formed by the bald head of Thomas van Vessem. The word “windy” is also a pointer to the Windesheim Congregation which the Augustinians of the Red Cloister community joined in 1412.
Like the Just Judges panel where the identity of each rider has a connection to one next to it, as if they were jigsaw pieces fitted together, so too the figures featured in the Witnesses of the Old Testament.
For instance, the three central figures in the detail below, the prophet Isaiah wearing the red chaperon, and two men behind him, John the Baptist and the poet Virgil, all connect a way to relate to prophecies made by Isaiah – “The wolf will live with the lamb…”(11:6); “A voice cries in the wilderness, prepare a straight way for the Lord…”(40:3); and the Saviour as a sheep “burdened with the sins of all of us…”(53:6).
Virgil, as a Roman represents the Capitoline Wolf, the symbol of Rome since ancient times. John the Baptist replied to the question put to him by the men sent by the Pharisees to ask who he was, by saying: “I am, as Isaiah prophesied, a voice that cries in the wilderness, make a straight way for the Lord.” The next day, seeing Jesus coming towards him, John said to his disciples, “Look, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world”(John 1:29).
The muzzle and shape of an ear depicting the sacrificial lamb of God is shaped into Isaiah’s red chaperon, not an unfamiliar feature in the work of Jan van Eyck. Virgil also makes reference in his First Eclogue to a tender lamb often staining the altar, and offered to a god who gives peace.
The second line of Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming of the virtuous king is also referred to: “The leopard lies down with the kid (goat)…(11:6)” This is illustrated in the two figures above Virgil, the apostles Philip and Peter. The fur rim of Peter’s hat represents the spotted leopard lying down while Philip’s unusual-shaped profile with its narrow eyes, and the two black horns shaped into his hat represent the goat.
I mentioned in my previous post that some of the figures in the group have been given double identities (even more in some instances). Virgil is also cast in more than one role, not just as a poet in his own right but as a companion who acted as one of three guides to the soul of poet and philospher Dante Alighieri during the writer’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in Dante’s Divine Comedy, “an allegory of human life”.
As Dante starts his journey he is confronted by three beasts, a lion, a leopard and a she wolf. He is rescued by Virgil and the pair continued their travels together. Two of the beasts, the lion and the she-wolf, are depicted in the beards of Virgil and St Peter, but the figures need to be turned upside down to recognise the feature. St Peter’s beard represents the she-wolf, while the beard belonging to Virgil portrays the lion.
The upside down feature also points to a second identity the Van Eycks applied to Virgil, that of Simon Magus, the ‘magician’ described in the Acts of the Apostles who offered money to be able to receive the power to call down the Holy Spirit on people. His name has since extended to the word “simony”, understood and considered sinful as “selling church offices and sacred things”. Virgil and Dante met with Simonists in the Inferno level of the Divine Comedy. The Simonists were “upside down in round holes the size of baptismal fonts”.
The figure of St Peter is also portrayed in the guise of another Pope, Nicholas III, who Dante placed in hell among the Simonists. Nicholas reveals himself in the poem as the son of a she-bear. The family name was Orsini, meaning “bearlike”. In the papal representation of Nicholas the bear reference is indicated by the shape and visible fingers of the two hands. They represent the stars and formation that combine to form the Great Bear constellation. The pronounced vein seen on the right hand represents an adjacent constellation to the Great Bear known as Draco, that forms the shape of a serpent dragon.
The leopard attribute is the one revealed earlier on the rim of St Peter’s hat. This may be a subtle reference by the Van Eyck’s to Dante’s run-in with Church authorities and his belief that the authority of kings and emperors was not dependent on the authority of the Pope but descended from the “fountain of universal authority” which is God. This creed could also explain one of the reasons why Jan van Eyck included a fountain feature below the altar in the Adoration of the Lamb panel.
The St Peter figure as head of the Church points to another connection concerning the travels of Virgil and Dante. Because Virgil was unbaptised (depicted with his back to John the Baptist), he was prevented from entering Paradise as Dante did in the Divine Comedy. Virgil remained in Limbo, along with oher souls considered by the Church as “virtuous pagans”. The Van Eycks have illustrated this by separating the figure of Virgil and that of Dante (a second identity given to the Judas figure) with the portrayal of St Peter as first pope and representing the Church. St Peter’s raised hand can also be interpreted as indicating no entry into the green pastures of Paradise for the unbaptised Virgil.
The composition is carefully crafted and constructed because now the dual identity of the the figure in red as both Judas and Dante introduces another narrative – that of wasted talents – which I will detail in a future post.
Here’s more information about the Panel of the Friars, the first of six sections that make up the polyptych known as the St Vincent Panels and now housed at the National Museum of Antique Art in Lisbon Portugal.
As explained in earlier posts, each of the six figures have been given multiple identities, seemingly four. This is a clue to the artist Hugo van der Goes emulating a similar method of construction used by Jan van Eyck when he applied four identities to each of the ten riders in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.
Aside from any other suggested identities provided previously, the three men standing on the back row can be identified as the group known as the Three Crowns, major writers associated with the early Italian Renaissance: Francesco Petrarch, Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Boccaccio. The latter is probably best known for his collection of tales known as The Decameron, and subtitled Prince Galehaut.
Boccaccio is ‘twinned’ or paired with Dante Alighieri for the reason that it was Boccaccio who dubbed Dante’s Comedy“Divine”, so prompting The Decameron to be nicknamed “the Human Comedy”.
Another clue to Boccaccio’s identity is the translation of his name as “big mouth”, depicted by the rim of the hat worn by the man placed in front of him, on which is a fiery sun symbol. In this instance the symbol refers to the location where The Decameron tales take place – Fiesole (fire sun) –“twin hills” that overlook Florence in Italy.
The sun motif also connects to Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Fourth Sphere of Paradise, the so-called sphere of the sun where Dante and Beatrice meet the teachers of Wisdom, Saint Thomas Aquinas being one of them, and who is another identity shared with the figure of Dante.
In my previous post I mentioned that the likeness of Aquinas was sourced from a painting by the Italian artist Sandro Botticelli. Hugo van der Goes makes another connection to Botticelli through the Dante figure. The Florentine artist also produced a series of illustrations – 92 still survive – to be included in a manuscript of the Divine Comedy. Another connection is the vast influence the work of Aquinas had on Dante.
You must be logged in to post a comment.