Shown below are features from five different paintings which relate to each other in a specific way, and not just because each painting has a connection to a member of the Van Eyck family.
(1) November folio, Très Riche Heures, by Jean Colombe; (2 & 3) January folio, Très Riche Heures, by Bathélemy d’Eyck; (4) St Francis Receives the Stigmata, by Jan van Eyck; (5)Agony in the Garden, Turin-Milan Hours, attributed to Hand G, and likely Hubert or Jan van Eyck; (6 & 7) The Three Marys at the Tomb, by Hubert or Jan van Eyck.
The clue is the crouching stance taken by one or more figure in each example. The posture is a pointer to Edmund Crouchback (1245-1296), a son of the English Plantagenet king, Henry III, and also to Edmund’s own son, Henry of Lancaster (1281-1345).
The inspiration for this repeating theme was the Agony in the Garden miniature from which elements have been taken and translated, or reinterpreted, in the later paintings.
In the Three Marys at the Tomb painting the trinitarian theme, or theme of threes, also extends to the guards representing the Magi, the Three Kings or Wise Men who brought gifts to the Infant Jesus at Bethlehem.
Traditionally they are named as Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar but in this representation the figures share several identities. The artist, be it Hubert van Eyck or his brother Jan, has sourced a collection of writings attributed to the Pseudo-Bede (Excerptiones Patrum, Collectanea, Flores ex diversis, Quaestiones et Parabolae) in which a Latin description of the three kings is given.
The second king, Caspar, is described as a youth without a beard and ruddy, which goes some way to describing the face of the guard wearing upper body armour. Melchior is stated to be aged and hoary, with a long beard and hair, while Balthazaar is said to be sallow (dark) in complexion and full bearded.
The “youth without a beard and ruddy”, and no mention that he has long hair, seems a good match to the artist’s depiction for the central king. Beards and long hair also fit well for the other two figures.
That they are kings is clue to a third level of identities, but can they be linked or identified in other ways? The oversized golden helmet for a seemingly large head, placed alongside Casper is pointer. Its crest is a wyvern, a legendary bipedal winged dragon adopted by Thomas Crouchback, titled Earl of Lancaster and Leicester. The Wyvern is still incorporated in the Arms of the City of Leicester. Another animal probably more associated with Leicester is the fox. To locate the fox look closely at the top of the outcrop of rock on painting’s right side.
In a letter to Scottish barons, Crouchback signed off with the pseudonym “Arthur” as in King Arthur, inferring that he was the rightful ‘king’ of England and not his cousin Edward II who he was at war with. The final outcome for Thomas was he was captured and beheaded, hence the lighter colour of his blade-shaped neck and his helmet on the ground.
As to the other two kings they are Thomas’s father Edmund Crouchback (right) and uncle, King Edward 1.
• More about the identities of the three guards in a future post and how they link to other narratives in the painting.