I mentioned in my previous post that I’ve been taking a fresh look at the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly the five lower register panels when opened.
The four outer panels on the lower register – Just Judges, Knight of Christ, Hermits and Pilgrims – depict four groups of society making their way through life (pilgrimage) towards a New Jerusalem, the focus of the centre panel, Adoration of the Lamb of God.
The four panels also point to four poems written annonymously and who medievalist scholars refer to as the Pearl Poet, or Gawain Poet.
Without going into any detail at this stage we can rename the panels with the poem titles:
Some of the connections will seem pretty. obvious, but I’ll explain at another time the iconography that links to the titles, probably a post for each panel.
And, yes, I now know the name of the elusive Pearl Poet according to Jan van Eyck, and his reason for revealing him in the Ghent Altarpiece – which was not just solely to connect to the poetry narrative embedded in the painting.
Two other poets of the period, Geoffrey Chaucer and Thomas Hoccleve, are also referenced in the altarpiece.
There was a news item published last week about scientists in Wales looking at how slag heaps can be used to remove CO2 from the air in the fight against climate change.
It caught my attention – but not for the most obvious reason. Slag, the waste left over from old ironworks, features in one of the panels in the Ghent Altarpiece, the Musical Angels (Praise with Strings and Organ).
It’s represented in the black blooms featured on the organist’s gown. The organ doubles up for a bloomery, an early type of furnace used for smeting iron, a by-product of which would be steel, hence the shiny steel organ pipes.
A close look at the left edge of the picture frame reveals a fiery figure and what appears to be a set of bellows, pumping air into the furnace and at the same time into the organ. The furnance dust and smoke has seemingly dulled the garments of the other ‘angels’ when, compared to the vivid colours of the ‘angels’ in the opposite panel.
Van Eyck makes another point by weaving the black blooms with expensive gold cloth. So from bloom he rhymes to ‘loom’ and the steel pipes now become the warp while the angel wefts her way across the keyboard, the outcome being the dark and shiny garment ‘drop’ from the loom onto the tiled floor.
As part of the musical narrative Van Eyck switches focus to mythology and the competition between Pan and Apollo as to who was the best musician, Pan on his pipes or Apollo on his lyre. The mountain god Tmolus was the judge. Also present was King Midas, now a follower of Pan. Tmolus judged Apollo the winner. He can be recognised in the painting as the angel holding the lyre and touching Apollo on the shoulder. Notice also the bovine shape of the lyre and its two horns – pointers to the death suffered by Tmolu after being gored by a bull.
King Midas disagreed with Tmolu’s decision and questioned the judgment. Apollo responded by declaring that Midas “must have the ears of an ass!” and with that the king’s ears turned into those of a donkey. The donkey’s ears are featured in gold below the organist’s shoulder. Everything that Midas touched, even his ears, turned to gold. But why did Van Eyck depict Tmolus holding the lyre and not Apollo? What made him want to switch the instruments in this way? He had his reasons, which I shall explain in another post.
At surface level the organ-playing ‘angel’ represents St Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. Jan has also portrayed her as being blind. This is a pointer to another chapter from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales – The Second Nun’s Tale – which relates the story of St Cecilia and how she was able, with faith in God, to see beyond the ‘material’ world.
Much more on the Musical Angels panel and identifying the angels in a future post.
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A couple of months ago I posted this clip from the Pilgrim’s panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, and wondered who the smiling woman at the back of the group might represent.
Could she be the Wife of Bath, one of the pilgrims featured in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales? Could she also be Margaret van Eyck, the woman Jan married in 1431, just a year before the Ghent Altarpiece went on display?
The Wife of Bath married five times. Her fifth husband was a young apprenticed clerk named Jankyn, a religious and studious man according to the tale she told to the other pilgrims in the group on their way to Canterbury. After a turbulent start the marriage settled into a happy and loving relationship.
The young Jankyn is the beardless youth with the bowl-shaped hair style, and wearing a red cloak. He stands out among the crowd of hairy, elderly men, but not above the colossus of a man leading the group of pilgrims. He is St Christopher – the Christ Bearer – who carried Jesus on his back across a raging river.
Jesus is depicted as the young man on St Christopher’s shoulder, with curled hair and looking straight ahead with his Father’s words in mind: “Let your eyes be fixed ahead, your gaze be straight before you.” (Proverbs 4 : 28)
Jesus represents the New Adam. The Original Adam (mankind) is the man on his right with eyes cast downward. (Compare this likeness to the panel dedicated to Adam in the top register of the altarpiece.) The face of the grey-haired head alongside is covered by the martyr’s red cloak and is symbolic of Christ’s saving grace for the world through his own death and resurrection.
St Christopher is known as the patron saint of travellers. The Wife of Bath was a pligrim. She says in her account she made visitations – to religious feasts and processions, to listen to preachers and to plays about miracles. St Christopher is also the patron saint of batchelors, which may explain why the Wife of Bath with her track record in finding husbands is featured as the only woman among the group of ageing men, and also the reference to Van Eyck’s recent marriage.
While Jesus heeds the words of his Father and fixes his eyes firmly ahead, the eyes of the young Jankyn, the apprenticed clerk, look upwards to the towering giant in front, but not in the guise of St Christopher. In this instance Jankyn is presented as Jan van Eyck himself, in awe of and apprenticed to a painter with a giant reputation who led the way before him – Roger Campin.
The colossus Campin and the smaller Jankyn (notice the rhyming association pun) are paired in another way. While Van Eyck’s reputation is renowned, – he is depicted as the Colossus of Constantine with his fringed forhead and visible ear – his stature is not as great as his teacher and a probable father-figure.
However, Campin also had a reputation other than as a painter. He was a convicted adulterer. Perhaps Van Eyck is hinting that Campin, just as the Wife of Bath confessed, also had ‘a colt’s tooth’ (a euphemism for having youthful and lustful desires) – although he is not portrayed “with teeth set wide apart” that “becomes the woman so well”.
Campin is often portrayed with a turban or, in the case of the St Christopher image, just with a Bourrelet, as shown in the images below.
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.
Firstly, ‘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.
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.
Ever wondered why the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece is so named? Ever asked the question why the ten riders are considered just judges and who they may be? Ever thought that Jan van Eyck was being his usual cryptic self and playing word games – again?
Over the past couple of months I’ve spent time researching the identities of the riders, trying to understand their complex arrangement and how they connect to each other, as well as the various narratives they present and link to. There’s no doubt that Jan van Eyck has mined Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales as well as literary gems by other writers – painters, sculptors and jewellers, too.
So how does the title Just Judges fit into all of this? Is it to be understood in a literal sense? Could Jan van Eyck be making his own judgment in some way that is related to events or people featured in the painting?
A key to understanding the role and identities of the ten riders is to view them as “figures of speech”. In this way the title can be considered simply as a “figure of speech” in an ironic sense and not taken literally.
This would also suggest that Van Eyck is expressing a sense of injustice, that justice was not served correctly.
There’s a clue in the latin title painted on the frame. Compare the upright letter ‘S’ in the word JUST to the same but slanted letter in JUDGES.
Upright, as in righteous… Slant, as to maliciously or dishonestly distort or falsify.
So who is Van Eyck referring to in the painting when he points to injustice? The most obvious person is Joan of Arc, who Jan parallels with the false judgment against Christ and as a lamb led to slaughter.
Joan was condemned to death and burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. The Ghent Altarpiece had its public presentation less than a year later on May 6, 1432. Considering the painting was presented so soon after her execution, Joan’s portrayal as a lamb led to slaughter was a remarkable risk on Jan’s part, especially as the Catholic Church didn’t overturn the trial verdict and pronounce her innocence until 1456.
The slanted ‘S’ also resembles the formation of an open-ended knot. It begs the question: which is its beginning and which is its end, and a conclusion that there is no beginning and no end. It was always this way.
This motif is replicated in the Petrus Christus painting, A Goldsmith in his Shop, as is much of the iconography from the Just Judges. And, as for Van Eyck’s painting, the same question can be asked: Which is the beginning and which is the end of the knot?
It’s not wihout reason that Petrus has placed the red knot emblem on the wood counter. It serves to echo the frame where the knot is placed on the Just Judges panel. Notice also the knot clue next to the ribbon.
• More insights on the Just Judges in my next post.
This is a clip from the Prayer on the Shore illumination mentioned in yesterday’s post. Unfortunately the detail is not the best. Nevertheless it is sufficient to make a comparison with a similar feature in the Just Judges panel.
My assessment is that the two men represent Jan van Eyck and John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy. The minature from the Turin-Milan Hours is attributed to Hand G, generally thought to be Jan van Eyck or his brother Hugh.
The Prayer on the Shore makes references to the Hook and Cod wars, “a series of wars and battles in the County of Holland between 1350 and 1490.”
Jan’s hood is shaped as a trawl dragged behind a boat to catch fish – the bulging end is known as the “cod-end”. The tail of the duke’s chaperon is shaped to represent a hook.
The two men face in opposite directions to represent the polarised positions taken up by the Hook and Cod factions over the title to the Count of Holland.
The shape of the space between the two heads also corresponds to the area of Holland in dispute; the red region representing the hook countered by the hood or cod-end shape on the opposite side of the bay.
Here’s how Jan van Eyck replicated the iconography when he came to paint the Just Judges panel.
The clip alongside shows the bearded man wearing a hooded chaperon with a “cod-end”. The man below represents Philip the Bold, and his grandson Philip the Good who doubles up as Jan van Eyck (a common motif repeated by the painter and also used in the Prayer on the Shore). Jan’s chaperon is tied and shaped to form a hook. The hook is also meant to refer to the hook nose common to the three Burgundian dukes, Philip the Bold, John the Fearless and Philip the Good.
The cod-end also picks up on the painting’s connection to The Canterbury Tales. In this instance it represents a pelican’s elastic pouch designed for catching fish! This in turn is used by Van Eyck to link to the fish as a Christian symbol and the biblical reference to “fishers of men” (Matthew 4 :19), not forgetting that the pelican is also a symbol of Christ’s Passion and the Eucharist.
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.
Jan 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
Prayer on he Shore by Hand G, Turin-Milan Hours, Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino
In a recent post I pointed out the connection between the poet Geoffrey Chaucer and the painter Hubert van Eyck having both died before they completed projects in hand – The Canterbury Tales and the Ghent Altarpiece; and in another post the Limbourg brothers who all succumbed to an early death in 1416 and whose illuminations in the Trés Riche Heures were a source of inspiration for the Just Judges panel.
The TRH was also work unfinished when the Limbourg brothers died. One of the artists said to have assisted with the manuscript’s completion was Barthélemy d’Eyck, a blood relative of the brothers Jan and Hugh van Eyck.
In his book The Art of Illumination, Timothy B Husband reveals: “He [Barthélemy d’Eck] most likely knew the Limbourg brothers’ work, for in mid-century he in all probability completed the Très Riche Heures Calendar pages for March, June, July, September, October, and December, which the Limbourg brothers had underdrawn and partially painted before their deaths,”
There are at least four folios from the Très Riche Hours that Jan van Eyck has utilised in the Just Judges. The most significant is the Calendar illumination for March showing a ploughman at work in the foreground and the Châteux Lusignan in the background (right).
If Barthélemy did finalise this folio, then its completion date would be before 1432 when the Ghent Altarpiece was presented.
There is a fourth reference in the Just Judges alluding to incompletion. It relates to Chaucer’s Plowman’s Tale. Although Chaucer described a Plowman in the general prologue of The Canterbury Tales, he never assigned him his own tale. Later, however, two versions of the Plowman’s Tale were added from other sources, not by Chaucer’s hand.
The rationale for Barthélemy’s inclusion in the Just Judges, apart from him being a blood relative, is this: Just as Barthélemy was called upon to complete some of the folios of the TRH after the death of the Limbourgs, so Jan was asked to complete the Ghent Altarpiece following the death of Hubert.
For the incomplete Chaucer work, the two tales added later are also visualised in the Just Judges panel and connect to Barthélemy d’Eyck.
Jan van Eyck has taken and grouped the four ‘incomplete’ references to point to the four-line rhyming scheme found in the incomplete Canterbury Tales, and to mirror the quatrain on the frame of the Ghent Altarpiece. Some of Chaucer’s tales are disguised in the pairings or visual glyphs Jan creates of the riders, a pointer to the pairing of birds in another Chaucer work, the dream poem Parlement of Foules.
The Just Judges can also be considered a “dream poem” of Jan van Eyck, hand-written in a hieroglyphic style, echoing not only the sacredness of the altarpiece but also the hierarchical theme expressed in the panel.
In my previous post I named one of the riders in the Just Judges panel as the poet Geoffrey Chaucer. His poems, The Canterbury Tales and Parlement of Foules (also known as The Parliament of Birds) are two sources for the painting’s concept. There is third major literary work, not by Chaucer, which I shall refer to at another time.
The narrator of The Canterbury Tales is generally considered to be its author Geoffrey Chaucer. Parts of the poem are incomplete because Chaucer died before he could finish the work.
This scenario runs parallel with the circumstances of Hubert van Eyck who was first commissioned with the painting of the Ghent Altarpiece sometime during the early 1420’s. Hubert died in 1426 and his brother Jan was requested by Joos Vijd to complete the altarpiece.
So whose idea was it to draw on The Canterbury Tales as inspiration for the line-up of Judges – Hubert’s or Jan’s? If it was Hubert then Jan obviously adapted the panel to take his brother’s death into account, and the later events related to Joan of Arc who arrived on the scene after Hubert had died.
If Hubert had come up with the idea of incorporating Chaucer’s work, did he place himself in the frame as the narrator on the near wing of the group, or was it Jan’s inspiration in recognising that both the poet and the painter died before they could complete their particular masterpiece?
Hubert has long been identified as the rider in front on the white horse. Perhaps he can now be also recognised as the narrator of his own magnum opus. What better judge could there be? Even Jan professed in the quatrain written on the frame of the altarpiece that he was second best in the art to Hubert.