“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”.
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.
In January this year I posted an item titled “Telling tales about Chaucer”. It identified one of the figures in the January folio of the Très Riche Heure du Duc de Berry as the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. The post also explained the relationship between Chaucer’s grey cap and the red chaperon worn by the figure in green, one of whose identities is the painter Jan van Eyck.
The headwear of both figures represent a bird, Chaucer’s cap a pelican, and Van Eyck’s chaperon a legendary griffin. This figure in blue with its arm resting on Van Eyck’s shoulder represents the French heroine Joan of Arc.
The three-figure combination is a hat-tip by Barthélémy d’Eyck to Jan van Eyck and a similar motif painted in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece. The red-headed griffin is Joan of Arc, while the pelican-styled cap worn by the figure ahead of Joan is presented as Geoffrey Chaucer. Below them is the painter of the panel, Jan van Eyck.
By pairing the griffin with the pelican Van Eyck is referring to one of the pseudo-texts attributed to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which relates to a conversation overheard between a Pelican “without pride” and a Griffin of “grim stature”.
As for any link between Chaucer’s cowl and Van Eyck’s chaperon, this combination can be better understood as a reference to the Hook and Cod wars, “a series of wars and battles in the County of Holland between 1350 and 1490.” In Dutch the conflict is known as “Hoekse en Kabeljauwse twisten”. “Twisten” can also mean “dispute” or “quarrel” and even “twist”, which brings the connection back to the “twist” motif on top of the cushioned hat and its other links.
Chaucer’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 Van Eyck’s chaperon is shaped to represent a hook. More on this here.
I explained in an earlier post that one of four identities Jan van Eyck applied to this figure in blue, featured in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, is the French heroine Joan of Arc.
And one of four identities applied to the rider beneath Joan is the prosecutor during her trial for witchcraft and heresy, the French bishop Pierre Cauchon.
Not only has Van Eyck rhymed the name Cauchon with ‘cushion’, the shape of the red hat, but also with the French word cochon, meaning pig. There is even a suggestion of a twisted pig’s tail – or tale – attached to the backside of the ‘cochon’ or cushion, suggesting the devious methods the prosecutor pursued to convict Joan of the charges against her.
The red cushion and its ‘tale’ or ‘tail’ is also portrayed as a bird nest, as is most of the headwear worn by the figures featured in the panel. This links to two literary works associated with Geoffrey Chaucer used as a source of reference in some areas of the altarpiece: The Canterbury Tales, and Parlement of Fowls.
The latter poem and the word Fowl is a ‘twist’ on the word ‘foul’. Here Van Eyck is intimating that a second identity given to the figure wearing the cushion-style hat, the French king Charles VI, had his nest fouled by an intruder, namely his brother Louis 1, duke of Orléans, who was rumoured to have conducted an affair with the queen consort Isabeau of Bavaria. Orleans is postioned behind Charles staring down at the twisted and salacious ‘Canterbury’ tail.
In a recent post (Lines of Succession) I mentioned the Latin ‘quatrain’ inscribed on four of the frames of the Ghent Altarpiece, part of which declares Hubert van Eyck “the greatest painter there was” and his “brother Jan second in art”.
Although Hubert was originally commissioned to produce the polyptych it was Jan van Eyck who later took on the commission after his brother’s death in 1426. The project was completed in 1432.
As to how much progress Hubert had made with the commission before his death is uncertain, but apart from the mention in the quatrain Jan acknowledged and paid homage to his brother in other areas of the altarpiece, which suggests where this is the case, the particular panels were executed by Jan “second in art”.
The method Jan used was not only to depict an image of Hubert in some of the panels but also to make reference to some of his brother’s earlier works, thereby building on his statement in the quatrain that his brother was “the greatest painter”.
Below is an example of Jan’s approach to reformatting a part of Hubert’s earlier work. I must say at this stage that the painting I am presenting for comparison is generally attributed to Jan himself, but there is a view held by some art historians that the work is by Hubert and not his brother.
The detail is from the Crucifixion panel of the painting known as the Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych housed at the Met Museum of Art, New York. The comparison is made with detail in the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.
The Crucifixion detail portrays a bearded man nose to nose with a white horse. The most striking feature is the open mouths displaying their white teeth, while the eye of the horse looks down on the seemingly closed eye of the man. The grouping is an analogy for the biblical expression, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth”.
Jan van Eyck echoes the expression in a different format. The woman is portrayed as The Wife of Bath, a feisty character who features in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (a theme in the Ghent Altarpiece). In lines 605-606 she claims “I was fourty, if I shal seye sooth, but yet I hadde alwey a coltes tooth. Gat-tothed I was, and that bicam me wel… (I was forty, if I tell the truth; but then I always had a young colt’s tooth. Gap toothed I was, and that became me well…)”
So in this instance we have a match for the teeth and colt (horse) reference in Hubert’s painting. As to the eye reference in the bearded man and horse, this is portrayed in the man alongside, depicted with one eye as if blind, and his hat shaped as the muzzle of a horse resting on a cushion. Notice also in Hubert’s version how the horse’s muzzle is cushioned on the brim of the hat belonging to another figure of a man below.
• Jan van Eyck has included in the Ghent Altarpiece other elements of paintings attributed to his brother Hugo which I shall present in a future post.
In a previous post I revealed how Hugo van der Goes embedded a reference in the Panel of the Relic to a medieval poem titled William’s Vision of Piers the Plowman. This was to mimic the references Jan van Eyck made to Geoffrey Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales in the Ghent Altarpiece. Another ‘tale’ that was given a place in the Just Judges panel of the altarpiece was the Plowman’s Tale, said to have been sourced from Pierce the Plowman’s Crede. Van der Goes also included references to these two poems in the Panel of the Relic.
Barthélemy van Eyck picked up on Jan’s references and depicted the conversation between the Pelican and the Griffin in the January folio of Les Très Riche Heures. Hugo went further back in time for his source to a similar debate found in the poem, The Owl and the Nightingale.
It’s not difficult to recognise Hugo’s owl in the Panel of the Relic. It’s the figure portrayed as Jean Jouffroy, except that in this scenario the figure is given a fourth identity, William of Paris, a Dominican priest and theologian, and confessor to the French king Philip IV. He was made Inquisitor of France in 1303 and began a campaign against the Templars in 1307.
The other three identities Hugo has applied to the figure in black is Jean Jouffroy, René of Anjou and Pierre Cauchon.
The link to William of Paris comes via the group of three Van Eyck brother alongside Jouffroy. The four men are also grouped in one of the scenes from the triptych painted by Rogier van der Weyden, known as the Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1445-1450), now displayed in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp.
William of Paris completed writing the Dialogus de Septem Sacramentis (Dialogue of the Seven Sacraments) in 1314, the same year the Templar knight Geoffroi de Charney was executed, burnt at the stake on a small strip of land in the River Seine.
The nightingale can be discovered in the central panel of the surplice worn by man in the red collar, already identified as symbolic of the Templar flag, the Beauceant. The panel also represents the island in the Seine, known as both Jews Island and Templars Island.
As stated in an earlier post Hugo van der Goes was an accomplished heraldic artist. ‘Engrailed’ around the top of the centre panel in the surplice is a series of of border arcs forming outward points. ‘Knight’ coupled with ‘engrail(ed)’ puns as ‘nightingale’!
Not without coincidence is the engrailed feature and the eyes of the man in black placed on the same level, although the debate makes clear the owl and the nightingale did not see ‘eye to eye’.
So what connects this miniature painting from the Metrical History of the Deposition of Richard II to the January folio in the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry?
For starters, both illuminations feature Jean Creton, an esquire to the French king Charles VI, and author of the Metrical History manuscript.
Secondly, the “French knight” standing before Creton probably represents Jean de Montaigu, master of the French king’s household. He doubles up in the January folio with his namesake John Montacue, 3rd earl of Salisbury.
Thirdly, the two men’s long-sleeved robes trigger the connection to the Marian miracle story of the Virgin’s short-sleeve gown written by Thomas Hoccleve and adapted as part of a pseudo version of the Plowman’s Tale associated with Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
Lastly, the knight’s blue sleeve is meant to represent the Virgin Mary’s mantle covering a depiction of Jesus (the Body of Christ) as the sacrificial “Lamb of God”. This motif is echoed in the January folio, the figure of Hoccleve and his blue chaperon frames the communion host (the Body of Christ) he is about to be consume.
The tail of liripipe of the chaperon flows into the blue gown of the another figure whose face is partially hidden. This is Jean Creton. His right hand rests on the shoulder of the figure in green that doubles up as both Jean de Montaigu and John Montacue. The shoulder and sleeve is shaped as a shield. Creton is serving both men in the capacity of an esquire (shield carrier or bearer). Creton accompanied and served Montacue as part of Richard II’s entourage during his journey to Ireland and in the period before Richard was taken captive by Henry Bolingbroke. It was at Montacue’s request that Creton wrote his Metrical History of Richard’s deposition and death after he returned to France.
When my fourth husband was on his bier, I wept for hours, and sorry did appear – As wives must, since it’s common usage, And with my kerchief covered up my visage. But since I was provided with a mate, I only wept a little, I should state. To church was my husband borne that morrow, With neighbours that wept for him in sorrow, And Jankin, our clerk, was one of those. So help me God, when I saw him go After the bier, I thought he had a pair Of legs and of feet so fine and fair, That all my heart I gave to him to hold. He was, I swear, but twenty winters old, And I was forty, to tell the truth, But yet I always had a coltish tooth. Gap-toothed I was, and that became me well; I’d the print of Venus’ seal, truth to tell.
Some months ago I posted this detail 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 a previous post I highlighted detail from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures that pointed to the pseudo Plowman’s Tale associated with Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and the debate between the ‘Pelican without pride’ and the ‘Griffin of grim stature’. The Plowman’s Tale is said to have been sourced from Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede.
Bathélémy d’Eyck makes reference to the latter in this way: The Ploughman is the figure between the Pelican and the Griffin. He ‘borrows’ the last letter from the word Ploughman’s and cleaves it to the word crede or ‘creed’ to make ‘screde’ – screde in its meaning as a strip of cloth; in this instance, the tail or liripipe descending from the figure’s blue hood. So we have the pelican’s beak ‘piercing’ the ploughman’s-crede.
Screed can also refer to the aggressive hanrague the Pelican directs at the Griffin during their debate on Church corruption.
I mentioned earlier the word ‘cleave’. It can mean adhere to or, conversely, to separate. In both cases the word is a pointer to another poet, Thomas Hocleeve, whose Marian ‘miracle’ story called Item de Beate Virgine also found its way at one stage into The Canterbury Tales.
The name Thomas is identified by the communion wafer in the hand of the ploughman. Closer inspection reveals the Host has a bloody hole and is meant to refer to ‘doubting’ Thomas, the disciple of Jesus who would not believe in the resurrection until he could see and put his fingers into Christ’s wounds. The Catholic belief is that the consecrated host is actually the Body of Christ. Hoccleve was a follower of Chaucer and so perhaps explains why he is illustrated turned in the direction of Chaucer and not towards the banquet table set out as representing the tomb of Christ. Was Hoccleve caught between two creeds – that of the Lollards as depicted by the Pelican, and the creed of the Catholic Church as spoken by the Griffin? It’s interesting to see that Barthélémy d’Eyck has covered the eyes of Hoccleve with the Pelican’s beak, perhaps pointing to the warning Jesus gave to his disciples in Matthew’s gospel (16:6)… “Keep your eyes open, and be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”.
It is said that Hoccleve’s Marian miracle story was inserted or ‘cleaved’ in 15th century versions of The Canterbury Tales to counter the Lollard sentiments expressed in the Plowman’s Tale(Complaint of the Ploughman), that is, inserted for a particular purpose or ‘ad hoc’. When we take the reference to ‘Thomas’ and add ‘Hoc’ and ‘Cleave’, we arrive at the name of Thomas Hoccleve.
More on this in my next post and how Hoccleve’s Item Beate Virgine links to the detail shown here and the French chronicler Jean Creton.
When “screed” first appeared in English in the 14th century, it meant simply “a fragment cut or torn from the main piece” or, a bit later, “a strip of torn cloth.” This sense evolved over the centuries to include the use of “screed” to mean “a strip of land” or “a border,” as one might add a fancy border to a piece of cloth or paper. In the late 18th century, this sense of “long strip of something” produced “screed” meaning “a long list, a lengthy discourse or diatribe, or a gossiping letter,” and our modern polemical “screed” was born.
This illumination is from the Metrical History of the Deposition of Richard II. The chronicle was written by Jean Creton who served as a valet de chambre to the French king, Charles VI.
It shows Creton kneeling before an unknown French knight before starting out on his journey to England in 1399 “for amusement and to see the country”. Creton later wrote his account of the events surrounding the deposition of Richard II that happened while he was there.
His chronicle was later given to Jean duke of Berry and is listed in the duke’s inventory of 1413, about the time the duke commissioned the Limbourg brothers to produce the Très Riche Heures.
Pol Limbourg referenced the above illustration in the TRH January calendar to make an important connection to the work of poet Geoffrey Chaucer and also the Epiphany Rising witnessed and recorded by Jean Creton.
In my previous post I made mention of Geoffrey Chaucer and his appearance in the January Calendar of the Très Riche Heures. The English poet is pictured above making an early start on the hospitality provided by the Duke of Berry. It’s a clue among many to the writer’s identity.
The vessel he is drinking from is a saucer. For saucer, read Chaucer. Supping the wine before the Duke of Berry is served by his butler is not good manners, but it seems Chaucer has the thirst of an elephant, indicated by the trunk-feature formed by the armoured leg of the rider at his right hand.
The elephant theme is used again on Chaucer’s blue cowl. The left side forms the elephant’s head, while Chaucer’s right shoulder bears the weight and bulk of the animal’s body and legs. This points to Chaucer’s responsibility of managing the Tower of London after he was appointed Clerk of the King’s Works in 1389. The Tower’s battlements are suggested by the elephant’s legs, even more so if the the feature is turned upside down and the elephant is visualised on its back with legs turned upwards – which makes another association with the poet and the Tower of London.
Part of Chaucer’s work at the Tower entailed overseeing construction and repair of the Tower’s wharf. More than a century beforehand King Louis IX of France gifted an elephant to Henry III. It was kept in the Tower’s menagerie. The elephant is said to have died in 1257 as a result of drinking too much red wine! Linked to this fact and Chaucer is that another king, Edward III of England, rewarded the writer at some time a gallon of wine daily for the rest of his life. A final elephant connection to Chaucer is the “Sir Olifaunt” character who appears in the Canterbury tale about the knight “St Thopas”.
Having seemingly imbibed so much wine in his life, it’s no surprise the artist has depicted Chaucer supping from a saucer. But there is another reason for this. The artist is suggesting the figure is somewhat garrulous and perhaps incomprehensible, that he may even be talking through his hat and not his mouth, and here’s why.
It was considered at the time that Chaucer may have had Lollard sympathies. Lollards was a derogatory term given to those who followed John Wycliffe the Christian reformer and disagreed with elements of Catholic teaching, especially the authority of the Pope. The nickname derived from the Dutch word lollaerd, meaning ‘mumbler’. So with drink taken and not making much sense, and his garrulous hat doing all the talking, we arrive at the scene associated with one of the pseudo-texts attributed to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, that which relates to a conversation overheard between a Pelican “without pride” and a Griffin of “grim stature”.
Chaucer’s grey hat is shaped as the Pelican, its pouch is the blue cowl (big enough to absorb an elephant). The Griffin attempting to engage in an almost one-sided debate is formed from the red chaperon on the head of the figure in green. The position of the Pelican is one of domination, looking down on the Griffin, and echoing the general tone of the debate. The conversation is concluded when the Pelican flies off, only to return with an avenging Phoenix portrayed by the figure of Thomas Blount.
The January folio is said to have been produced by the Limbourg brothers who all died in 1416, and therefore it is probably the earliest visual reference to the so-called pseudo-texts of the Plowman’s Tale which found their way into later printed copies of The Canterbury Tales.
Update: November 2021: I’ve since ascertained the January miniature was produced by Barthélémy d’Eyck and not the Limbourg brothers, and likely complete sometime in the 1440s.
This detail from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures has an end-of-the-year significance. It features Jean, duke of Berry hosting a New Year’s Eve banquet. Already mentioned in a previous post, it highlights the duke and his association with bears – his hands are portrayed as bear claws and his robe is impressed with a bear-paw pattern.
But the artist has alluded to another representation of the duke – as Janus, the Roman god of transitions and time. Janus (from which the word January derives) is usually depicted with back-to-back heads, looking to the past and to the future. But in this instance we see only one, the duke’s head looking left.
The Janus clue comes from one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – the Franklin’s Tale – line 1252 which reads: “Janus sits by the fire with a double beard”. The artist is using a play on the word ‘beard’. He has shortened ‘beard’ to mean ‘bear’. The second bear is the one seen on the gold ‘nef’ on the duke’s left and looking in the opposite direction to the ‘franklin’ sat in front of a firescreen.
Why the line from Chaucer? Because it connects to the poet and other writers featured elsewhere in the picture.
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 Tmolus after being gored by a bull.
King Midas disagreed with Tmolus’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 Timolus 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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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.