St Valentine and the St Vincent Panels

“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”.

Talking through hats

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.

Of tales and tails

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.

The Narrators… Geoffrey and Hubert


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.

Next post: Birds of a feather…