Some months ago I discovered that Jan van Eyck had embedded in the Ghent Altarpiece the identity of the Pearl Poet, author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Jan wasn’t the first artist to do so. Pol Limbourg included him as one of the figures in the January folio from the book of hours known as the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry.
Recently I came across another painting that features the Pearl Poet – the St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese artist Nuno Gonçalves.
In all of the three paintings the iconography attached to the figure of the Pearl Poet confirm his identity as Hugh Stafford, 2nd earl of Stafford, KG, c1342 – October 13, 1386.
The St Vincent Panels was an attempt to emulate the lower register of the Ghent Altarpiece, It includes several references to the work of the Van Eyck brothers and even a portrat of Jan in one of the panels, as there are of other Netherlandish artists.
The Pearl Poet appears in the first frame titled the Panel of the Friars. He is the figure with long hair and a straggling beard. His right hand is placed on a plank of wood. He wears a similar habit to the other two friars but a darker shade. On his head is a fez-type hat marked on the front with a cross amid what appear to be flames of fire.
Like Van Eyck in the Ghent Altarpiece, the artist has applied more than one identity to each figure – in this instance, three. The iconography that points to the name of the Pearl Poet is less detailed than that created by Van Eyck but, like Jan, the artist has split the name into three syllables: Hugh-Staf-ford.
Why the darker shade of the man’s habit? For this, read HUE. The staff is the STAVE or plank of wood he his holding. The FORD is the crossover he is about to make to the water reference in the panel alongside and also the mirror panel on the far side, referred to as the Panel of the Relic. In this scenario the plank is seen as the lid of the coffin placed behind the figure of Jan van Eyck who is presented as a poor pilgrim.
Sir Hugh died at Rhodes while returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. His bones were translated back to England by his squire and entombed at Stone Priory alongside his wife Philippa Beauchamp who had died a few months earlier. The translation of bones and relics supports the painting’s subject of St Vincent’s bones being recovered from what is now known as Cape St Vincent and taken by boat to Lisbon.
Van Eyck also pointed to Sir Hugh by referencing text from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. So has Gonçlaves, and from the same passage: “Face fell as the fire, and free of his speech.” The fire reference is the symbolic flames at the end of his beard – a kind of singeing of the beard which also refers to another narrative in the painting.
The second identity given to the figure is the artist Robert Campin, considered the first great master of Flemish painting. He is one of several Flemish artists featured in the St Vincent Panels. He can be identified in three ways.
Firstly, In other Flemish paintings he is generally portrayed with a beard and as the third king or wise man that followed a star to Bethlehem to pay homage to Jesus, the new-born king of the Jews, hence the celestial motif on his hat.
The second connection to Campin is the ‘mirror’ image in the far-right frame – the Panel of the Relic. The man wearing the black habit is Jean Jouffroy, almoner to Philip the Good duke of Burgundy. The image is adapated from Roger Campin’s painting, Portrait of a Stout Man. The motif on the front of the habit represents the Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem.
A third connection to Campin is his placement alongside the plank. In this scenario it represents a door to to a sanctuary and is borrowed from a feature in Campin’s painting of the Merode Altarpiece where he has portrayed himself standing next to an open door that leads into a garden and the scene of the Annunciation.
I shall reveal the figure’s third identity in a future post.