In my previous post I named three poets who are referenced in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures. There is a fourth, but anonymous, who wrote Richard the Redeless (“Richard without counsel”), a fifteenth-century English alliterative poem that critiques Richard II’s kingship and his court.
In a play on the word ‘redeless’ the painter Pol Limbourg has depicted Richard in livery which is ‘less red’ than what appears to be King Richard’s actual gown worn by his close friend and advisor Robert de Vere, the figure with the long baton.
The general opinion of art historians is that the figure in the corner is simply a servant feeding one of the Duke of Berry’s dogs, matched in the colours of the servant shown on the left side of the illumination. But there is a reason why the two men are depicted in similar style and colours.
Pol Limbourg is repeating, perhaps even confirming, a rumour that the isolated Richard II was the illegitimate son of one of his mother’s servants. Legitimacy and identity are major themes expressed in the January folio.
Officially, Richard was the son of Edward of Woodstock, known as “the Black Prince”. The appellation is said to derive from Edward’s black shield and his brutal reputation earned in battle, particulary against the French. The black cloth hanging from Richard’s waist represents the shield, while the reflection is that of the dog he is feeding. The shift from a white greyhound to a perceived black hellhound is probably a pointer to Richard’s own cruel reputation toward’s the end of his reign.
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.
Christianity celebrates the Epiphany on January 6, a feast day commemorating the visit of the Magi to pay homage to Jesus the new-born king. The Magi are sometimes referred to as the Three Kings or Three Wise Men and it is this context they are represented in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures.
The three men are grouped, one behind each other, with their arms and hands extended. Commentators have suggested the men are looking to warm their hands at the fire as they are called to approach by the marshall and pay homage – not to John duke of Berry, but the newly crowned king of England, Richard II, (shown elsewhere in the painting and whose birthday is January 6). However, the artist Pol Limbourg suggests that the homage and gifts these three wise men desire to offer is akin to the false homage Herod the Great wanted to pay the infant KIng, Jesus.
But the marshall is wise to the false intentions of the three men. His call to approach is a signal for combat associated with knights competing against each other at a tournament. In reality the three men are backing away from the marshall. They are wise men to do so, but their surrender stance will not save them. Hell fire, French style, awaits behind the screen.
The marshall is Robert de Vere, a close friend of Richard ll, standing his ground ready to defend his king. The three men, right to left, are Edward of Woodstock (the Black Prince), Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, and Henry Bolingbroke, the future King Henry IV, all opposed to Richard II and his rule as KIng of England.
The fourth man in the lineup (behind Henry Bolingbroke) is the artist Pol LImbourg. He does have a connection with the group but the reason is better explained with his association to another calendar date which occurs later in the month.
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. Pol LImbourg 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.
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.
In this detail from the January foilo of the calendar section in the Très Riche Heures, I identified the two seated men in an earlier post as bishop William Wykeham and John duke of Berry.
The two men serving at the table are Sir Hugh Stafford, 2nd earl of Stafford (left) and John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster. The figure positioned immediaately above John of Gaunt is Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford. The approaching man with his face turned is Edward of Woodstock, known as the Black Prince.
The artist (Pol Limbourg) has linked the four figures in a unique way, referencing their association with boar-hunting.
Robert de Vere, an advisor and companion to Richard II, died of injuries suffered during a boar hunt. Edward, the Black Prince, was described by the French soldier and writer Philippe de Mézières as the greatest of the “black boars” because of his reputation for brutality. Sir Hugh Stafford, alias the ‘Pearl Poet’ and author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight provides a vivid description of a Christmastide hunt in which the Green Knight presents Sir Gawain (Stafford) with a boar, hence the animal skin draped on Stafford’s shoulder. The name of the Green Knight, Bertilak de Hautdesert, can be possibly understood as a play on words and a reference to John of Gaunt whose green tabard points to Bertilak’s appellation.
The duke of Lancaster is also shown carving meat, a duty he was honoured with at Richard ll’s coronation. The role of meat-carver is also meant to depict the slur made against John as being the son of a Ghent butcher.
A subtle transition is made by the artist to link to John duke of Berry – from boar to bear, the bear being a favourite animal of the duke. Notice his bear-claw hands and the bear-paw pattern in his gown.
The boar connection is only one of several instances of cross-referencing figures made by Pol Limbourg in the January folio.
There is a key that Pol Limbourg has devised to lock and unlock the composition and its features in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures calendar section, also referred to as “labours of the month”.
Here’s a visual clue. It shows the facing page to the feasting illustration, a list of holy days, or saints’ days, for the month of January, some of which were considered more important than others. At least five of the feast days are referred to in the banquet illustration. There may be others:
Jan 1 New Years Day and the Circumcision of the Lord Jan 6 The Epiphany of the Lord Jan 18 St Peter’s Chair, Rome Jan 21 St Agnes, virgin and martyr Jan 25 Conversion of St Paul
The calendar is not the only list Pol has used to construct his illustration. There are two others, plus references to ‘list’ as a word in itself. The more important of these lists helps identify some of the figures and their placement in the painting. It is a legal document held at the National Archives and provides a list of magnates and their roles in the proceedings at Richard II’s coronation on June 23, 1377. A second list, or inventory, compiled for John duke of Berry, was also utilised by Pol Limbourg. There are three extant inventories covering 1400 to 1416 which list the duke’s possessions during that period. Richard II also produced a ‘treasure roll’ describing the jewels and plate in his possession. It is made up of 40 sheets of parchment and when laid out measures around 28 metres. From this we can see the significance of the tablecloth laden with plate in the Limbourg miniature.
Pol Limbourg fuses the lists of Richard and John to create another meaning to ‘lists’ – that of the boundary or partition associated with the sport of jousting, the Middle English word ‘liste’ meaning stripe or strip (of land) on which the knights would compete. He takes the meaning of stripe of strip and applies it another way, almost like a book or page marker. The spine edge of the illustration is a vertical strip or list placed beside the calendar list.
At the top of the strip is a set of lances and two distinct flags which I am unable to identify, but they probably represent the coming together of two families, possibly in marriage. There is also a steep hill in the background and, combined with the lances, may represent an emerald coloured stone to mount thorns taken from Christ’s crown of thorns, bought by the French king Louis lX in 1238, similar to the thorn mounted on a blue sapphire given to John duke of Berry, mentioned in a previous post.
Next item down is the man wearing a black chaperon, seemingly warming his hands at the fireplace. This is Michael de la Pole, 1st earl of Suffolk. He served as a trusted adviser to Richard II and was once tasked to arrange a marriage for the king. His waving hands are a pointer to his own marriage and wife Katherine Wingfield. A feature of the Wingfield coat of arms are three winged birds, inverted or ‘conjoined in lure’, meaning the tip of the wings point downwards. In this instance the hands or finger tips point upwards, and for two specific reasons.
The wings are symbolic of the Holy Spirit and the Light of God descending or hovering over Pol Limbourg. It represents a moment of conversion, from darkness to light. Whether Limbourg is implying a conversion experience in his own life, I can’t be sure, but what he is referring to is the Conversion of St Paul on his way to Damascus. St Paul’s feast day is celebrated on January 29 and is listed on the calendar.
Notice also the relaxed pose of Pol Limbourg as he leans forward on the back of the seat in front of him. Observe also that the fabric on the back of the seat is striped. Pol is a spectator or observer in the unfurling events happening before him. He is listless – not a participant. The striped fabric that extends past the end of the table represents the barrier or list between the jousting guests, not for any favours from the absent ladies but from the boy king Richard II and John duke of Berry. Richard’s coronation list provides evidence of competitiveness between high-ranking individuals seeking to be honoured and affirmed.
The distinct red scarf around Pol’s neck is a reference to the Welsh dragon and relates to another theme in the minature which I will explain in a future post. But it also connects to the next item on the list, the gold, boat-shaped ‘nef’ used as a container for tableware. The boat could be said to be listing, weighed down by its cargo of riches. However, it is kept buoyant and afloat by the saltcellar underneath. The bear and the swan are devices of John duke of Berry. Here the resting Pol Limbourg is referring to the passage from Matthew’s gospel where Jesus invites all who labour and are overburdened to come to him and find rest for the soul as his yoke is easy and his burden light (11:28-30). The ploughing analogy is echoed in the March folio of the Très Riche Heures.
The three plates are a reference to the tablecloth (a treasure roll) that is another theme Pol has woven into the painting and which I will explain at another time. Likewise the two small cats that represent a play on two words, catalyst and catastrophe.
So now we arrive at the last item on the list, the young man who has moved from the place of honour to a servant’s role of feeding the white greyhound. As explained in the previous post the placement represents the deposition of Richard ll who was ten years old when crowned king of England, hence the small figure compared to others in the illustration. The white greyhound belongs to the ‘usurper” Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, who coerced Richard into giving up his throne in 1399. The dog at this stage is portrayed in a submissive, begging role, eagerly waiting to be fed by the hand of Richard. The roles later became reversed. Richard’s emblem was a white hart wearing a crown collar. Now it is Bolingbroke’s dog – a hunter – who wears the jewelled collar. It is said that Richard ll starved himself to death after he was captured and later imprisoned in Pontefract Castle. But notice also the black scarf around Richard’s neck. Is this Limbourg suggesting that the king may have been strangled and not starved, or is he referring to the earlier death of one of his enemies, Thomas of Woodstock, who is said to have been murdered while held prisoner at Calais on Richard’s orders? A manuscript of the time depicts Thomas being stangled by his own scarf.
Richard can also be linked to the calendar list. He was born on January 6, Feast of the Epiphany. A failed rebellion against Henry lV to to reinstate Richard ll as king was planned to take place on this feast day in 1400 and resulted in Richard’s capture and eventual death in February that year. It’s at this stage that the black chevron seen on the yellow flag at the top of the list, coupled with the inverted wings above Limbourg’s, head can be recognised as symbolic of hierarchical change. Limbourg has switched the visual references to the order of feasts. Pol, or St Paul, has been raised after falling frorm his horse, while Richard has fallen from grace and occupies the last place. St Paul’s ‘epiphany’ has taken presidence over Richard’s association with the Ephiphany. Richard was a firm believer in the divine right of kings to rule, but here Limbourg demonstrates that divine will is not always “done on earth as it is in heaven”. This links to another aspect of the ‘inverted’ symbols which I shall post on at another time.
Here’s more on Pol Limbourg’s January illustration from the Très Riche Heures produced for John duke of Berry. .
Apart from the battle scene depiction in the background, said to be a reference to the Trojan Wars, the main action of the painting centres on and around the banquet table.
The ‘pole’ position at the table is taken up by the host, John duke of Berry, wearing a blue gown. He is turned to isten to what the “man of the cloth” at the end of the table has to say. But notice the gap on the seat between the two men, seemingly guarded by the chamberlain stood behind the space. It’s a place reseved for a very special guest to sit at the right hand of the host. But who is he? Could he be one the group of men in a line approaching the chamberlain? No, they are there for other reasons. and not just to warm their hands at the fire.
Artist Pol Limbourg has purposely displaced the duke of Berry’s honoured guest and positioned him elsewhere in the frame, almost out of the picture! In fact, he is not even seen in the cropped image above. To discover him and the reason for Pol Limbourg’s inventive design the folio needs to be viewed in its entirety.
The ‘servant’ feeding the greyhound in the bottom right corner of the frame is the man who has given up his seat at the table, not that he has been asked to by the host. He is placed as a corner stone on which the main theme of the January folio is built upon.
The above image is detail from the January folio of the Calendar section that forms part of the Très Riche Heures manuscript. It shows John duke of Berry hosting a New Year banquet where gifts are exchanged between the host and his guests.
This particular panel of the folio was probably painted by Pol Limbourg, one of three brothers the duke commissioned in 1410 to produce the manuscript. The artist has cleverly embedded features that serve several narratives and themes. The duke of Berry figure is an example.
He is portrayed seated at a banquet table, wrapped in a fur-lined blue gown, wearing a large fur hat and a chain around his neck. Fifteenth century castles and mansions could be cold places in winter time, even when sat in front of a blazing fire.
The colour of the duke’s gown is said to emphasise his connection to the French court. In his time John was a son of a French king, a brother to another, and an uncle to a third. But close inspection of his gown shows that the gold pattern is not the fleur-de-lys, but represents something more personal in his life – a bear. The motif is a pawprint.
The duke of Berry kept several bears in his menagerie but was attracted to one in particular; a small bear became his companion in his later years and is even depicted chained and resting at the feet of the duke on his tomb effigy.
Along with the swan, the bear was also adopted by John as one of his heraldic devices or emblems.
Pol Limbourg has also portrayed the duke of Berry with claws as hands, resting on the banquet table, and to his left there’s a bear placed on the bridge of the gold, boat-shaped, serving dish. There’s an interesting contrast on the duke’s tomb sculpted by Jean de Cambrai where one of the bear’s paws is depicted as a human hand (see image below).
Back to the minature and between the duke’s hands (claws) is a glove. It also has a bear connection but not to the one associated with the duke, which I will explain in a future post.
Another bear reference is the pole behind the duke’s back which, in this instance, can be considered as a “scratch-pole”. It also has other connotations, notably as a reference to Pol Limbourg, the figure portrayed behind the duke of Berry. The scratch-pole, or “back-scratcher”, is symbolic of mutual benefit, but conditional, even extending to the custom of exchanging gifts at the New Year banquet. It also points to the biblical passage in Luke’s gospel and the advice given when inviting guests to dinner (14 : 12-14).
The pole may also be a pointer to the banquet’s venue – the Hôtel de Pol in Paris, one of many residences belonging to the duke, and one where he died in 1416.
Earlier, I mentioned the exchange of gifts. In the past the Duke of Berry had been given a special gift by his brother, the French king Charles V. It was a thorn from the crown of thorns associated with the passion of Jesus and which Charles had obtained and kept in the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. A reliquary was made to house and display the Holy Thorn mounted upright on a sapphire stone. The reliquary and thorn is now in the British Museum. The duke’s blue gown represents the sapphire, and his hat is portrayed not as fur, but as a crown of thorns.
Finally, the artist Pol Limbourg may also have had in mind one of Aesop’s Fables when he linked references to the thorn and the bear – The Hermit and the Bear.
The Hermit had extracted a thorn from the bear’s foot. The animal was more than grateful and offered to serve the Hermit from thereon. The Hermit accept the Bear’s offer and they passed the time in friendship. Then one day as the Hermit slept the Bear noticed a fly had settled on the man’s nose. In his effort to swat the fly the bear came down heavy with his paw and crushed the Hermit’s nose in the process. The Hermit concluded he would rather have a dozen flies settle on his nose that to suffer the pain and discomfort of the Bear attempting to protect him in this way.
How this applies to John duke of Berry may refer to his role as Regent, first when Charles VI was a minor, and again at the time when the king began to suffer attacks of insanity. Could it be said the duke may have been over-protective at times during his role as Regent?
A more visual connection is that John did not share the sharp or long nose featues of his father John, or three brothers, Charles, Louis and Philip. His nose was rather fleshy and stubby in comparison, as shown on his tomb effigy. No flies on Pol Limbourg!
Jan van Eyck was not the first artist to point out the name of the Pearl Poet when he painted the Ghent Altarpiece completed in 1432. An earlier work exists where the poet is referenced and identified. Sir Hugh Stafford, earl of Stafford, is illuminated front of stage in a manuscript attributed to the Limbourg brothers.
The folio forms part of the Calendar section in the Très Riche Heures, a ‘book of hours’ commissioned by John, duke of Berry, and produced in part by the Limbourg brothers between 1412 and 1416. The three brothers and the duke, possible victims of the plague, all died in in the same year of 1416. The Très Riche Heures was added to and completed by other artists at later stages during the 15th century.
The above illustration shows detail from the folio depicting the month of January, where a gathering of nobles are said to be celebrating New Year and exchanging gifts. The duke of Berry is the man seated at the table wearing a fur hat. However the scene is not as simple as its seems. In fact, it’s detail was the basis for Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, particularly the Just Judges panel. There is no doubt that Jan was inspired by this minature and adopted many of its references, particularly to the Pearl Poet, and perhaps as a tribute to the Limbourg brothers.
Sir Hugh Stafford, aka the Pearl Poet, is the figure standing in the forefront alongside the man in green who is carving the meat.
I shall publish more details on this at another time.
There’s a likeness between these two portraits, the left being Henry Beaufort painted by Jan van Eyck, and the right being “A Goldsmith in his Shop”, aka a self-portrait of painter Petrus Christus.
A Goldsmith in His Shop painting is based on some of the panels from the Ghent Altarpiece completed by Van Eyck in 1432 and, just as his mentor, Petrus has applied multiple identities to his figures. Not only is the man in the berry hat a reference to John, Duke of Berry, but also a pointer to Henry Beaufort, the man with the golden touch; so rich he was considered the Midas of his time. The portrait also represents St Eligius and, as already mentioned, the artist himself, Petrus Christus.
But for this presentation the focus is on Henry Beaufort and one aspect in particular – his ear. In Jan’s portrait which precedes the completion date of the Ghent Altarpiece, the Lord Chancellor of England, whose fortune bankrolled kings and princes of Europe, is portrayed with a sharp razored hair style trimmed above his temple. The trim line runs down to his rather large ear.
Christus makes the same point in his portrayal except it is the sharp rim of the cap which extends down along the temple and over the top of the ear which is also rather large.
There is an explanation for this. Van Eyck was, as usual, playing word games and providing clues to anyone who wanted to play along. He was combining two words “temple” and “ear”, But first a trim is necessary – the last letter of the first word, and the first letter of the second word, the letter ‘e’ in both (and shaped as an ear!) – before the new word is formed: TEMPL-AR. (a new look, as the hairstyle!)
So did Van Eyck have knowledge of a connection between Beaufort and the Knights Templar? The organisation was disolved in 1312 and its assets transferred to another Christian military order, the Knights Hospitaller. Could Beaufort have stumbled on some of the Templar fortune possibly hidden at some time?
One of the many legends associated with the Templars is the Holy Grail chalice and connection to Jesus. The Templars were also said to have been keepers of Christ’s burial cloth, now referred to as the Turin Shroud.
Seemingly Van Eyck makes no reference to the Grail Cup, unlike Petrus who places it directly behind the ear in his portrait, but Jan does create a subtle reference to Christ’s tomb and eventual resurrection in Beaufort’s ear, often closed to the appeals of many and possibly even Van Eyck himself. Within the tomb is the shroud-covered corpse awaiting resurrection.
Supporting this point, Van Eyck makes a further reference to the Shroud and the tomb – Beaufort’s red garment, considered by many to be a cardinal’s robe. It isn’t, it represents a woolsack, symbolic of the tomb-shaped seat that the Lord Chancellor sat on in the House of Lords. The seat, without arm rests, was filled with sheep wool, hence the white wool trim. The white wool and its blood-colour cover symbolizes the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) and was considered a Templar symbol.
The ear reference appears several times in the Ghent Altarpiece which is centred on the Lamb of God. For instance, Henry Beaufort appears as the front rider in the group featured in the Just Judges panel and it is not without significance that his ear has been well and truly covered.
Again, there are other narratives relating to this symbolism, Here is one example: The deep-red crown of Beaufort’s fur hat in the image above points to the red cloak worn by another rider in the background. One of the identities of this particular rider is Humphrey Villersexel, Count de la Roche, and a guardian of the Shroud from 1418 until his death in 1438. Close inspection of the red cloak shows that Van Eyck has shaped the form of a shrouded face within the folds.
It’s not without reason that Van Eyck has connected the Shroud to the two outward riders in the group. They represent the two elements of the Pisces constellation that I pointed out in a previous post, Riders in the Sky. As always with Van Eyck he applies more than one level of meaning and understanding, but in this instance has specifically connected the two riders in this way to link to the Shroud.
It has been suggested that the Shroud may have been in England for safekeeping at some time in its history. Could it be that Beaufort, as bishop of Winchester and Lord Chamberlain of England, may have had some role in protecting or housing the Shroud?
More on this at another time, along with further references to the Shroud found in the Ghent Altarpiece.
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.
Jan van Eyck’s paintings are formed by applying layers of colour with resulting levels of transparency and vividness. He employs a similar technique for unfurling his creative narrative. His method of placing objects is precise and deliberate, and the ‘hidden’ meaning sometimes obvious, other times not so apparent or even visible. And it doesn’t stop there. Jan utilises wordplay in a novel way to surprise and wonder what else might be beneath the surface.
This is most noticeable on the quatrain that appears on the outer frames of the Ghent Altarpiece. The fourth line of the Latin inscription conceals the date when the painting was presented.
The quatrain and its wordplay is a foretaste of what is inside when the frame is opened, particularly with the Just Judges panel. Much has been written about the quatrain by art historians, especially its acknowledgement of Hubert van Eyck being the better painter than his brother Jan. This is the first instance in the work where Jan pays homage to Hubert. It continues inside – and in the form of wordplay and quatrains.
Jan van Eyck’s disposition to ‘paint’ or pun with the written word shows up again in a later work, the Arnolfini Portrait. On it shutters was the name Hernoul-le-fin. A later inventory recorded the name Arnoult fin. Historians didn’t pick up on the word play and settled on the name as Arnolfini, an Italian merchant living in Bruge at the time. My understanding of the name is that Van Eyck was referring to the end of a dynastic line known ast the Arnulfings, and paying homage to Charles Martel who started a new line that became known as the Carolingian dynasty. More about this here.
The group of ten riders in the Just Judges panel are strategically placed alongside each other and represent multiple identities, but they also read as chapters in a book, one following on from the other. Each figure is linked in some way to the person next to them, whether it is in front or behind, or even alongside.
To make more sense of this it, let’s look at the figure in front of Joan, the bearded man dressed in red. In the first instance, this is WIlliam de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, and a favourite councillor of the English King, Henry IV. Joan of Arc confronted him when he led the English forces at the seige to Orleans. He retreated as far as Jergeaux pursued by the Maid and eventually surrendered.
There is a conversation alluded to between these two figures which I shall explain at another time, but at this stage it is better to move on to make the next connection and reveal a second identity Van Eyck has designated to the rider in red.
The Earl of Suffolk remained a prisoner of the French king Charles VII for three years and was eventually ransomed in 1431, but before his release he married a woman named Alice Chaucer in November 1430. Alice was the granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer poet, philospher and astronomer, and author of The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer is the second identity. His role as a philospher and astronomer connects to the third identity of the man in red – Claudius Ptolomey, a second century astronomer, mathematician, geographer and poet. A further connection between the second and third identities is that Ptolomey is mentioned in The Canterbury Tales (The Wife of Bath’s Tale).
Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales is the connection to the quatrain attached to four of the outer panels of the Ghent Altarpiece, a quatrain being a type of stanza or poem consisting of four lines.
Moving forward to the next figure ahead of Chaucer. Again it has more than one identity, but for the time being I’ll name one: John, Duke of Berry, and second son of the French king, John II. Here’s how Van Eyck puns the word Canterbury to connect the two figures.
Berry was a region (canton) in France administered by John. Canton and Berry = Canterbury. There is also a second pointer to the word Canton. In heraldy a canton is a charge usually placed in the upper dexter (right) corner of a shield, and so corresponding with the top right corner of the group where Van Eyck has positioned the Duke of Berry.
The fact that Van Eyck has applied more than one identity to each figure creates even more connections that are not always obvious at surface level. It’s a journey of discovery, similar in a way to the pilgrimage theme and shared experience of the travellers outlined in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. There is always more to come…